"Learning jazz is not just dedication. It's an obsession."
It would have been an ordinary wintery Sunday in Tokyo until Till Brönner stood up from the hotel lobby to go for a leisurely “lazy afternoon” stroll and delightful tête-à-tête at a nearby French brasserie. Tall, debonair, and beaming in his unmistakable striking presence, Europe’s most prominent Blue Eyed Soul jazz trumpeter, and two-time Grammy nominee, found his way back unwaveringly to Tokyo last February after almost fifteen long years of a much prolonged absence from the Japanese music scene. His powerful performance at Blue Note Tokyo with the celebrated Nicola Conte and his talented band proved how a decade of disappearance from the Japanese music stage could trigger an even more magnetic and captivating sensation echoed by the vibrant energy of his trumpet.
AR: When Till Brönner first performed in Japan in 1998, his first album, Love, for the Verve label was just released in Japan and received an outstanding response from the Japanese audience.
TB: My first concert in Japan as a solo artist was great because I got to talk about my music, which was a ballad album. I realized how much an understanding musicians and people here have for music and German music, so I felt very welcome. Many questions I got were mainly on my German musical history. There seems to be a lot of knowledge in Japan about Germany, which is amazing, and makes me very humbled. For sure, we have lots of things in common. The historical side (between Japan and Germany) is special because we never had war against each other. There were dark times, too—how we cooperated with each other—but, we could feel that if we weren’t enemies before, there is a different feeling when meeting each other. I came to Japan with a small salon orchestra put together by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. I played classical music with them at Suntory Hall and Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall. It was incredible. And, many Japanese knew the German melody very well—classical and a little classic-operetta, also German music of the 20s, 30s, and melodies from Berlin—from known composers like Franz Grothe and Friedrich Hollaender—very German. I saw what level of music was played and valued here. The musicians work themselves until they really come close to what they love. And, they still maintain their own culture—I really like that.
AR: From classics to jazz, Till’s deep interest in the Japanese jazz scene further accelerated after meeting many of the local cream-of-the-crop musicians .
TB: There are many icons in the Japanese music scene, like Terumasa Hino. He’s someone I really adore, especially because he’s been there when many things were happening. In the Japanese trumpet scene, I got to meet musicians like Toku. Then, I hanged out with Issei Igarashi, and he also has a connection to Berlin.
AR: A simple, self-determined boy born in Viersen, Germany, raised in Rome, who clung to his trumpet from the age of 9, and fell into an enigmatic spell by the vibrating sounds of Charlie Parker, Till Brönner knew from childhood that his life was undoubtedly destined for jazz.
TB: When I first started to play the trumpet, I was told by my teachers that I was talented enough to go the classical way. I was participating in workshops and contests with other musicians. Then, I felt there was something missing. Maybe it was the need to be perfect in the instrument. My peers in school were listening to 80s music, like Depeche Mode… they were trying to be up-to-date. I almost felt like being caught in a different time. I think it has something to do with my musical education in the trumpet. It still follows me until today. I was brought in classical work, very German, very regular, promising.
AR: Could the trumpet really be as sexy and irresistible as Till portrays it to be? While many young boys of Till’s age were playfully obsessed over football, toy guns or war games, for Till, the trumpet was his first security blanket.
TB: I like the sound and the look of the trumpet… the way it looks in your hand. There’s nothing else that can be more attractive (than that). It was like my little cowboy fantasy. Instead of the gun, it was the trumpet. My parents were very kind to understand and they gave me a trumpet on my 9th birthday. I listened to Charlie Parker when I was 12 years old. My friend in school had a cassette tape in his car. The second I listened to it, it felt like my first sexual experience. How can you play something like that? It was like breaking all the rules I had known. So, I knew instantly this would change my life completely and musically. I finally found something that catches me so intensely that I would like to stick with it. And now you see me.
AR: Learning the flugelhorn came easily to Till when he started to play for the big band in Berlin.
TB: I realized all the big band men had flugelhorns, as a common thing to have. I was around 15 or 16. I was already playing in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra that was put together at that time. Many incredibly talented teachers came from overseas to teach us, like Bobby Shew who was my main teacher. So, he played tapes for me, recorded LPs that I couldn’t get hold of in Germany. So, this is how I got in touch with big bands, and also Donald Byrd, Clifford Brown... famous artists…
AR: It was, therefore, not unpredictable to find Till serenading the Radio Orchestra in Berlin with his energetic talent. Soon, he stood close by legendary greats, such as Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, Chet Baker, and more, that would have been only one inch away from his childhood dream to be next to Dizzy Gillespie.
TB: I was 19-20 when I got the job with the radio band and I had a steady job almost for life. This is how I got to meet many people who were performing there, from Ray Charles to Tony Bennett… fantastic audience too. I didn’t work with Dizzy Gillespie but I met him once, when I was 18 years old. Shaking his hand was like saying “hi” to God. I didn’t invest my money on cars or anything. Instead, I bought CDs, everyday, piles of CDs. And that was like my school. I still have all of them. But, at some point, I realized it was time to go and do my own stuff because I already established a solo career, besides the radio band. It was impossible to combine them with each other. I could record several albums next to my job. But, then, there was no point in being there anymore because I wanted to travel.
AR: For Till and his numerous fans, the sensual album, Blue Eyed Soul , released in 2002, was the ultimate trademark that gave him the sound for melancholy and ballad jazz.
TB: T his CD had the biggest impact than any of my albums. It dealt with the neo-soul approach, like D’Angelo, that changed the world at that time. I tried to focus on the instrumental point of view, and the reaction was huge. Every time I came to Japan, people would tell me about this album, until today. Take 6 heard this album and invited me to perform in their album. That was a nice coincidence because I got to play that same solo for The Standard , which was nominated for a Grammy.
AR: Is there really a stark difference between technique and expression? Japanese are often selfishly labeled for their impeccable lineage towards technique in music, but only to be undermined by hidden expression. Till believes this is a misconception.
TB: Sometimes I wish European musicians have the similar adoration for jazz as Japanese musicians.Japanese lacking expression is something I’ve been hearing about many times. But, I think it could be some sort of prejudice. It’s easy to say there is no expression. But, if you listen close enough, there’s a lot of expression. (Talking about visual expression alone)—that can be a danger and superficial. Maybe it’s a superficial point of view that if you want to “watch” music, you’re too far away from the real deal. I close my eyes when I listen to music.
AR: Till expounds on the universality of music that transcends beyond cultures, races, genders, age, and generations.
TB: I don’t really care much where you’re from, or where you live. I think life is too short to not find out about yourself—and jazz can be a language, like English or French. And, if you speak it with your accent, your origin, where you’re from, it’s actually nice. I can speak English with a German accent, and I stand to it. I think it’s totally me. And, we can find a common base to talk to each other (about). So, showing my personality, my background, where I’m from… in jazz, this has become a very important medium for me, because I can use this language to say what I really want to say. So, I don’t have to talk about jazz history, or have a bad mind that I’m not born in New Orleans. I could talk about my German origin all day or talk about Mahler, but why? I found myself in jazz, in my personal point of view. It’s a sound that I have and I don’t care if it’s jazz or something in between, as long as I can position my sound, my notes, people can tell after a few seconds, “That’s Till Brönner.” That’s what I want. Then, you find out if it’s jazz-influenced, or pure jazz, or nothing close to jazz, until you recognize it’s me. That’s what I’m after.
AR: To many avid listeners of Till’s trumpet sounds, he is conveniently regarded as a smooth jazz artist, but for Till, these are only words.
TB: My audience is the same kind all over the world. They are a nice mix of generations, genders, topics, accents, and reasons why they appear. This is what I like about it. It’s like I have one and half-hours to tell a story and I can play a soundtrack. It’s like a little movie. It’s a mix of my personal point of view. Melancholy is my main thing.(The track) Lazy Afternoon is very close to me. I don’t classify my music. I’ve tried that many times and years and I never came to a conclusion. There are people who have called me smooth jazz, but only compared to the other German jazz musicians. And, German jazz is very much influenced by avant-garde. After World War II, American jazz was very present and dominant. German musicians asked themselves, “What should we do?”… since there was such a big American presence, especially in the Frankfurt area. Musicians decided to create something more avant-garde, more into the real jazz world. Luckily, there were several remarkable and successful musicians, like Peter Brötzmann, who was THE big jazz saxophonist in Germany playing in all festivals worldwide. He’s highly respected for what he does. Compared to those, I’m smooth jazz. But, compared to Paul Brown or Kenny G, I’m not smooth jazz. So, it might be easier to call me a bebop or neo pop… but they’re only words. If you like it, you like it; if you don’t like it, no problem. I’m just a jazz trumpeter.
AR: Till finds himself oscillating right in the juncture of societal changes that press efforts on jazz to shift from mere lounge listening to a more hard-core profound medium that breaks all rules in music composition.
TB: Jazz music is about to lose the few leftover victims and participants of the times. I recorded my first album with Ray Brown. The first question I asked was how it was to play with Charlie Parker. I played a gig with Benny Golson two weeks ago in Poland. Eddie Henderson was in the band, Alvin Queen on drums. I realized they talked about things I couldn’t witness because I wasn’t there. And now, I’m just learning by listening to them. I’m here in this generation, and I’m able to transport to the next generation where nobody else will be left. So, we can see the connection of what has happened and what needs to be done today, to value what has been created there, but also to redevelop something. Life is too short to just hold up the flag of let’s say, bebop. If jazz is something that mirrors the present state and society, then it needs to change its sound, for sure, to mirror what is happening socially. Then, it probably needs to sound like a mix of everything, because society is a mix of everything right now. It’s a matter of taking clear decisions on how you want to present yourself. So, I don’t need to belong to any group or school as long as I can make people understand and hear that I have a lot of respect for what happened, but, hopefully, I have another twenty years to live, to play and develop this kind of thing. Anyone can say, ‘I remember that song…he’s been listening to Chet Baker, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown…'
AR: When not making waves from one concert to another, Till teaches music at the Dresden University of Music.
TB: I’m a professor of jazz trumpet for four years now.Young students now have access to all these recordings from the Internet, YouTube… stuff I didn’t have access to before… I had to be on the phone to find out who is actually active, or I had to read the papers. The fact that you can see everything in the Internet within seconds is a disadvantage for young musicians. I talk to them and they’re not interested sometimes. They feel they can listen to music everyday, wherever they like... it’s always there. So, when you can get a recording of it, you better start studying it. Hang in there and find out the magic of these recordings. Those were the analog times. Another important thing I realized, which puts a smile on my face sometimes, is real talent is just as rare as it used to be in the past. All these software keyboards do not generate more talent that in the past. Talent is a very rare thing to find; otherwise, we’ll all be millionaires or super hits. I think that’s the magic and mystery of being an artist, and exploring to make something for yourself in this very sensitive field. The students get a feel of everything. It’s like learning a language. But, it’s also important to talk about what it means to be a jazz musician these days, and how dangerous it can be to believe that you study for four years, and afterwards, you’re a jazz musician, but you just wait for a career. So, it’s not only how I develop my playing; it’s also how to sell myself. And, for a long time, this used to be a thing you were not supposed to talk about in music, because it’s too much away from the art. But, I think it has a lot to do with the art. You have to have a personality that’s rather all-going to establish yourself, and you have to understand it. It’s a profession after all. If you study well, you have to be prepared to face all these amount of students that will compete with you or against you. So, it’s the same ting in jazz. Learn your craft. Know about the history, but use it for something that you want to say. And, stand by it, because it’s very easy to be influenced and overwhelmed by all the people who tell you what to do. It’s about taking decisions. You have to be strong and have to be able to take from history.
AR: For Till Brönner, jazz is not just holding a trumpet in recorded time; it is an undying obsession.
TB: Learning jazz is not like learning a book. You have to do it everyday. It’s not just dedication, but an obsession. I will even go further than that. I’ve been watching jazz musicians for decades. They play in a gig, and after the gig is over, they look for some jam session to play some more, because that’s what keeps them alive. It’s the hunger and the obsession to keep creating, and to be reacting to something you’re not prepared for. That’s really what jazz is, and is the most interesting music to me, because you get to decide in a moment or second what to do and what not to do. So, that’s the biggest difference compared to classical music, and others, like rock music. Sometimes, you make the same song ten minutes longer because you feel like it.
AR: Till further explains that the perception of freedom in jazz is the key factor that segregates it from other music genres, such as pop.
TB: Pop music to me is talking about issues or problems young people deal with. It’s about growing up, finding out about life, love, desires, disappointments, and all these tensions. Jazz deals with a lot more than that. It sometimes focuses too much on challenge. I hate to say it but jazz is very grown-up music, for intelligent people in a way, because you have to have a certain background, education and a lot of respect for this music to be able to play it. When you listen to jazz, you have to be a bit concerned the first time; the second time, you feel that it’s not that bad; the third time, you find out you like the sax solo better than the trumpet solo; then, the fourth time, you find out this is more interesting than this other type of jazz music. So, you try to develop; and therefore, it’s very difficult and close to impossible to present it to young people, because it sounds something like to provoke, like a joke, or is too brainy. Jazz is more soul, but it’s also a life experience in a way. And, freedom and jazz is very much one thing. Pop means young culture. Jazz is grown-up culture. I find it ridiculous sometimes to see rock stars between 60-70 years old, still appearing like super thin, young idols—you don’t find that in jazz. Musicians can grow old with a very high dignity, like wine; it gets better as it gets older.
AR: In 2011, Till was cooked up with seemingly the wrong ingredients when he was offered to be one of the celebrity judges in the TV idol show, “X Factor” in Germany.
TB: I was not in the pop generation, but I couldn’t ignore it. I was completely exposed to the public in a very mainstream way. I ended up being one of the judges who was the bad guy because I was just being honest about the singers on the show. I left the show when I felt it was too far away from what I was standing for. I think it was the hunt for quick success, but not in my field. It didn’t have any positive influence on my jazz profession.
AR: Even in the small jazz world, as Till further relates, the ticklish temptation to tiptoe out of the refrain of the uncertain path is very much a prevalent reality.
TB: You’re tempted all the time to go with some sort of flow instead of going your way. I run into many young jazz musicians that I admire, and are deep in despair because they don’t know what to do. There are not too many concerts. It’s remarkable how many times I’ve recommended to someone not to study music, and actually to study something more promising, because you can always play music. You don’t necessary have to study it. Most of the stuff I’ve learned I didn’t learn from studies. I learned it from the right people. The student who needs a lesson every week is probably not the best musician. Real talent doesn’t need a lesson every week; you need the right message that can give you the direction, the hunger, the obsession—you can learn outside.
AR: Although Till was groomed in perfect German classical training, his heart basks under the Mediterranean sun. Growing up in Rome injects the romantic flavor in his music that gives him the name, Il mezzo-Romano, for as long as Italy burns the fire in his heart.
TB: My parents were both schoolteachers. My dad got a job in a German school in Rome. I was born in Germany, in the area of Dusseldorf, but I spent the first five to six years of my life in Rome. It means almost twenty years of my entire life.I still have lots of friends and family there. That’s really where my heart is. I call myself the ‘mezzo-Romano.’ It has a nice sound to it. It’s really the way I feel. I love Germany, and I’m very grateful to have the proper education in Germany, but my mentality is more Italian than anything. My heart is very Italian. I get along with Italian musicians so great. Last year, I spent three months in Rome on a scholarship with the German Academy. It was great for me to walk around there, pass by bars and restaurants, and they have the same owners as before. It seems easier to survive in those areas even if the economy is bad and difficult around Europe. But, you still have your coffee, the sun, and the Pope. I do think about settling in Rome. Maybe in five years…it’s not too late…