i m a g i n e the s o u n d

Bill Smith

A Dutch Adventure

Part One | Part Two

For such a small country — the same land mass as Vancouver Island — Holland has produced an abundance of original music over the past four decades. For many years it has been one of my favorite countries, starting with my first visit in the summer of 1967, about which I wrote in Coda Magazine: "For the state of exquisite quiescence, a silent peace prevailing on the mind, Amsterdam's natural water divided beauty provides the sanctum for anybody. Musicians like Ben Webster, Benny Bailey, Jeanne Lee and others passing to and fro, have discovered the peaceful solitude, an environment to settle, to live and forget the other life that exists. The waters, their canals, transpose into one's life the reflections of the changing ripple lights. They form a levelness, a calm, that it would seem wrong to disturb with music. And for all this I chose Amsterdam to be my sanctuary for several weeks." In retrospect a somewhat romantic and sentimental notion, although my interest in Dutch music was piqued enough for me to write the following review two years later.

Willem Breuker & Han Bennink
New Acoustic Swing Duo

Willem Breuker
Bill Smith photo

Music, or jazz music to be most specific, is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as the following: "Music and Dance of U.S. Negro origin with characteristic harmony and ragtime rhythms; noisy or grotesque proceedings". So temporarily accepting this premise of good knowledge, I continue and review the above-listed record confident enough not to refer to it as jazz and/or music.

Willem Breuker (various reed instruments) and Han Bennink (various percussion), have discovered many individual powers of exercise (see communicate Oxford Dictionary). By relating these finds with each other's psyche they are able to merge their inner forces and motions into continuing patterns of sound and rhythmic intervals. To what purpose other than to create a centre of communicated ideas I am not sure, but the result allows one to experience almost anything one's mind will allow it to believe.

Side one is dedicated, in a series of short essays, to a number of persons they know and with whom, with the exception of John Tchicai, I am completely unfamiliar. This however makes the sound game even more interesting, for the images I am able to create mentally from the sounds, as with Ingmar Bergman's no where peoples, may not be what is in fact the reality. Man is blessed with many senses and this type of experiment in sound is the opportunity to allow himself to extend past the propaganda entertainment he is subjected to, daily. Side two is titled "Gamut for 21 min. 16 sec.". Gamut in definition is the lowest note on the medieval scale = modern G on the lowest line of the bass clef. And so it begins and almost ends. But between is the continued wonderment of sound.

As you can tell I am already enthralled by this "new acoustic swing music", and will spend the rest of my life investigating its form. One of the Dutch players to venture into North America was Willem Breuker, and ten years after my initial discovery of Dutch music, the following interview with him was conducted, giving us a perspective of the history and context in which their wonderful music has developed. According to Kevin Whitehead, in his excellent book "New Dutch Swing", it was …"Willem's first major or otherwise interview in the Americas…". and three paragraphs later he wrote — "Smith had fingered their export appeal: the Kollektief sound Dutch, right off, even if North Americans had never wondered before how Dutch jazz might sound." It took place in the early morning hours of December 19,1977, after The Willem Breuker Kollektief had finished one of its few North American concerts, at The Tralfamadore Cafe in Buffalo, New York.

BILL SMITH: Near Dam Square in Amsterdam is an old man with a barrel-organ, And I thought that some of the music tonight sounded a bit like some of the music that comes out of that barrel-organ. Do you feel that's true?

WILLEM BREUKER: Well, I am very familiar with barrel-organs. They're a part of my musical background. When I was a kid barrel-organs were very common in Amsterdam so I heard them very often. In 1967 I made a record with barrel-organs and later on I wrote a lot of arrangements for barrel-organs. It has given me a lot of fun; it's an instrument that fits very well in the streets; it belongs to Holland — it belongs to everybody. What made you think of it tonight?

Bill: When the trombones and the saxophones rotate cycles like that, the barrel-organ sound appears. Is barrel-organ music Dutch music?

Willem: No, it's also English music, Belgian, as far as I know a little bit German, and also in Switzerland they have barrel-organs. But I don't know exactly what the history is of the barrel-organ; all I really knew was that the instrument was there in the street and I was always interested in it. So I asked the guys who were in the streets with the instruments how they worked. They didn't know; so I went to the shop of the guy who rented the barrel organs to them and he told me exactly what to do.

Bill: For you, the history of improvised music in Holland goes back a long way?

Willem: In the 'thirties Coleman Hawkins came to Europe and he wanted to work in Germany. But Germany wouldn't allow a Negro to enter the country; it was already in Hitler's time. So he stayed in Holland; he played with The Ramblers, a well-known dance orchestra. He still wanted to go to Germany to make money and do bigger things, but in the meantime he stayed in Holland. He played with everybody; so Coleman Hawkins influenced a lot of the music in the 'thirties. Then we had the war; and after the war nothing was happening. We had some guys like Nedley Elstak, he was the first guy I think who played Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker-type music.

Then in the fifties we had Wessel Ilcken, and he and all the other cats were imitating American music like Art Pepper, Shorty Rogers, Warne Marsh, Lee Konitz — not really that, even, but more like Bob Cooper — cool music. That went on until I think 1964 and then other things started to happen. At that time Misha Mengelberg was already doing some very important work in Holland; he was playing a very Monk-influenced music, and he was studying at a conservatory in The Hague; so all the "bop" musicians accepted him because he knew a lot about music. So when they told him, "Monk is shit music", he could tell them exactly what Monk was doing and what they were doing and so on. So he was respected among the younger musicians. We came after that, in 1964, '65. I was playing in some contests at that time, school things, but there was really no judging at all because even then there was something being played that the judges couldn't understand. Even before I heard Ornette Coleman I was already playing a type of free music, because when I was studying clarinet and I had to turn a page in the lesson book, I would just play on on my own and turn the page later; so already something was in me to play for my own. So I tried to find friends who would want to make music with me, which was very difficult, and is still difficult.

Bill: Were the friends people like Han Bennink?
Han Bennink
Bill Smith photo

Willem: No, they were still playing bebop-type music at that time. Misha Mengelberg, and Piet Noordijk, a very fantastic saxophone player, they were still playing a kind of post-bop style.

In 1966 I formed my first real group, a 23 piece band, and played at a contest in Loosdrecht, at the yearly festival there, and all the new young people showed up there to play, and it became a big sensation at that time; I was on the front pages of all the Dutch papers and the whole group was on television, because they always showed the ones who won the first three prizes, who were the best. At the same time we had the Provo-time in Amsterdam [editor's note: The Provos were a radical political young peoples' group that existed in Holland in the mid-sixties], and I was involved with that as well, so there was a big scandal. I came in second or third, I don't remember exactly, because there were people who gave me ten points and there were people who gave me one point. It was fantastic, everybody was screaming at each other.

Bill: Did people like Pim Jacobs and Rita Reyes win the contest?

Willem: No, on the other side of the street they already had a club, a very sophisticated and expensive club. Even at that time they had nothing to do with jazz anymore. They had already become established. Han Bennink often played with them at that time.

Bill: Were Philips and the other big record companies interested in the new Dutch movement?

Willem: No, not at all. So I made my first record for a label called Relax. There was a millionaire in Holland, and he didn't know what to do with his money, so he set up a label to record classical music and made a lot of classical recordings, but some people told him he should be recording "progressive music". So we did a record for him but I think he didn't understand it at all; so it sold maybe a thousand copies and then it was over. They sold it to Germany, to Wergo. I got, I think, a hundred dollars for the whole thing — then after they sold it to Wergo… that's the way it goes, you know.

So we tried again; but nobody wanted to have us so in 1967 we set up the Instant Composers' Pool. Han Bennink and I were very close at that time and some people we knew sponsored us — put up the money, and when we sold the records we paid the money back to them. A very well-known reviewer, Rudy Koopmans, gave us a thousand Guilders to do it. Han Bennink and I did the first recording (New Acoustic Swing Duo, ICP 001). Misha joined us at the same time; he was the inventor of the name Instant Composers' Pool.

So Han Bennink and myself, and Misha Mengelberg, started ICP. Afterwards other musicians joined us, but they were not accepted at all. So that was the point that I left ICP, in 1973 I think, because I had no chance anymore to go on with my thing, because Leo Cuypers and Willem van Manen and all the other cats who were playing, were not accepted by Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg. They were second-rate musicians for them.

I had started to form my bigger groups at the end of the sixties with Leo and the rest. We had groups with two piano players, Misha Mengelberg and Leo Cuypers, and sometimes Rob du Bois was also in the group. But we never got the chance to go on with it. Also we had a lot of financial problems at that time, regarding the organization of ICP.

We wanted to go over the border, we had chances to play in Germany and elsewhere for instance. But afterwards I heard from people who had asked ICP about getting me and Leo to do concerts, but they were told, "Oh, they don't play anymore, they make a little theatre music and sometimes improvise, but they are not interested anymore." It was very strange afterwards to hear that from these people. So when I left ICP, it was completely new and open for me. What we are doing now, we built up in the last two or three years. Which in a way is a pity, because if we'd had the chance to start in 1970 or so, it would be that much better now.

Bill: Did players like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor and Coltrane influence your music on a very high level?

Willem: Oh yes, of course. But also Gustav Mahler, Brahms, Stravinsky… and we learned a lot from Albert Ayler and Shepp and Coltrane as well.

Bill: The music that we heard tonight, for example, sounds very unlike American improvised music to me. It sounds very Dutch.

Willem: But I don't know what Dutch music is.

Bill: I don't either — but there's a lot of theatre involved, a lot of humour…

Willem: But we did a very small thing tonight. We had no possibilities to do anything on this stage because it was so small, we were all packed together like sardines. So it was on a very small scale.

Bill: Do you think it's important that people see your music as well as hear it?

Willem: Both are important. When you're in the audience you're just sitting there, still you're not blind, so we give you not only the music but other things. But I think it's still very important that you can just listen to it by itself, with closed eyes.

Bill: In America The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra also work along these kinds of lines.

Willem: Yes, I know them, I've seen them. But I didn't see them until quite recently. I've always just done the things I thought I had to do. But they do a completely different thing to what we are doing; they are involved with religious things about Africa, they paint themselves and so on. And sometimes they give some comment on society, musical society. And Sun Ra, that's a completely different thing, that's to do with… what's there, I don't know what's there. I like the music of Sun Ra, also of the Art Ensemble. But I think that it's completely different to what we are doing.

Boy Raaymakers: I think that things are happening, coming from the music, so that the music invites the other things to happen.

Bill: As an outsider, I don't really know this, but I feel that there's some kind of Dutch theatre tradition involved in what you're doing.

Willem: We have no Dutch theatre tradition. We have some theatre writers, but that has nothing to do with what we are doing. But this is my opinion, I don't know, perhaps other people could tell you something about this. But I don't feel influenced by Dutch theatre.

Once we were a little bit involved with a mime group. For instance I did some things with a mime group in Leonersloot, but that was just one time. I wrote some music for that and we played it. It was Maarten van Regteren Altena and Peter Bennink and Willem van Manen. Maybe you know that record, the blue one, (ICP 009) but it was just occasionally. There's no tradition at all.

But I'm often invited by different people to write music for them. And when that happens perhaps I'll put improvised music into that situation and the chocolate-box record you were talking about (ICP 007, 008), that's an example of different things I do, but most of them didn't really have much to do with improvised music really, or just music by itself on stage, they had to do with film sometimes or theatre…

Bill: Do you have opportunities to perform your music with theatre people in Holland? With actors and poets… ?

Willem: Yes, as much as we want. But mostly we refuse because we have other things in mind. I'm usually not much interested in their ideas about how to make something for people, and at any rate we can work every day. There's so much work in Holland and elsewhere in Europe, that you can just do the things you really want to do.

Since 1970 Willem van Manen and I have been in charge of the "Jazz in Holland" program. Since then we have formulated a program to make professional jazz in Holland a viable possibility. So we wrote a big thick book, a report, and gave it to the government, and told them that they had to subsidize our music, that that was the only way to do it. They didn't believe us at first. It took about three or four years for them to accept what we wrote at that time, to give us a starting point to get this music a little bit subsidized by the government, to give it a base so that even if you can't live from it you can at least play it in the country. Now we're at the point where if musicians want to play in a jazz club in a certain city, but the club can afford to pay only a certain amount of money, which is not enough for the musicians, we can now get money to make up the difference so that the musicians can play there. That's the kind of system we built up, and it works very well.

Bill: But do you think that a music that is subsidized by the government and not acclaimed by the public is still valid? I mean it should be that the public have to come to the music.

Willem: They come anyway, they come anyway. But when you have a club where the people each pay five guilders to come in, which is about a dollar fifty, but can only fit eighty or ninety people at the most… a group can't play for that money. So I think it's worth it to do that.

For instance, we have fifteen symphony orchestras in Holland, more if you count the radio orchestras. Every province has its own orchestra, or two sometimes. We have opera, we have ballet and so on and so on, they get millions and millions of guilders, and our kind of music gets, now, about half a million guilders, which is nothing. I think the symphony orchestras get about sixty million guilders at the moment, and there are about the same number, about 150, improvising musicians in Holland.

Bill: In America most of the improvisers still work for the door, regardless of who they are. This is the kind of judgement that is put on the music, because if people don't want to come to hear it, then they won't have money. And I guess the basis of that argument is quite true, from a commercial point of view. The Dutch government, however, don't feel this way about your music now?

Willem: The Dutch government has no idea what to do, in this case we just told them what to do. And it's also very important that for instance, Misha Mengelberg and I sometimes work on the classical scene. So we are a little bit accepted on the other side, and that gives us a kind of credibility. I wrote a piece for symphony orchestra, and I do other things, so they say, "Okay, if he can do that, it means something, we accept that." So now we are starting to get commissions for compositions, and we get a stipend. This year Leo got a commission from the government to write a piece of music, in the same way that a classical musician would. It took us five or six years to convince the people in government that what we were doing was as important as what the classical people were doing. And they know that when we give concerts, it's always sold out at this time in Holland, and when you have classical concerts nobody shows up — there are more people on the stage than there are in the audience, and with us it's completely the other way.

They can't believe, for instance, that for the amount of money we get when we play at BimHuis, that so many people show up. In a year I think, about forty thousand people come to BimHuis.

Bill: Are there other clubs in Holland, like BimHuis, which are subsidized?

Willem: Yes, it's fantastic, really fantastic. Rotterdam, which since the Second World War has wanted to be the first city in Holland, but they have no idea how to do that, so when they saw that there was the BimHuis in Amsterdam they wanted to do the same thing — "If Amsterdam can do it, so can we" — so now there's the Jazz Bunker. And it's working, it's very crowded every night. And I think the Bunker is even a better place to play music than the BimHuis. And when we have very expensive Americans, we just increase the price of admission.

Bill: Does the music you play have something to do with the politics of Holland?

Willem: Yes.

Bill: In what kind of way? Is it like the Provos were ten years ago, is your music to do with that?

Willem: Yes, I was not really a Provo, but I think that all these things that were happening were also happening with me, and they were also happening when there were no Provos or anything at that time. I'm still very involved with Provos anyway, because… okay, that's the way it goes — when I stand and see the beggars in the street… I have to deal with the whole society, so I think my music also has to deal with that. But I don't translate my political ideas into music.

Bill: So it's not really an "anti-Queen Juliana" thing… because my first experience of Dutch music was in the period when the Provos existed, and when people didn't really care for Queen Juliana, and that's when you made your first ICP record. This was not a statement against all that at that time?

Willem: Not really. Because Han Bennink, for instance, is completely apolitical. We had other things to tell about the situation. The Royal Family is not important in Holland, they are like marionettes or something like that. And everybody laughs about it — but they give the whole family about ten million guilders a year, and then they marry with fascists, and sometimes that's a little bit… But, well, it's happened. It's not interesting at all. They're just there, and they have no influence.

Bill: How has this situation of being sponsored by the Dutch government allowed you to come here to North America?

Willem: I told them three years ago that I wanted to come over here, to find out what our music has to tell you, and they agreed. It was very difficult to set it up. Before this I came here two times, the first time with Leo, the second time with Willem van Manen, that was last April.

Bill: What did you find this time, with the whole orchestra?

Willem: I find that it's the same as when we go to Germany or France. Now we're among Americans, but there is not so much difference in the people. And maybe it has to do with our music, but the people are coming, and they listen to it, and that's the same situation that we always have. At first I thought that maybe America wouldn't understand what we are doing, but that doesn't happen much. They know what we are doing, they feel it.

Bill: In the past, though, it's been the other way around. American improvisers were very much accepted in Europe, but not very many Europeans came here.

Willem: No, but I also know that the American improvising musicians don't accept us at all. Except Anthony Braxton… he's not that way, but for instance, other people, when they come to Europe they play in our places, and they get more money than we get from the door, but it doesn't work the other way, they are not interested in what we are doing. For instance, I talked to some guys in New York, I don't want to name names, and they told me, "Sure, tomorrow night we'll come to your concert". Five told me this, none of them showed up. And when we play in Holland and they are there, they never come to hear us play because they think they are super or something, I don't know… maybe they are right, to just do their thing and not listen to other things. . . .

Bill: I think that the black American developed this art out of a very sad and unique background, so he feels an obvious claim to this heritage, and he perhaps feels bitter that a European could claim the same thing. But you feel that you're not particularly influenced by Americans?

Willem: My feeling is that I learned a lot from them, and every day I say, "Thank you very much, because what you gave me enables me to do the things I'm doing now".

Bill: But in any case your music doesn't sound like American music. I've heard it several times, I've heard lots of Dutch and lots of European players. They don't sound like Americans. But they do play improvised music.

Boy: It's a way of playing you know. The kind of playing that the jazz musicians are doing is "playing ourselves". You can do that in the tradition of jazz, but you can also do it in a different tradition.

Bill: With an attitude of your own.

Willem: And that's I think what we've been finding out in the last ten years. That's something I think Anthony Braxton understands. When I did that first thing with him, on that Gunter Hampel record, The 8th Of July 1969 (Birth NJOO1), he was immediately impressed, he said, "There's something happening!" Because he's an open guy, he accepted it. Up until then he had thought too that there was just an American thing and that the Europeans were just imitating or following. But for myself, I had no idea about that, I was just playing what I had to play at that time. Because what else is there to do? I didn't want to be in a jazz school learning to play all these chords, all this shit, you know — what's to do with that? I just want to play what I have to tell, and when that's not possible, I stop.

Boy: There was one time in Holland when people were talking about "this is jazz" and "this is not jazz". And then we started to call the music we played "improvised music" or "free music", because we really didn't want to have discussions about what was "jazz" and what was not.

Willem: A lot of people claimed, "We are jazz musicians, and what you are doing is not jazz." So we say, "Okay, okay, you are jazz musicians; we will make improvised music."

Bill: How did the Kollektief begin? Why did you leave ICP and form BVHAAST? Why make such a drastic breakaway?

Willem: I had to do it, because I wanted to go on playing with Leo and Willem van Manen and all these cats who were at that time a little bit involved with ICP, but again they were not wholly accepted, and also at that time there were a lot of financial problems, because of the manager at ICP at that time. I put on some productions that were very well received by the public in Holland. I did all the productions, and because we were so successful that year, ICP the next year got twice as much money in subsidies from the government. And at this point ICP told me, "Thank you very much, now we are going to divide the music so that one part goes to you, one part to Han and one to Misha." Even at that time I was working with eight or ten people, working with ICP money and that meant that I would get a third of it — what to do with that? Also, I wasn't making any records anymore, I think my last record for ICP was "The Message", then after that everything went in a completely different way, and I had ideas about making records with Leo and Willem van Manen with the bigger groups I had, and small groups, quintets, but it never happened because there always seemed to be something in the way.

I was more involved with written-down music, and theirs was totally free, more the FMP way of making music. So I made a decision to split from ICP. It was not a nice decision for me at that time, but I'm very happy with it and with what I'm doing now. It was very hard, it took us half a year to set up our own thing.

Bill: How much of the music now, with the Kollektief, is written and how much is improvised?

Willem: The line is written down, and a lot of the collective things are written. Let's say, more than half is written down.

Bill: But I don't see the people in the band reading music all the time. So a lot of it's to do with the feeling of the music?

Willem: Yes, of course. And when you play it very often, you don't need to read it any more.

Boy: Also Willem writes for the people he's playing with.

Willem: Yes, when I write a piece I write a trumpet piece for Boy and not just for a trumpet. And when I write a piano part it's for Leo and not for a piano player I don't know.

Bill: Sometimes on the floor I see you have a notation that is not music scores.

Willem: That's the program that we think we'll do, we have some points and we think we'll go from here to here to here, and sometimes we change it, we skip things. But we always have a program so everyone knows where we are. So it's not like the Globe Unity Orchestra where everybody starts and after an hour you see what's happened. So it's a little bit organized, yes in fact, very organized.

Bill: Are you very much concerned with impressing your public?

Willem: Impressing my public? Well, I play for the public, and I also play for myself, that's the most important thing. But it's also important to me that the public doesn't fall asleep when they are sitting in the audience. I want to tell them all the musical stories I can think of and I can make with the other guys in the group, it's like a journey.

Bill: Do you feel that the group responds to audiences, or does it just play its music anyway? The music seems to me to be very vibrant, and to respond to the audience. And maybe we respond to this music because we're not used to it.

Willem: You know, I have no idea about that, I'm just doing my thing, and when it works out like tonight. When I saw the reactions already in New York and San Antonio, I couldn't imagine, I thought, "Hey, maybe we are also a kind of American people" but we have another point of view or another idea about making music.

Bill: No, I think we have reacted to you because you aren't American music. I mean, we get used to American music, and this music, even though it's improvised, is very different to us. And I've always thought that it was because it was Dutch music that it was so different, but you've already told me that it's not coming out of such a tradition.

Willem: No, it's just a band, some composers, some ideas about how to make music — and a feeling among people, I think that's the most important thing, just the way we live in Holland. I'm just a guy who was born in the eastern part of Amsterdam, and lived there until I was 28 with my parents, and then I got my own house. But I still live in the eastern part of Amsterdam. And everybody explains, "Well, when he was young he heard a lot of barrel-organs in the street and harmony orchestras and a lot of that folk kind of thing." And maybe that's true but I don't know, I just do what I like to do. When I went to the music conservatory in high school to study music, they told me, "Man, you are not musical at all, never go into music, split immediately! Because it will come to nothing for you. Find a really good profession, but never go into music!" They told me that! They were right because, well, I was a very bad student anyway. I had no idea about playing the clarinet, so that at the end of the page you turn and toopatoopatoop play the next page. What to do with that? But I always went on with my own situation and it's fantastic that I met, for instance, Leo Cuypers in Germany for the first time in 1970 or '71. He had also built up his own situation in Maastrict, in the south of Holland. And there he was doing it his way. And then it happens that you meet each other, and he's doing it his way and you're doing it your way, but it's almost the same situation.

Our group is a very strange one because, for instance, Willem van Manen was a fantastic Dixieland trombone player for ten years, and then Jan Wolff and Bernard Hunnekink played for years in a conservatory orchestra in Amsterdam, they are really well-trained and well-known classical musicians. And they left that classical scene because they became very bored with it. And so everybody has his tradition, but all coming from completely different backgrounds.

Boy: I was born in Germany.

Willem: Me too. In '44. It took half a year, then it became Holland again.

Boy: At the time we were born, Holland was German.

Willem: The last days of Hitler…

Boy: You have to understand that I have a music book at home and it's written down, this is from 1931, that jazz is a music in which you have to play seven instruments to make noises like animals. It was written in Germany. So in that time, because of that attitude, the music was impossible to hear for people in Europe.

Bill: Well the Nazis believed this, didn't they? They thought that animal music was what Black American music was all about.

Boy: Yes, of course. And this attitude stopped the music until 1945, then people started to play it again. Willem talked about this before. So you see there was a big gap.

Willem: But then, another thing is that I don't claim to be a jazz musician. I just want to make music, and if you want to listen to it, okay, I'm very happy. And if you decide that it's not your type of music, it's too bad for me, but that's okay too. And still jazz groups ask me to play with them, so I think perhaps I still belong to that type of music, but on the other hand, I don't know. I never claimed that I was coming here to play jazz music for you. I just do what I want, and these clubs asked me to come and play. So perhaps it still has something to do with their tradition of making music.