German jazz trade-fair strikes a political note

    The opening night of jazzahead! in Bremen combined declarations of the jazz-as-freedom idea with music from Han Bennink and others

    The 81-year-old Han Bennink at jazzahead! 2024. Photo © M3B GmbH/Jan Rathke

    Not unusually these days, jazz has once again been co-opted into a political agenda. The jazzahead! trade fair in Bremen, Germany, now in its 18th year, opened yesterday with speeches focused on the philosophical dimension so often associated with jazz music, framing it as a metaphor for freedom, tolerance and even as a blueprint for a better society.

    In front of what the organisers called “a substantial audience”, Götz Bühler, artistic advisor of jazzahead!, outlined what he saw as the important political message of jazz before Viktorien van Hulst, director of the Performing Arts Fund NL, said “For me, contemporary jazz represents the progressive nature of humanity: jazz advocates openness and encourages curiosity in a society where people are becoming more and more restricted, day by day. I see jazz as an exciting place, a space for free-flowing ideas and experimentation.”

    Germany’s minister of state for culture, Claudia Roth, gave a video address in which she portrayed jazz as a exemplar of a harmonious civilisation, saying she and her colleagues saw it as “a living part of our culture and our society, as a prime example of tolerance and openness”.

    The speakers were perhaps forgetting the reports in Jazz Journal and elsewhere over decades of the many incidences of rancour, rivalry, oppression and musical conservatism emanating from jazz bandleaders, musicians and promoters – reports suggesting that jazz practitioners are in fact as colourful, complex and flawed as those in any sphere of human activity.

    On the musical front, there were performances by musicians from the 2024 partner country the Netherlands and representatives of the fair’s 2024 theme “Jazz from Africa”. Among these were trumpeter Maité Hontele, Cuban pianist Ramon Vallé, Kika Sprangers and Tijn Wybenga, South African guitarist Vuma Levin, percussionist Vernon Chatlein, and the Dutch luminary Han Bennink, who is 82 years old next week but still readily able to employ his left leg as a percussion accessory.

    Jazzahead!, a prominent opportunity for the jazz “industry” to network, runs in Bremen until 14 April and features trade stalls and talks as well as 120 concerts. Tickets are available by calling +49 421 – 36 36 36 or visiting “Get your tickets” at