Till Brönner Interview: "I had been swimming against the tide for a long time"
Updated: Dec 8, 2022
Till Brönner is undoubtedly one of the best-known and most successful jazz musicians in Germany. The list of legendary musicians he has worked with over the course of his career, which has now spanned more than three decades, is as impressive as it is diverse: He has played with jazz greats like Dave Brubeck and Ray Brown, he has produced albums for Hildegard Knef and Thomas Quasthoff - and he has also dabbled in the pop world time and again. Brönner never had much sympathy for the jazz police, which was definitely mutual. His music was too commercial, too cuddly, critics accused him again and again. Brönner (currently on Christmas tour, tour dates see below) now sees it calmly.
In the hyperlocrian.com interview with Markus Brandstetter, Till Brönner talks about his debut album, jazz, his work with Dave Brubeck, Ray Brown and Hildegard Knef, the jazz police and life in Los Angeles.
Till Brönner: The Interview
Till Brönner, in February 2023 it will be 29 years since you released your debut album "Generations of Jazz." It featured, among others, the legendary double bassist Ray Brown. How do you remember that time, with what attitude did you approach this project?
At that time I had already been employed for one or two years at the RIAS in Berlin with the orchestra there - and had found a comrade-in-arms who was also in the band and had the same dream as I did: namely, to record a record with Ray Brown and Jeff Hamilton. So we pursued this idea together. From today's point of view, it has been a unique project of the heart for me. On the one hand, because a debut album is undoubtedly important, of course, but on the other hand, because it was all very uncompromising. I didn't care if the record sold in the end or not. I knew: I simply want and have to do something like that!
It's not uncommon for projects like that to pay off in the end in one way or another and be very worthwhile. In my case, it was definitely worth it. The press was also very different back then. The jazz press at that time kept a wary eye on it and really didn't always comment favorably on the fact that a young musician wasn't trying to make avant-garde music, but was devoting himself to a more traditional project. That's what really got my career going. In the end, people just wanted to criticize, but frankly, it all only benefited me.
Things went uphill quickly for your career. The German Record Prize followed immediately after your debut, and you worked with countless internationally renowned musicians. Did you have a kind of master plan for your career early on - or did you let things come to you?
I wanted to be a jazz trumpet player, I didn't think at all about whether I would be able to make a living from it or not. In retrospect, I would have wished that maybe one or two people had explained that to me a bit. But since I was sitting in a radio big band at the age of 20, this topic seemed to be checked off for me. In principle, I had escaped the bitter failure of an economic nature, so to speak - and of course I didn't have it in mind at all that eight years later I might have the feeling that I wanted to leave there again voluntarily. That after eight years, these structures in a permanent environment would also prevent me from doing what I wanted to do. Then it was a step that wasn't easy, but nevertheless very important for me: to say that I was giving up the security of a salaried position and was going to play around in the independent scene. But in the end it was worth it.
You have achieved something that almost no one has done: you are one of the few well-known jazz musicians in Germany who are also known far outside the jazz scene. Klaus Doldinger and you come to mind, otherwise that's actually not something common in the German-speaking world.
No, not really, that's true. That certainly has to do with one or two factors that I have carved out for myself, but on the other hand there are also things that have benefited me. It's always a combination of luck, diligence and finding the right moment at the end of the day. In the 1990s, I was invited two or three times to Roger Willemsen's show, which was exactly the target audience at the time. All of a sudden, quite a few people in and outside the scene knew who Till Brönner was. Today, all these broadcasts no longer exist. So I was privileged to be in the right place at the right time with what I had to say.
You were never afraid of an intersection with pop.
Yes, I think you can say that. Ultimately, though, it's the case that I myself still attribute a large part of my personality to the majority. In other words, what I do on record is 100% what I like, but also what other people like. This intersection has always interested and driven me personally very much.
You have also been criticized time and again - did that bother you or did you not care?
At the very beginning, of course, it hurt and bothered me - because I wasn't doing anything other than simply fulfilling my childhood dream. In retrospect, I find it funny that even during my childhood, I really didn't open doors with my classmates with my taste in jazz and, above all, I had the feeling that I had been swimming against the tide for a long time.
When I came out with my first record, I realized that in this hardcore jazz scene it was seen with completely different eyes. And that although I had to fight against my generation comrades for a long time, with this music I was still the commercial guy in the eyes of these niche experts. At the beginning I was concerned about that, because there were also some very unfair and not very well-founded contributions. At some point, however, it became indifferent to me and until today I'm not really interested in how someone finds it. Simply because I have noticed that I myself am my biggest critic at the end of the day. I know exactly when something worked and when something wasn't so good.
What was it actually like to work with Dave Brubeck?
You just noticed with Dave Brubeck what a deep historical understanding he had - and that he faced this great success he enjoyed with Take Five - also through his saxophonist Paul Desmond - with very great humility. It was just a very positive guy. When you see the passages in Ken Burns' great documentary where Dave Brubeck, as a white jazz musician, talks about the problem of racial discrimination: it really goes to the heart. Brubeck was one of the great pioneers and ultimately mediators of this music, not least between black and white.
Till Brönner: I learned an incredible amount from Ray Brown.
Were there any other collaborations that had a particular impact on you or that you remember most fondly?
I also learned an incredible amount from Ray Brown. Working with him was a very special experience - simply because he came into the studio with so much history on his heels, and alongside Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald or Quincy Jones, he simply ate up the whole life and also the business side of being a musician. The collaboration with Hildegard Knef was also one that has accompanied me to this day, both artistically and as a person.
You then went to America relatively soon - what were your first experiences as a musician in the USA?
The basic understanding of jazz is of course different there. Simply because a city like New York has this music in its DNA, so to speak. But it's also important to remember that jazz, as an American art form, only really gained recognition and success in Europe. That is, in the period when artists like Miles Davis or John Coltrane traveled to Europe, in the period when Norman Granz developed "Jazz and the Philharmonic" and suddenly it was being played in the big concert halls. That had quite an effect on the musicians. Quite a few of them stayed in Paris because they felt that they were met much more informally. That is not the case in America to this day. It's like artists in their own country: people like to squint abroad. That's what happened to Jazz in America. You wouldn't believe it, but that's how it was.
You live partly in Los Angeles. What is life like for you there?
This combination of the scenic, the artistic, i.e. purely content-related, and the business side: you only have that there. Los Angeles is the Riviera of the USA. The studio scene there is filled with completely different musicians than the one in New York. In New York, it's all about playing pure jazz in a small club. The service side is still a very stable one in L.A. for jazz musicians. There's still an insane amount of musicians being hired for movies, and if they're flexible enough, they have a lot of work to do. What makes L.A. difficult is if you're not working there, so to speak, as an artist or whatever, to just settle there to live.
Los Angeles definitely has a lot of potential for you as a photographer as well.
Yes, I've had great fun there with my camera. I've photographed colleagues up and down, gone searching. You actually always find something that really looks so much more exciting and fancier than in this country.
You'll be going on a Christmas tour soon. In your opinion, has the situation normalized somewhat in terms of concerts since the pandemic?
It has not normalized at all, I really have to say that. Otherwise I would be everywhere again like before. Or maybe even a little better, because people haven't experienced concerts for a long time and there should still be a very great hunger. In fact, a large part of the scene, which has been swimming in the midfield, has found that ticket sales are very irregular and sometimes extremely decimated. I may say that we have been lucky and that things are going great on our tour. But I know colleagues who have been quite surprised.
Till Brönner - "Christmas Live" tour dates 2022:
12.12.2022 - Berlin, State Opera House
13.12.2022 - Dortmund, Concert Hall
14.12.2022 - Wiesbaden, Kurhaus
15.12.2022 - Duisburg, Mercatorhalle
16.12.2022 - Düsseldorf, Tonhalle
20.12.2022 - Hamburg, Laeiszhalle
21.12.2022 - Hanover, Kuppelsaal
22.12.2022 - Bremen, Glocke
23.12.2022 - Lübeck, MUK
Tickets are available at www.myticket.de and on the toll-free ticket hotline 040 - 23 72 400 30 as well as at all known advance booking offices.