The Natural Gas Jazz Band Eastern Europe Tour 2002
Detlef A. Ott
The Beginning. Seventeen years ago, behind the Iron Curtain in Leipzig, I first heard of the Natural Gas Jazz Band and received a recording from them It was then that I began thinking that they should be one of the featured bands at the Dresden Dixieland festival. Political reasons, financial problems of the former East German Management of the Festival and other tour plans of NGJB made that impossible. After the re-unification of Germany in 1990, I started a second attempt. For me, what may have been the longest planned tour finally became a reality. This was not only a business venture, but also THE private event of the year and a labor of love for my wife, Kerstin and me. We had never enjoyed anything like this before.
The Festival in Dresden was an outstanding event followed by a wonderful tour to Prague, Vienna and Budapest. Natural Gas JB performed 10 concerts during the 12-day tour. It was a new experience for NGJB at the Dresden festival to have so many young people overcrowding into the performing sites and enjoying the music with so much exuberance. Because this is not the case in the States, banjo player Pat Dutrow asked me why Trad Jazz was such an interest to that age group in Dresden. When the first Festival started in 1971 (the one and only behind the Iron Curtain) it played before a half filled concert hall, nobody believed that there would be a next one. But by word of mouth, the Festival soon became a sold out event, which continues to this day. The music was so refreshing and so delighted the gray daily life of the people who lived under communist pressure that everybody felt the freedom and happiness of that music. It gave the people strength for the days to come. Many young parents brought their children with them. As a young lady on a TV interview said, for her it is a tradition to go to the concerts with her children now, because her parents did so with her many years ago. So it was as a result of education at the family level that there is the present appreciation of traditional jazz in Dresden.
The Concerts. The NGJB group of 45 arrived in Berlin on May 1st, and bussed to Dresden the next day. Musicians at festivals learn to be flexible, because multiple changes in schedule may occur. This happened for the band’s first Festival performance, where they were rushed off their bus to their performing site at the Technical University. There they were greeted by 2500 young people, most of them students, who gave the band such a big welcome to Dresden that the jetlag of every musician flew away as they performed their one hour concert which was followed by a standing ovation and demand for an encore. Next day’s gig was a special event at the Cultural Palace (Kulturpalast), where they shared a 3 hour concert with the New Moscow Jazz Band from Russia, the Buddha’s Gamblers from Switzerland and the Lamarotte Jazz Band from the Netherlands. The concert was recorded for further broadcasting. A full house of 3,000 thousand gave the Gassers a tremendous welcome. They were the first American band to play for the Dresden Festival for some time. The Saxonian newspapers reported next day that NGJB was a highlight of the Kulturpalast concert. The band's rendition of "Dr. Jazz", sung in German, became a favorite song in Dresden, so the MC of the Festival asked the band to play it once again at the Open Air Festival the next day! He also said, " One hundred bands try to play 'Dr. Jazz' in Germany. And then a band comes from San Francisco and shows them how to make it - in German. Wonderful!"
On Saturday NGJB performed on Prague Street where all bands appeared on 10 different stages along the boulevard. Approximately 2000 people came to listen to NGJB and their CDs sold like hot sausages. That evening another concert was held in the Tram station of Dresden where a huge crowd of 2,000 young people danced enthusiastically to the music.
The last day of this strenuous but exciting Festival was filled with three concerts. The first brought together all the bands of the festival, where each provided a 15-minute segment for the Open Air Concert in Dresden’s Great Garden ( left photo). There, an audience of 6000 celebrated the last day of the Festival. Rain was forecast, but an old Dresden lady told us that the crowd would have come anyway. Then the rain came in the afternoon instead, so the Gassers got wet while playing on a decorated truck during the Grand Dixieland Parade that went on for 4 hours thought the streets of Dresden, where 500,000 people lined the road. Pianist Dee Spencer had the best job in the band. Since there was no keyboard on the truck, she could spend all of her time waving and smiling at the crowd. High praise is due to NGJB members, who played their hearts out on that cold and wet afternoon.
In the evening the band said “Goodbye” to Dresden at a delightful performing site in the brewery “Feldschlosschen”, the main sponsor of the Festival. Phil was made an honorary citizen of Dresden and Dee Spencer was declared the most beautiful woman of the Festival. The Gassers surprised and pleased the audience with a very different tune by South African composer and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, called “Waters From An Ancient Well”. A member of the tour group whispered in my ear, “Detlef, I’ve never heard NGJB play better than in Dresden.” Shall I believe this?
The Tour: After a short night, the tour went on May 6th to another former communist state, the Czech Republic. After Dresden no big concerts were expected. Prague, the colorful capital of the Czech Republic, gave us a warm welcome and after the busy festival in Dresden, everybody relaxed and enjoyed that city by sightseeing and having a good time with delicious draught beer and good Czech food.
The next day brought together soprano sax player Bob Murphy and his friend of a past tour through the communist state in the 80s—Andrej Ernyei—a former member of the well-known Czech “Jazzphonic Orchestra”. Unfortunately the band broke up two years ago. Andrej is now a music manager and he was the man who organized a very congenial meeting in the Jazz Garden, a few miles out of Prague. The tour got a warm welcome from the owner of that place when it was greeted with the Czech traditional drink “Becherovka”—a liquor made from plums. The concert of that evening started with a Prague band, the Swing Revival Band. The name says it---this band plays a wonderful relaxed swing and featured the pianist Marka Silhava, when she was not cooking in the kitchen to feed the tour group. After that band, the NGJB played a set. A jam session brought the NGJB and the Prague Band together to finish a great event at this lovely, rural jazz venue.
After Prague, the tour went on to the capital of Austria and one of the most beautiful cities in Europe---Vienna. The first evening saw the band in an unusual role—not as performers, but as part of an audience. It was the Golden Hall of Mozart where they listened to the classical Mozart concert by the traditional Vienna Mozart Orchestra. The members of that orchestra performed in Rococo clothing as in Mozart’s time and they received warm applause from all of us for their great show.
The next day brought another highlight of the tour with a performance in Axel Mehlhardt’s “JAZZLAND” ( photo above). This is the oldest private jazz club still existing in Europe and run by an avid jazz enthusiast. Axel, who has Czech and German roots, wrote a book about this club and its 30 year old history, which was published in March. It is an almanac of thousands of musicians with his personal views about them. Some of the great jazz men who played at JAZZLAND include Max Kamainsky, Wild Bill Davison, Ray Brown, Oscar Klein, and on and on. All 150 seats of this club, located at the banks of the Danube River in an old cellar of a church, were filled that night. NGJB gave a great concert that consisted of three sets of 50 minutes each. It was the last tour concert with Dee Spencer, who left for New York City, where her San Francisco Youth Big Band was scheduled to play that weekend in a competition at Lincoln Centre. We missed her vocals and her talented piano playing very much on the rest of the tour.
Crossing the boarder into Hungary was pleasantly uneventful for us, while the vehicles traveling into Austria were not so fortunate. Because of a bloody bank robbery earlier in the day, that border had been closed and all cars, etc. were at a standstill. It was our turn to be caught in a massive succession of “Friday night in Budapest” gridlocks however, when our bus transported us to that night’s gig at Buda Stage, a fine concert hall with great acoustics. The concert was sponsored and recorded by Radio Hungary and was to be used on a later nationwide broadcast. The ride to the concert took 2 ½ hours and the trip back about 30 minutes. We had been met at our hotel by Tamasz Ittesz, a fine Hungarian musician who had been helpful to the tour by making arrangements for the Hungarian portion of the trip. He is the leader of the Bohem Ragtime Band and is both a wonderful violinist and pianist, which was fortunate for NGJB, because he graciously consented to sub with the band for their remaining gigs in Hungary.
It was Tamasz who organized our stay and the concert the next day in Kescemet. This is a small town 60 miles south of Budapest and it is famous because all churches in this city surround the town’s beautiful town square. In a nearby hotel, the Natural Gas JB gave the last concert of the tour, together with the Bohem Ragtime Band. This band plays an unusual style of traditional jazz and has been twice to the Sacramento Jubilee—last in 2000. They mix traditional jazz with Hungarian folk music. Especially when Tamasz used a creature of an instrument that was a mix between violin and trumpet, they sounded like an old Coffee House Band from the 20s in Budapest. When playing with NGJB, Tamasz caused much laughter when he introduced himself as Dee Spencer and he did a fine job of playing excellent piano with the band. The final jam session brought together the young and talented musicians of the Hungarian Band and the more experienced NGJB players.
Many thanks to all who made this an outstanding tour filled with wonderful music, jokes and great feeling.
A special note from the band:
Detlef has written the above to give his impressions and observations of the jazz portion of the two-week tour. This is what he loves and why he worked so hard both before and during the tour. The sightseeing in these beautiful, old capitol cities of Easter Europe was outstanding and never to be forgotten. The combination of the jazz and the touring made the two weeks unforgettable.
Special recognition of Detlef Ott, and his wife, Kerstin, should be given for all their preparations and help on this tour. Without them it simply would not have happened. A huge DANKE SCHÖN to the Otts from Natural Gas Jazz Band and its family of jazz friends.