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.

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JazzFunk in Dortmund

I may be partial, but with a little more recognition, Blue Elephant is poised to become the premier JazzFunk band playing in the Dortmund area today.  The keyboardist, Peter, is a virtuosic player with an excellent ear, and  his original tunes are sophisticated and promising enough to make any listener eager for an EP; and Matthias, the guitarist, blends the slickest jazz licks, smoky gypsy chords, and the mellowest Meters-inflected lines  in a potent aural stew.  On 18 August, Blue Elephant played played an hour long set to a packed audience as part of Bam Boomerang’s 2014 Battle of the Bands.  I recorded part of a vocal number, “Just the Two of Us” …

Unfortunately, Blue Elephant came in second in the final round – they lost to a flaccid rock group buoyed by frothing friends that jumped through their entire set.  A local music critic praised the band but complained that they lack a stamp or signature.  The band could flex a bit when arranging covers of standards like the one above, and should build up a bigger body of original work for the local critics to weigh; but at the intersection of the keys (Pete) guitar (Matthias) flute (Eliane) and trumpet (Ralph) there’s magic at work.  Dortmund, as far as I know, lacks the venue ideal for a band like this: an old-fashioned low-ceilinged beer-slinging dance hall.  When people listen to these cats, they want to move.

Though I had fun watching Blue Elephant, I would avoid Bam Boomerang: the Australian-themed bar, despite being committed to live music, is run by some of notorious cheapskates.  (A bartender, on mistaking my order for a bottle of merlot for a bottle of Miller, cracked the beer before I could stop him; he then had to call over his manager to make sure that he didn’t have to strongarm me into paying.  The same bartender hadn’t a clue how to prepare an Old Fashioned; when I explained the recipe to him, he frowned and said “…whiskey sour?” – then told me to order off the menu.)  The only positive thing that I can think to say about this unfortunate hole is that Patrick Bateman would approve of the bathrooms, which are equipped with ledges handy for all kinds of illegal preparations.


Luckily, there’s much more to the jazz and funk scene in Dortmund.  In fact, the premier venue (aside from the Dortmund Konzerthaus) is domicil on Hansastrasse downtown, a club at once cozy and high-ceilinged, with bands downstairs next to the bar and bigger acts in a concert hall up the venue’s black marble stairs, past a series of photographs of broken umbrellas, on the second floor.

Steve and I hit domicil on the 19th, when the waitress (our good friend Christin) told us to come back the following day for their Tuesday night Summer Session.  We did, and caught the second half of Santoor Grooves’ act, light Turkish-fusion fare.  The music was good but not engaging enough to draw our full attention – it provided a comfortable, pleasantly international background in which to couch our conversation.  Naturally, we downed several of domicil’s quality cocktails.  After my traumatic experience at Bam Boomerang, I tried domicil’s Old Fashioned; though it wasn’t evenly mixed, I found the sweet kick of the last sip wasn’t such a bad touch.  My favorite drink off the cocktail menu, though, was the Jack Mack – Jack Daniels, So. Co., Aperol, and Ginger Beer – a sweet and spicy drink to wake your senses and keep you going through any jam or session or night-long show.  (Beware the käse und wurstplatte, though – it’s quite good, but you have to split it.)


I haven’t yet caught a live show at subrosa (what’s with the German jazz cats and Carolingian miniscule?) but I did stop at the eclectic jazz club just northwest of the city center on one of my first nights in Dortmund.  Matthias and I met up with Leif and Lea Ströher and listened to some gypsy jazz in a park before grabbing a table in subrosa’s semi-enclosed patio.  The bar offers classics like Brinkhoff’s and Kronen as well as a few craft beers for the … well, the Americans.  Even on a night without a live act, the funky, quirky DJs at subrosa spin some ridiculous platters – many of them excellent covers that you probably haven’t heard before, strange, cosmic transmogrifications of tunes you know by heart – kind of like the subrosa, which bills itself as a “livin’room.”  It’s appropriate.  The place is just as comfortable as your living room, but a good sight groovier.

Unlike Sligo, a visitor to Dortmund might not be able to catch a killer live act every night of the week.  That said, there are some summer nights – like my first night here – when a wanderer can stumble upon a major concert by the train tracks, get lost in a crowd of a few thousand; leave only to find a gypsy trio playing to entwined adolescents couchant in a park; walk into the open red mouth of a wacked-out funk club, drink beer and listen to hip vinyl you’ve never heard; then walk all the way back to the Reinoldkirche, through Dortmund’s auto-free glass-and-rock-and-neon downtown, dancing in the wide boulevards under the high-strung halogen lamps, to catch the first morning bus back home in time for the sunset.


The Konzerthaus brings major international jazz artists (like Pat Metheny last year); domicil attracts acts almost as large, and pumps out groovy music almost every night of the week; and odd little magnets like subrosa attract all the vinyl priests and priestesses of the city.  There’s much to love.  And if acts like Blue Elephant keep growing in notoriety, I expect that Dortmund will be even friendlier to funk when I visit again, a few years down the road.

I’ve lost track of the nights that have bled into beautiful mornings here, ending with me stepping off the train at Gleiwitzstrasse and watching the sun rise over Scharnhorst before I crash in the Spruchs’ basement. (Photo credit: Steven Coffed)