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Europe listens as New York swings

George Gruntz conducting a big band orchestra at Switzerland's Expo.02 swissinfo.ch

For George Gruntz, the celebrated Swiss jazz composer, pianist and bandleader, New York is still the jazz capital of the world.

This content was published on March 29, 2003 - 11:54

But the 70-year-old insists European audiences are more appreciative when it comes to understanding jazz as an improvisational art.

Gruntz was speaking to swissinfo between sets at Birdland, a New York landmark made famous by jazz legends like Charlie "Bird" Parker. His concert in the Big Apple was part of the two-month "swisspeaks" festival.

Gruntz has performed all over the world with his Concert Jazz Band. He has made more than 50 LPs and CDs, and has been awarded many national and international prizes, including Germany's "Legion of Honour".

As well as leading his own Concert Jazz Band, Gruntz has conducted European symphony orchestras and has composed music for ballet, theatre, film, symphony orchestras.

He has even written jazz operas, with librettos by poets Amiri Baraka and Allen Ginsberg. Some of his compositions have become jazz standards.

Globetrotter

Gruntz is a firm believer that jazz can be found in any culture, so long as musicians are open to improvisation.

"There is at least one guy everywhere that can improvise and speak my musical language. I can't talk to him, but we can play a concert right away."

Aside from active playing and touring, Gruntz has also been an influential voice in the music world.

For 16 years, he was musical director at Zurich's State Theatre Schauspielhaus, and artistic director of the Berlin Jazz Festival for 23 years.

In 2002, he was named Artist in Residence at the Yehudi Menuhin Festival.

Jazz

Gruntz encountered jazz for the first time in the 1940s after it was brought over to Europe by American servicemen during the Second World War.

Although he continued his classical studies at the Zurich and Basel music academies, his heart was already lost to the new musical genre.

To express yourself fully as a musician, he says, "jazz is the musical language you want to talk".


Born almost a century ago in the United States, jazz is now a global movement, says Gruntz.

He suggests that the genre has taken on a pre-eminent role because it can appropriate music from other cultures, like the Indian system with 22 srutis or tones.

"I feel that in European classical music they don't know where to go anymore, whereas we know very well where to go," he says. "I strongly feel that the European 12-tone system has got to go."

Innovation

However, Gruntz believes innovation in jazz has now hit a critical mass.

"The times of so-called big steps in inventing, they are gone in jazz because we now have everything that you need," he notes. "The bath is prepared, you've just got to go into it and do what you want."

But the seemingly inexhaustible Gruntz isn't planning on disappearing for a long soak at his home in Thun after the Birdland gig.

Next up is writing another jazz opera and performing in duo and trio tours where he can showcase his prowess as a pianist.

Yet despite his plans for the future, Gruntz is only worrying about the present.

"The way we work, we're getting excited about what we do, not so much what we plan to do, or what's done. Because what's done is consumed."

swissinfo, Carla Drysdale in New York

Key facts

George Gruntz was born in Basel in 1932, and now lives in Thun.
In 2002, he was named Artist in Residence at the Yehudi Menuhin Festival, a position he currently holds.
For 16 years, he was musical director at Zurich's State Theatre Schauspielhaus and for 23 years artistic director of the Berlin Jazz Festival.
George Gruntz was awarded Germany's "Outstanding Order of Merit" by the country's president, Roman Herzog, in 1996.

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