Jazz and architecture

I gave this lecture as part of the Jazz Studies Groupo at Columbia University, New York, in April 2018. The topic of that year's group was "Planning the city – learning from jazz"
Jazz Hot, Feb.1965: 6

I will be talking not so much about similarities between architecture and jazz, but about how architecture and jazz intersect on different levels. In most of the examples I will provide, „architecture“ is meant to be „buildings“, built for a purpose that somehow may or may not overlap with music. I will not be talking about architecture theory or about the process of architecture. I will not be talking about similarities in the creative or structural approach to architecture and jazz. And I will try to stay away from trying to find groundplans, foundations, and scaffolding in music, or to find rhythm, harmony, and improvisation in architecture. 

Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt

I come from a city of music and architecture. Both have to do with each other in unexpected ways. In the early 20th century, Darmstadt became one of the major centers of Art Nouveau in Europe with some of the most important architects and designers living there and building samples of the most modern architecture at the city’s Mathildenhöhe. 

Darmstadt after the bombing of 11 September 1944

On September 11, 1944, British bombers destroyed the city within one night, throwing fire bombs as a test for Dresden. The bombing started at 11:55pm and lasted for half an hour. More than 11,000 people died; and more than 100,000 people lost their homes. During the 1930s, Darmstadt, then still the capital of the state of Hesse, had been a Nazi stronghold. 

After the war our first mayor, a social democrat, supported the head of the cultural department in establishing the Darmstadt International Summer School for New Music for two reasons, (a) because the city, which now was home to less than 100,000 inhabitants, always had compared itself to the big cultural centers of the world, and (b) to effectively counterbalance the 12 years of Nazi reign which had banned any contemporary artistic expression. The first summer school took place in 1946, in the midst of the rubble of a destroyed city. Soon, Darmstadt became the center for the discourse on contemporary composition with everybody, from Luigi Nono to Karlheinz Stockhausen, from Iannis Xenakis to John Cage, from Milton Babbitt to Morton Feldman or Theodor W. Adorno arguing about the best way to compose in a time that sought to overcome the dark past. 

Out of the rubble comes the music. And, of course, the architecture, because people have to live. 1950s Darmstadt had two major topics: At the Darmstädter Gespräche, the Darmstadt Talks, a series of public lectures and panel discussions, philosophers, architects, sociologists, urban planners, politicians and scholars from many other fields tried to identify what might be considered a livable city. And at the Kranichstein New Music Courses composers, musicians, musicologists and music philosophers tried to identify the best possible way how to re-frame the current political and social situation into music. 

Seat of the Punjab and Haryana High Courts in Chandigarh, India

Comparisons between architecture and jazz are manifold, and not new. Le Corboisier’s oeuvre was compared to jazz. This is the Punjab and Haryana High Court in Chandigarh, a city established in 1952 and planned by Le Corbusier. Around the same time, other French architects, Jacques de Lacretelle among them, member of the French Academy, compared modern architecture to a jazz orchestra, explaining it had „the same intense trumpet shouts, the same syncopated rhythm“. [„Et voyez comme elle s’applique bien à notre temps. L’architecture moderne pourrait être comparée à un orchestre de jazz. Mêmes coups de trompette stridents, même rythme boiteux et syncopé.“, zit. nach Jacques de Lacretelles: Journal de bord, Paris 1974 (B. Grasset)] In 1965, another, unnamed, French architect designed an apartment building for jazz musicians which would include a club, after having undertook interviews with musicians. Art Blakey, Johnny Griffin, Sam Jones, Ron Carter, Ran Blake, Pepper Adams, Jaki Byard and Elvin Jones were supportive, only Miles Davis told him he would never want to live where he worked. Apart from being lived in by musicians, the architecture, the unnamed architect explained, should also resemble the idea of jazz, using something like repetitive choruses, individual improvisation. (Pierre Lattes: „Mon rêve“. Jazz et architecture, in: Jazz Hot, #206 (Feb.1965): 6; see picture on the top of this page)

I live in the city center of Darmstadt, and besides my house there is a big construction site. The other day I went to the website of the architects in order to find out how close everything might be getting to my house, and discovered that only a few years ago they had developed a series of row houses in Frankfurt which sold under the name of „Jazz“, „Swing“ and „Bebop“. I talked to the investor whose idea this was and found out that the names had nothing whatever to do with the architecture, but were based on the location, the west wing of a development area which when they thought about it morphed from west wing into swing after which they decided to give the whole area a musical theme. 

Lechner Group, advertisement for „Swing“, „Jazz“, „Bebop“

They printed brochures in LP cover formats and are continuing with more houses of this kind, among them a project called Blue Note and another called Bossa Nova. While most of these were done with German architects (actually a company based in Darmstadt), a project entitled „Verve“ was planned but has so far not been realized together with the New York architect Daniel Libeskind. Which all goes to show that the connection between architecture and jazz sometimes is just a public relations gimmick. All houses were sold, but then, the real estate market in and around Frankfurt is quite busy (see the website of Swingin‘ Riedberg).

Lechner Group, advertisement for „Verve“

Whenever I think of architecture and jazz, I think of urban planning more than of the actual buildings. Only two weeks ago I was in Israel, and, knowing I would prepare a talk for this Jazz Studies Group meeting, I looked specifically at the Bauhaus architecture to be found everywhere in Tel-Aviv. 

Tel Aviv, 1930s

A lot of the buildings in the White City reflect the Bauhaus‘ original idea of order and structure, others a certain playfulness (like the Hechal Yehuda Synagogue, built in 1979), others a rhythmic urgency like Arieh Sharon’s Convalescent Home from 1965. 

Convalescent Home by Ariel Sharon (photo: Ariel Alony)

That building, by the way, brings up memories of my own. When I moved to Darmstadt in 1990, my first apartment, a small studio which I lived in for about half a year before I found something bigger, was in one of my favorite buildings in the city. It was built in the early 1950s by Ernst Neufert as a dorm for single males, and I liked both the open brick facade and the rhythm of its balconies. Neufert was one of the first to use an underfloor heating system (only in this case it really was an overhead heating system), and while this was a brilliant idea, it was also a paradise for creatures I usually connect with New York: cockroaches. 

Ernst Neufert: Ledigenwohnheim, Darmstadt

Urban planning, then. There is the example of the late Dutch composer and sound sculptor Paul Panhuysen who saw a connection between experimental art and social engagement and eventually not only made sound installations but became interested in the space of the street as a potential space for living. If there is anything „jazz“ about this, apart from the fact that Panhuysen was also an improvising experimental musician, it’s about filling seemingly fixed structures with life. 

I have another example of Urban planning. When the University of Bremen was founded in 1971 and built their campus shortly thereafter, not in the city, but on the outskirts of town, the urban planners decided to just plant a green lawn between the different buildings. They waited a year or two, and when they recognized which paths the students took to get from where they were to where they wanted to go, they finally paved those footpaths in the grass into bricked sidewalks. I would call that audience participation of sorts, an improvisatory process of planning which involves the actual users of the planned object. 

And finally a third example connecting urban planning and sound: When the Austrian city of Linz in 2009 became Cultural Capital of Europe, an honor bestowed to cities all over the European Union for a year each, it published the Linz Charta as a guideline for urban planning in an acoustic environment. The idea behind all of this was to „promote a conscious design of our audible environment in keeping with human dignity and […] based on the conviction that people are touched and influenced to the core by what they hear.“ The architects, urban planners and acousticians discussed the problem of acoustic littering in public buildings, but also in public spaces. They discussed the knowledge of architects in Venice or Florence in the 17thand 18th century to not only build representative houses but make sure that the protrusions, the balconies, the scratch coat, the planning of houses not parallel to each other would ensure that the noise level on the streets be kept to a minimum. Since Vitruvius, all of this had been part of the expert knowledge of architects, but apparently was lost over the last 100 years. 

If there is one parallel between architecture and music, and thus also between architecture and jazz, it is that both create and embrace community, and that both have a direct impact on our emotional state – I was going to say, on our emotional space, which would have been true as well. So, let’s move into the spaces, created by architects, in which music is being created. This, by the way, is what you get when you enter „architecture“ and „jazz“ into Google pictures, and you will see one or two of these photos again in a moment.

Music needs the artists who create it. It needs an audience to support and be moved by it. And it needs a space to resound in. It’s the most simple connection between music and architecture: You can make music anywhere, however in order to project it to your audience you need a room best equipped for the perfect aesthetic experience. This holds true from the ancient Greeks who created the best open-air acoustics in their amphitheaters, through the churches of Gabrieli and Heinrich Schütz which these composers made sure to use theatrically as well, the opera houses in Venice or Bayreuth to the jazz clubs of New York or the caves where jazz was listened to in Paris. You need space to have the music resound in, and you need space that enhances the specific sounds of the music. 

Architects have been thinking about music mainly as another task, and often their thought was more directed at how well the audience saw the stage than at how well it could hear the music. Concert halls of all sorts eventually got competition by hi-fi equipment which accustomed the listeners to a sound experience they did not want to drop behind on in live events. By the mid-1950s and with more and more traveling artists who could identify and compare the different sound effects of the halls they performed in, you had reference concert halls or clubs all over the world. Not every hall fit every style of music, though. There might be ideal situations for acoustic trio music and others for loud fusion acts, there might be just the right room for a symphony orchestra and others which fit a string quartet. Their might be good rooms for vocal or choir music that would not work for a big band. There are dry rooms and resounding rooms, and often a room will sound different empty or filled with an audience. 

Some architects see themselves as service providers, others as creative artists. The spectrum in between these two can be quite big, and the consideration of their customers‘ needs quite varied as well. Let me look at a few selected examples and point out how architecture – planned, found and imagined architecture – is often if not always part of the musical and creative discourse. One of the extremes, when it comes to musical buildings, may be a project by Karlheinz Stockhausen for the 1970 World Expo in Osaka, Japan. Stockhausen and the architect Fritz Bornemann built what they called „Gardens of Music“ a spherical concert hall based on plans which Stockhausen and one of his colleagues from the Electronic Studio at the Technical University in Berlin had conceived. „The audience sat on a sound-permeable grid just below the centre of the sphere, 50 groups of loudspeakers arranged all around reproduced, fully in three dimensions, electro-acoustic sound compositions that had been specially commissioned or adapted for this unique space.“ (http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/stockhausen-im-kugelauditorium/images/5/) The daily program included pieces by Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Boris Blacher, but also Bach and Beethoven, or live-concerts, including Stockhausen’s own „Spiral“ for soloist and short-wave receiver. 

There are other examples of this kind, most of them, of course, predating architects specifically thinking of what might be needed for a jazz venue. 

„Liquid architecture. It’s like jazz—you improvise, you work together, you play off each other, you make something, they make something. And I think it’s a way of trying to understand the city, and what might happen in the city.“ – Frank Gehry

Disney Hall, Los Angeles (photo: Wolfram Knauer)

Frank Gehry changed the image of downtown Los Angeles when he finished the Walt Disney Concert Hall which opened in 2003. Nine years later Gehry agreed to work pro bono on a new home for the Jazz Bakery in Culver City. The idea was Gehry’s who offered his service and thus turned up the pressure to actually raise the funds for the whole thing. Gehry designed a space next to the Kirk Douglas Theatre with additional space for an outdoor dining room, bakery and café. His design was first shown at the Frank Gehry Retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2015. 

We live in a time when acoustically nearly everything is possible because acousticians will be able to adapt the sound situation in ways that „perfect sound“ can be found at every seat in the hall. However, that proved to be the strongest criticism which the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg met after it opened in 2016: that the average listener was not accustomed to be sitting „within the orchestra“, at that special listener’s seat which Toyota Yasuhisa, the hall’s famous acoustician, had prepared for him. That criticism also called to mind that our ear is able to connect the acoustic phenomenon of sound with the spacial experience of the room, that we actually are quite adept at bending our ear according to the acoustic reality. Less than perfect acoustics, then, do not necessarily make for a bad concert experience. 

Space, after all, is also a structural element in music. And while you might think of Gabrieli or Sun Ra or the Dutch saxophonist Willem Breuker and his Kollektief when I say that, I will give you another example: At the Jazzinstitut we organize regular concerts in a performance space underneath the archive, an old barrel vault, an open-brick cellar like out of a movie, cozy, with warm earthy colors and a wonderful atmosphere. At one point, during a concert with highly complex music, I realized how the space around me was able to help me find structure within the music, as well: Should you get lost – and that happens –, the order of the bricks in the barrel vault can help to find your way back into the spontaneous structures of the music, much easier than, to use the other extreme, a dark concert hall with black curtains all around you, for instance. 

Heinz Sauer and Uwe Oberg at the Jazzinstitut’s concert space (photo: Frank Schindelbeck)

That other extreme, if you will, was quite custom in Germany in the 1970s (and elsewhere as well): Small concert halls with black walls and curtains and spots right on the music. The idea was to focus everything, the light, the ear, the audience’s concentration, directly on the music itself, no distraction whatsoever. That can be quite an experience, and I have enjoyed lots of concerts in halls like this, mostly small ensembles, chamber-music like settings, contemporary or experimental music. Oftentimes the idea of focusing by making the space disappear visually worked, but there were also times when I wished for distraction. Apart from everything else a concert venue, after all, is always a social space as well, in which the music happens between people, between the musicians, between them and their audience. I want to see the community I share the music with, I want to feel the atmosphere of the place completely, hear it, see it, feel it, smell it. While it sometimes can be quite nice to focus, to be forced to limit myself to just selected senses makes me not necessarily appreciate the performance in its whole glory. 

There is a reason, after all, why there is music of which one claims that it is better to hear it in live performance than just on a recording. It’s not just the sound aspect, but it is exactly this experience of space, of being included in the musical communication, of belonging, of being part of the creation of a musical process.

Bessunger Kavaliershaus, 1872 (Ernst August Schnittspahn)

The cellar underneath the Jazzinstitut, by the way, was not built for concerts. It was built around 1720 as a cold storage room for deer and small game. No architect thought about the acoustic qualities of it. And even when it was restored for our use as a concert space, it was pure luck that the architect involved decided not to whitewash or polish the walls which would have changed the resonance of the room. Sometimes, then, the acoustics and the atmosphere of a concert space are pure luck, and have nothing to do with architecture whatsoever. 

The Village Vanguard is a case in point. It did not start as the world’s best acoustic space for jazz; that was only discovered much later. 

Village Vanguard, view to stage

Let me have a very short look at the Vanguard, because it is such an „ideal space“: From a musicians‘ perspective the Vanguard lives mostly through its aura. That special atmosphere which you feel in it is partly based on the room itself, its design, the setting of the tables, the view of the stage, the acoustic qualities, the perception of intimacy. Sound engineers are mesmerized by the sound of the place which they like to define as „dead“ or „dry“, having no real „room sound“ of itself. However, this sound quality lets the musicians hear each other without a big monitoring setup, which again helps musical communication and creativity on stage. Finally, the Vanguard is also a spot where the musicians on stage will never know who might be in the audience – fellow musicians, journalists, or influential people from the music industry. [–> community]

The second perspective is that of the audience. If you come to the Village Vanguard for the first time you might be disappointed by its size which is so much smaller than its public image. Once the music starts you will realize that the Vanguard has one of the most extraordinary room acoustics in the world, that the musical balance seems so natural as you’ve rarely heard before. No matter where you sit in the club, the music seems to engulf you, be all around you. Whether it’s an all-acoustic set, whether the instruments are slightly amplified or whether it’s Monday night and the Vanguard Orchestra is blowing up a storm, huddled together on the small stage, the piano extended into the audience: No stereo can replicate the feeling of sitting in front of that stage at the Village Vanguard, that all-around experience in which you seem to be in the middle of the sound, seeing, hearing, smelling, and literally being part of the musical creation. 

If you’ve been there a couple of times, you will already be making up history for yourself – because in your mind you will recall all of the other concerts you’ve heard there. From now on, your personal narrative will be mixed with the club’s main narrative and benefit its status as a jazz legend.

Lorraine Gordon, owner of the Village Vanguard (photo: John Abbott)

The promoter’s perspective is a different one. After all, for any promoter the club is a business: They must be able to pay the rent, pay their staff, pay the suppliers, pay the musicians, and make a surplus. The Village Vanguard is a business, like an old-fashioned neighborhood store offering goods that the public likes, regularly trying out something new but never straining its audience’s patience. Or as Lorraine Gordon says, „Look, I have to keep finding new talent, but I’m not the only club in town. Sometimes I say, ‚Go play somewhere else, let them break you in. I’ll keep listening, and, when I hear that you’re ready, you can come here.’“ Lorraine and Max Gordon both let in musicians for free if the club was not sold out, thus supporting a sense of musicians‘ community, enabling meeting, communication, or even eventual musical exchange.

The Vanguard has grown over many years to what it is today. It has become a model by longevity, by not really having changed and yet feeling fresh upon each visit. That actually might be one of its secrets: that you hear new music there, but appreciate the old surroundings reminding you both of the roots and the long way the music has gone and has to go. If you think of it in architectural terms, the Vanguard is what might qualify as „found architecture“ in that triad I introduced at the beginning, of planned, found and imagined architecture.

The Stone, New York

In a paper which I gave at the last Darmstadt Jazzforum conference I have looked at different venues and how they influence both how jazz is being perceived and what function they have in defining a specific community. I looked at the Vanguard as the prototype of all jazz clubs, at Jazz at Lincoln Center and the attempt to re-define what jazz means in the 21st century, at the Stone (the old Stone, that is) and the need for open spaces to develop a future in improvised music, at SFJazz in San Francisco, at the BIMhuis in Amsterdam, at the Stadtgarten in Cologne and the plans for a House of Jazz in Berlin. Most of these venues are more than just „found objects“, existing halls adapted to the use by jazz musicians. Many have been planned as new „ideal spaces“, a bit like the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg and other classical temples. They are statements beyond the music, and here, architecture plays an important role, because the architecture needs to fit the music, yet it has also the chance to brand the music’s role in whatever city, country or community the venue is situated in. 

Jason Moran: Staged. Three Deuces (2015, Luring Augustine)

At the end of that Darmstadt paper which goes into details about different approaches towards the idea of a jazz venue, I shortly focused on the installation produced by Jason Moran in 2015 for the Venice Biennale, based upon the small space of the historic Three Deuces on 52nd Street and upon the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. While performances were possible (and done) in both, the installations mainly tried to capture the iconic memory of the places. Moran sees the backdrop of his music as part of the performance, arguing, „[Duke Ellington] had the tuxedo-bedecked band. He had ornate music stands, a beautiful curtain backdrop, and would come out with a dozen or more dancers. None of that was arbitrary. That’s what we’re working on now, thinking about our presentation. Performances where, elaborate framing or not, nothing in our presentation is ever arbitrary.“ When you stood in front of Moran’s installations while there was no live music you heard the speakers at the Savoy mixing „clanking sounds layered with recordings made by folk music collector Alan Lomax“, while the Steinway Spirio placed on the stage of the Three Deuces self-played a twelve-minute cycle composed by Moran. It’s an eerie feeling standing between these two stages, the sounds of which intertwine, iconic memory and personal memory of similar places mixing, and it all being part of a museum experience of sorts. It felt like filtering the iconic element out of the memory of a venue, making one realize how much that personal experience of space, sound and memory makes us react to the music, no matter where and when we hear it.

I started by pointing out how Darmstadt, destroyed during the war, needed to rebuild both in a literal sense, by providing space for people to live in, but also in the artistic field, providing spaces to think in, to creatively produce in, to debate about the past, the present and most of all the future. We in the arts are in need for such spaces. Spaces can be provided by politicians who support funding structures, by a network of philanthropy, by universities and other institutions that participate in the cultural discourse. As always, architects will provide the walls, however the space needs to be filled by the people, by artists and audiences alike; it will only re-sound if musicians adopt it for their musical projects. And there, we learn from some of the examples I listed, it’s a mix of the acoustics of a room with the atmosphere, with history and with a community that calls this room home, no matter how ideal it „really“ is.

Thank you very much!


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