Porgy & Bess is a household name in jazz, both in Europe and around the world. But what does that mean for the “home team”? What role does the club play for the next generation of Austrian jazz musicians, regionally and abroad? ARIANNA FLEUR sat down with CHRISTOPH HUBER, co-founder and director of the renowned Viennese jazz club, Porgy & Bess, to talk about the past, present and, especially, the future of Austrian jazz and improvized music, and who we should all be keeping our eyes and ears open for in the months and years to come.
So, it’s widely known that the Porgy stage has long had the privilege and honor of hosting the best players in jazz and beyond. But, it’s a 2-way street, isn’t it? Not only do you bring in international talent, but you also help launch regional musicians outwards.
Christoph Huber [laughs]: Yeah, I have to agree!
One could even say, playing at your club is something of an entrance ticket to the jazz world beyond. In other words, you’d be hard pressed to find an internationally relevant Austrian jazz musician who hasn’t played at Porgy and, most likely, played there 1st, before venturing out beyond the Austrian borders. What do you think about this statement?
Christoph Huber: Well, who wrote that? I love it. [laughs] But seriously, yes, it’s true. You know, the point was, from the beginning, when we – Mathias Rüegg, Renald Deppe, Gabriele Mazic and myself – started Porgy in 1993, our mission was three-fold: 1st and foremost, the Austrian scene, 2nd the European one and, 3rd, the big names from the American scene, which is the homeland of jazz.
WE AIM TO BE SOMETHING OF A MEETING PLACE FOR MUSICIANS, AS WELL AS A MEETING PLACE FOR PROJECTS THAT COULD DEVELOP TOGETHER
Is that still the mission today?
Christoph Huber: Yes, this “triad” concept hasn’t changed. Of course there have been developments and focuses on other international regions, but basically it’s the same. What we aim for is, on one side, to be something of a meeting place for musicians, but on the other, a meeting place for projects that could develop together. For example, inviting international musicians to collaborate with Austrian musicians, as we do in our Portrait Series. So we not only offer the audience to check out the American cats or internationally interesting acts, but also to interact with them. Not every day, of course, but in certain projects.
It sounds like the club helps the Austrian scene to expand their international connections.
Christoph Huber: In fact, that’s something we feel to be our task. I mean, the Portraits are still happening. We invite international artists, but, meanwhile, we also invite the next generation of Austrian musicians like pianist Georg Vogel or bassist Manu Mayr.
So international collaborations have always been one of the pillars of Porgy, but due to the pandemic, things shifted dramatically and from one day to the next, the club’s content suddenly became almost exclusively regional. Do you think that this has long-term implications for you or the music world at large, or was it just an exceptional situation?
Christoph Huber: It’s an exceptional situation. But, the local scene was always a huge part of the program. And, you know, we have the Strenge Kammer, for example, which is closed now due to the pandemic. So, in our streaming program, we featured a lot of bands that had previously played at the Strenge Kammer. Of course, when everything reopens, some of the bands that played on the main stage may have to go back to the Strenge Kammer. But, you know, the whole program won’t really change that much. It’s just, the competition will be tougher.
So, how do you actually make your program? How do you choose your artists? And where do you get your information, especially when it comes to upcoming artists who aren’t that big yet?
Christoph Huber: I don’t really have a system. It just happens. But, mostly, I find out about new acts by word of mouth or recommendation. For example, when Christoph Cech, who was the director of the jazz department of the Bruckner Conservatory, says a name and that they are a big talent, then I know I don’t have to second guess it. Of course, one also picks up a lot through the longstanding network of festival and club owners. This makes programming quite easy. And a lot of things happen through Renald Deppe’s very careful programming of the Strenge Kammer.
So who are the up and coming Austrian musicians which definitely will not be bumped from the main stage, and beyond that are, in your opinion, ready to hit the international stage, or hit it even harder if they already have?
Christoph Huber: To be honest, there are quite a lot. Even if you just think about instruments, like bass players for example. You will find at least 10 super high-level bass players in Austria, like Judith Ferstl, for example, with really spectacular musicianship. And that’s changed a lot. When I started Porgy in the 90’s, the scene was quite small. Since then, a lot has developed, like the level of education. You now have fantastic teachers, like (Wolfgang) Puschnig, for example, who really come out of the international jazz scene. So there are a lot of very talented and well-educated students, like Georg Vogel, for example. When he plays this 31-tone Claviton, you go crazy. [laughs] You think, wow what’s that? Or this piano player David Six, or the Wiesinger sisters (Astrid, sax & Beate, bass), the band, Purple is the Color, or the drummer Judith Schwarz. They’re all on their way.
THE IDEA WAS TO SUPPORT THE YOUNG, ADVANCED AUSTRIAN SCENE
You mentioned Georg Vogel, which I half expected, because he’s on a lot of people’s minds in the jazz and improvisation scene lately. But you also said how complex his work is. Where could he fit on the international stage?
Christoph Huber: Let’s compare him with a historical figure like Cecil Taylor. He was also kind of a nerd, in a good way. It took him a while to succeed with this kind of art, because it’s so complex. So of course that’s a challenge. On the other side, when Georg is doing his piano trio, it’s also quite complex, but it’s easier to listen to.
Can you tell me what you know and like about Purple is the Color?
Christoph Huber: Well, they started at the Strenge Kammer and played there a couple of times, until we realized, wow, that’s a really cool and interesting collective. They are a quartet, and all studied together, I believe. And when you see a band working together for some time and they always get better and better, and they develop and really stick together, then you can see their potential. And once you recognize that, then you will give them the main stage, of course. But it needs time to develop. It’s not good to give them the main stage right away.
So, for that reason the Strenge Kammer really makes sense.
Christoph Huber: Totally. That was the point of it. We started the Strenge Kammer about 10 years ago. And the idea was to support the young, advanced Austrian scene, for who the main stage was too big. We have a certain pressure there. We need to fill the seats. That’s just how it is. So the Strenge Kammer makes sense, and of course it is like the first step to Porgy. When you get a gig at the Strenge Kammer, it’s the first chance you have to attract my attention and others’. Normally that works pretty well, and afterwards you might get a gig at the main stage. And if that happens, it can really help musicians get gigs abroad. The truth is, other international clubs look to our program to help make decisions about their own.
Do you have any advice for musicians who are early in their career? When you spoke about Purple is the Color it sounded like, in part, what convinced you is how convinced they were of themselves.
Christoph Huber: Absolutely. You have to follow your idea or intention. If you have a strong idea of what you want to do and it doesn’t work out immediately, don’t simply give up. If this idea is not only a strong idea, but a good one too, and you stick with it, at one point, you will be recognized for it. But you have to keep going and develop it. I mean, if a concept doesn’t work out in the first moment, it’s not a big deal. You just have to shape it and work on it. You need time to rehearse, practice and experiment.
It’s not always easy, though, to have this kind of self-assuredness. Especially in a culture for which these values are not as deeply engrained as, let’s say, the American one.
Christoph Huber: No, it’s not easy. It’s a hard way of course. But it makes sense. I mean, if you want to survive as a front-person, then you can’t take the easy route. But at one point, you know, all those really talented musicians, in all generations, like Puschnig, Dickbauer, Muthspiel, they all succeed with their art. And that’s in part because they really believed in themselves and their creativity. That’s really important, otherwise you might have to get a different job.
What are other ingredients to international success? Or what are some barriers?
Christoph Huber: From time to time, the musicians are not so interested in leaving their city. And you have to respect that. For example, the famous Hans Koller, the first really international Austrian jazz star. He would have had every possibility to go to the States, for example. He just didn’t want to. He played with everyone because they just came through (Europe), like Benny Goodman or Carla Bley. He just said, ‘this is my home, and I don’t want to go anywhere else.’ The problem is, before such musicians might make an international career, they are already teaching the next generation here. Of course, on one hand it gives them security, but on the other, it handicaps you because it lowers your motivation to take certain risks.
So it’s the comfort that could kill you? Unlike American artists who, in most cases, have to tour internationally to make a living, European musicians don’t have that same pressure.
Christoph Huber: Yeah. We are in a welfare state. It’s a security blanket, and it’s difficult to get people out from under it. I mean, I don’t want to lecture anyone, but if you want to conquer the world, you can’t wait for the world to come to you.
IF YOU WANT TO SURVIVE AS A FRONT-PERSON, YOU CAN’T TAKE THE EASY ROUTE
Stepping out of the box is another ingredient then?
Christoph Huber: I’d say so. Look at Martin Siewert, a really interesting and accomplished musician. He was the youngest guy at the time to get a Portrait at Porgy. I remember he had recently finished university in Graz but he didn’t get a “sehr gut” (an “A”), but he was one of the most interesting musicians. We decided to give him a Portrait, with 3 nights at Porgy. And he really used that opportunity and invited people like Jamaaladeen Tacuma. He even invested money in it. And, when all is said and done, he found his way, because he did it consistently. Even though it wasn’t easy with the kind of art he was interested in.
I guess that’s another necessity for success? You don’t have to please the others and satisfy conventions, but rather stick to your guns and your passions?
Christoph Huber: Yes, but it’s difficult. In former times, creative musicians, they just skipped the institutions altogether. The famous story with (Joe) Zawinul was he went to the States because he got a scholarship from Berklee, but left almost immediately, saying, ‘Sorry, I can’t learn anything here’. So he went back to NY, to Birdland and met all those musicians there. And suddenly he had a gig with Maynard Ferguson and then, his career really started. He became the piano player of Cannonball Adderley, which was the hippest band of that time. All that would never have happened without his belief in himself. He said, ‘I am the best, so what can you teach me if I’m already the best?’ It was extraordinary self-confidence. But he’s a rare species of course.
You mentioned the Wiesinger sisters; something of a power pair who seem to be popping up all over the place lately.
Christoph Huber: Yeah, and rightfully so. They have this great duo together, duo 4675 (that’s the zip code of their hometown), as well as an interesting collective called Echoboomer. They’re also a regular part of the Orjazztra Vienna, led by Christian Muthspiel.
That collective (Orjazztra Vienna) seems to be something of a hot spot for young talent.
Christoph Huber: Absolutely. In there is also the drummer, Judith Schwarz. She’s made a strong reputation for herself as an open-minded bandleader and top-notch composer for Little Rosies Kindergarten, for example. Also in her duo with Lisa Hofmaninger (soprano sax and bass clarinet), which is a really interesting combination, as well as in the improvised music context, like with Peter Ponger and Peter Herbert.
So, what is it about these young musicians you’ve mentioned, that make them stand out in Austria, and could make them stand out internationally, as well?
Christoph Huber: It’s a kind of individualism. They have a unique sound, no matter what they do. A personal touch, and an interesting one at that. Another musician, who must be mentioned if we are talking about the “young lions,” is Ralph Mothwurf. He leads his own orchestra, among other activities, such as musical director of Yasmo’s Klangkantine. All of these musicians are part of a cool generation, who know a lot about music, and had classical education, but are really willing to improvize and take risks. It’s not possible to succeed every single time when you have an open concept like theirs. I mean, it can turn out as a highlight, or you know [laughs], you better think it over again. But nevertheless they are willing to take the risk.
No risk… no fun? …no fame?
Christoph Huber: Well, if you’re not willing to take risks, then you can be a super studio musician, or work as a side-person in a big band, but you won’t become one of the big names. For that, you have to take risks, be self-confident, follow your ideas, and be convinced by them, as well as develop them. Georg Vogel is interesting because he’s not only a piano player, but a piano constructor. He builds his own instruments. And this idea of 31-tone. It’s really spectacular. It’s like a philosophical kind of approach. And, that’s not nothing. I mean, I don’t understand it at all. I have to be honest. [laughs] But I’m really interested in it.
You’re not alone.
Christoph Huber: Sometimes it’s even difficult to listen to this stuff because at times it just sounds “wrong”. But I’m sure it’s not. I know Georg quite well at this point, and I’m sure that everything he is doing is on the highest level. So the tones are not wrong. Maybe I just hear them wrong. [laughs] I think from all the young musicians I know, he is maybe the most genius; in many ways, including his way of thinking.
Well, you can’t top “genius” so let’s stop the interview here! Thank you!