Fate, Freedom, and Anarchy: On Open Jams in Dortmund

A few weeks ago, Matthias and I stood in a yellow candlelit passageway papered with Soviet-style posters and invitations to seances.  To our left, the front of the shuttered Albertus Magnus Church was draped with large colored-paper banners decrying police brutality and calling for some kind of new order – starting here, at the Soziales Zentrum Avanti, Dortmund’s very own communo-anarchist enclave.

Word was getting around that the Avantis would be evacuated, kicked out, or otherwise made to scram in only a few days.  Matthias and I had rolled up with Pete and Roman (of Blue Elephant) with instruments in hand because we heard that there would be a jam, an epic swirling carnivalesque and kind of funky communo-anarchist kind of jam.  The sunset jam of a doomed quasi-neo-hippy compound?  This was not one to miss.

Strange types clustered around the doorway, and on the sidewalk in front.  They looked disparate, not held together by any interest or activity – unless, I wondered as I got closer, they met every month or so to cut each other’s hair using plastic zig-zag scissors.  Dressed in dusky button-ups and leather jackets and carrying our hardbody cases, we stood out; they watched us as we passed.

The hallway opened into a stone-tiled courtyard.  By the light of the candles scattered everywhere I saw tables of empty waterbottles and miscellaneous personal items; dark figures with mouths moving, but making no sound; a pair of girls – maybe fifteen – sharing a joint on a low futon at the far wall.  We passed these shades and descended stone steps – candlelit, like everything else – and opened a door on a auditorium of weirdness.

A table to our left sagged under Trotsky volumes – for sale.  The stage to our right was empty,  but the entire room seemed to orbit around a central space on the floor, where six or seven characters jammed on acoustic guitars, cajons, melodicas, and egg-shakers.  Low couches hulked in the shadows, while candle sticks in beer cans spun like asteroid belts through these heavier bodies, waiting to be tripped on, and flicker out.

The musical theme of the evening hovered somewhere between Coldplay and Janis Joplin – four chords or bust, talentless strummers and hooters and honkers grimaced with false passion in the candlelight while half-dreadlocked vegan ex-suburbanites droned their imitations of the classics.  It was unbearable.  And when Pete and Matthias tried to change the tune, seizing a lull in the music to strike up a mellow Girl From Ipanema, engagement ground to a halt.

What?  What’s this?  … Jazz?

Pete and Matthias came close to killing the jam session, right there.  Luckily someone started “Redemption Song” and all was well.

Our utopian vision was perhaps too radical for this set – but we found a hipper crowd at the domicil, thinking forward (and in 5/4 time).

Our first session at the domicil came on a Monday night.  We passed the chic red lounge downstairs and entered the darker upstairs bar, where a tight house band ripped through standards.  In their easygoing way the band left the stage open to the cats in the audience – which, as it turned out, comprised about a third of the group assembled there.  Pete, Matthias, and I got up for two sets – first for Interplay and Blue Bossa, and then, returning more confident, with Maiden Voyage and a funky So What.  When a crowd shouts and hollers for you nowhere near the end of a solo, you know they’re digging it.  And the domicil was digging us.

We had to come back two days later for the domicil’s weekly Wednesday night Jam Roulette.  While the Monday night sessions focus on jazz standards, the Wednesday night crowd comes with ties already loose and hair let down – funky is the theme and the gospel.  Most of the Monday night players returned (and I even spotted one or two faces from the shadows of the Avanti Zentrum).  Jam Roulette invites an interesting comparison with that earlier communo-jam: while the former was wide open, an anarchy of noise that gave way to a four-chord dictatorship, Jam Roulette was regulated by the duumvirate of chance and whimsy.  By that I mean that the MC, a talented rapper, spun a wheel of fortune labeled with different musical styles, which he replaced at will.  Players constantly rotated through the stage – no lineup played more than one song together.  The categories spun: hip-hop, schnell (fast), langsam (slow), samba, and even sonderspiel (what someone translated as “special-play”…).

Then there was the Joker, when the MC pulled an audience selection from a bucket.  “U2” came up, which seemed to stump the funksters – until one of the girls behind the bar vaulted over a row of seats and grabbed the microphone.

People kept dancing as the styles changed; a Turkish bassist whirled another waitress, tangoing to a hip-hop beat.  It seemed like all the working jazz musicians in Dortmund came out for this Wednesday night party.  It was absolutely mad fun, almost verging on Dada at times.  So why was a cardboard peg-wheel in an upscale jazz club the epicenter of a riot on a Wednesday night, while the underground “radicals” couldn’t reach escape speed?

I’ll ignore the obvious disparity of talent and divergence of attitude, because I think there’s a more interesting point to be made here.

There’s a legend that floats around the international writing community, and it has to do with an ancient poet who set out to craft the most difficult verse form conceivable – more demanding even than the sestina.  So demanding that those who watched the poet work could only liken it to wrapping himself in such and intricate knot of chains that each limb was frozen; that only his eyes could move; and that indeed, so perfectly entangled, the poet’s body atrophied and wasted away.

The poet, though, likened it to moksha: by “trapping” himself in the most intricate verse form, he found a new release in expression.  His entrapment was his total freedom.

Jazz works along similar lines.  Whether you’re playing a modal Miles song, breaking the traditional chord framework and finding a new, spacier one; or Sun Ra, chugging along in quantum leaps and lightyears at once; or Bird, taking bebop to the mesosphere – you’re finding freedom in form.  And that’s what Dormund’s jazzheads do every Wednesday night.  They just mix it with a little chance, a little whimsy, and a whole lotta booze.

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