By Mike Zwerin
24 February 2003In the lively Welling café near the
Concertgebouw auditorium, where his uncle Willem was once principal
conductor, Misha Mengelberg's English is coming with difficulty.
Talking about himself, he has trouble keeping a straight face.
was 13 soon after World War II when he first went to hear Duke
Ellington at the Concertgebouw. He vividly remembers watching the
leader arrive on stage alone after the intermission and begin to
improvise a piano solo. Ellington was known to cast his orchestra with
the musicians themselves in mind, more than the instruments they
played. Along with each player having his own unique sound, a certain
amount of quirkiness was part of the gig. They were notorious for
being late. Without undue haste and with no apparent pre-determined
order, the musicians wandered on stage and joined in with their leader
one by one until the entire orchestra was playing. It had a profound
effect on him.
Mengelberg is described arriving on stage by
Kevin Whitehead in his book New Dutch Swing: "Stooped
pot-bellied buttless bald on top wearing a moth-eaten sweater and old
droopy jeans[He] sets down his drinks on the ledge above the piano
keyboard, places his cigarette on a saucer, pulls his sweater over his
head and drapes it casually on the strings. Looks at it a moment and
then drapes it on a slightly different section of the strings. Sits
down and inventories a couple of octaves to hear what the sweater's
Both Mengelberg's father Karel and uncle
Willem were conductors who interpreted other people's compositions. "Playing
other people's music is not interesting" for Misha. Willem
specialized in Brahms, and "my father was always upstairs working
on a production of somebody else's operetta. I told him I thought he
could do better than that. I hate Franz Lehar."
Kiev, Ukraine, in 1935, he emigrated with his Roman Catholic family to
Holland at the age of three. "My mother had a bad feeling,"
he recalls. "She used to say, 'Stalin is talking about better to
kill 10,000 Ukranians too many than one too few.'" He wrote his
first piano composition at the age of four. A few years after
graduating from the Royal Conservatory of music in The Hague, he
recorded in Hilversum with Eric Dolphy on the legendary saxophonist's
historic "Last Date." The drummer was Han Bennink. Bennink
is tall and straight and Mengelberg is short and bent and now, some 40
years later, this dynamic duo continues to make audiences smile
playing Laurel and Hardy together.
They gave birth to Dutch
improvised musical theater, which has turned into a prime cultural
export. Touring the world, they have been described as: "Those
zany, wacky Dutchmen."
Mengelberg and the saxophonist Willem Breuker founded the Instant
Composers Pool (ICP), an improvising collective and record company
that calls itself "the world's longest running musician-owned
label." (Breuker eventually broke away to form his successful "Kollektief.")
ICP's first stage production was "The Life of Wolfgang Amadeus
Mozart," with Mengelberg in the title role.
It is odd
to hear a scholar who teaches conservatory-level counterpoint say: "I
don't think Bach wrote good fugues. I was not very fond of Bach until
I heard Glenn Gould. Gould made it sound like each voice had a very
good reason to be there. Without Gould, I feel choked. I get out of
breath with Bach. There is no breath in that music."
a young musician in search of more breath, hearing Monk for the first
time was a "devastating experience." No other pianist can
evoke the spirit of Thelonious Monk as faithfully as Misha Mengelberg,
who says: "Monk made statues with his music." Mengelberg
made statues of his own. "I never copy," he says.
been educated in the 12-tone music of Berg and Schoenberg, Mengelberg
had "no fear of dissonance. I thought 'there is not enough
dissonance in jazz. I am going to introduce some more.' Cecil Taylor
was also doing that. When I first heard him doing his act, I thought:
'Oh, he's copying me.' I don't object to that."
keyboard style can be described as being in a ballpark between Taylor,
Monk, Gould and John Cage. "Sometimes there is no swing anywhere
in my music," Mengleberg says, happy about it: "Even when I
do swing, I'm not particularly proud of it. There was a time in the
'50s when I wanted to swing. 'Please, God, send me some swing.' But
God never did such a thing. So I thought, I'm Dutch, not American,
after all. I'm not even going to try anymore. And, you know what? Not
trying is the best way to learn how to swing. It's a simple trick."
After appearing in the Parisian suburb of
Noisy-le-Sec during the "Banlieues Blues" festival on March
7th, ICP leaves for its fourth tour of North America, from Albuquerque
7 March 2003 Paris (Banlieues Bleues)
March Albuquerque (Outpost)
19 March Seattle (Earshot)
March Vancouver (Coastal Jazz & Blues)
22 March Edmonton
24 March New York (Tonic)
25 March New York (
Han & Misha & Dave Douglas : Jazz Standard)
Chicago (Empty Bottle : duos/trios)
27 March Chicago (Hot House)
March Toronto (St. George the Martyr)
29 March Ann Arbor
(Kerrytown Concert House)
31 March Ottawa/Sweetman
Montreal (Casa del Popolo)
2 April Halifax (Jazz East)
April Burlington (Flynn Theater)
10 April Delft / Smør Jazz
April Copenhagen / Jazz House
12 April Bergen / Vossa Jazz
Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald
Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European
correspondent for The Village Voice. Zwerin is currently writing a
book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press
and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.