Travelin' Man

Peter Kowald, 1944-2002

During our WKCR encounter last September, Kowald spoke frankly about the no-holds-barred milieu that framed his formative years. "The mood was 'OK, we can change the world tomorrow morning; there is a movement, we are not alone,' " he said. "Then you take a saxophone or bass, and do what you want—don't worry what the teachers told you. I learned bass autodidactically until I was 26. We played in Berlin, and Rudi Dutschke, this famous student revolutionary, was in the second row. Grand times. I am happy I was in my twenties when I grew up in this climate, and that we always knew our enemies."

Like most German radicals born in the aftermath of World War II, Brotzman and Kowald came from educated, middle-class families in deep denial about the recent Nazi past. Brotzman remembers that Kowald's father had flown in the Luftwaffe and was an educator of the deaf, and that his mother was a housewife.

"Peter's mother never forgave me for leading her son on the wrong path," Brotzman says. "But after the war we never got answers for the question 'Why did you do that?' We had to look for our own answers and raise our own questions. We in Germany had problems with our fathers' generation, and that's why our rebellion was so strong and why our early music was such violent stuff, much more violent than in other European countries."

Spurred by solitary investigations, encouraging encounters with passing-through expats like Steve Lacy and Don Cherry, and a few months on the road with Carla Bley, the young firebrands deployed American out jazz as a symbolic weapon, in Kowald's words, to kill their fathers. Then they tried to kill the stepfathers, who proved to be unconquerable.

"Growing up in the '40s and '50s, it was very difficult to sing a German song, because it always carried this smell of fascism," Kowald said. "I saw that blues musicians and Jewish musicians related to their own tradition positively. My Greek wife loved her songs. But I never used my own culture in my music. I was always interested in what the other cultures had to say, and I took it all from there. When we started to improvise, our stuff clearly came from jazz. But later we decided to do it the European way—not play classical European music, but also not copy American jazz. Of course, looking back, I have to say we took a lot from saxophonists Albert Ayler and Pharaoh Sanders, and bass players like Henry Grimes, Gary Peacock, and Reggie Workman."

Lacking the virtuosity of early influences like Barre Phillips, Barry Guy, and Maarten Altena, or the force-of-nature blues anima of Fred Hopkins and Parker, Kowald functioned as a self-described chameleon, as comfortable playing in blood-and-guts trios with Charles Gayle and Rashied Ali or Floros Floridis and Gunter "Baby" Sommer as conducting extemporaneous musical dialogues with Tuvan vocalist Sainkho Namtchylak, body artist Ellen Z, or dancers Kazuo Ohno, Min Tanaka, and Jean Sasportes. His time wasn't great, and he focused more on process than content. Nor was his vocabulary cliché-free; as he perfected his own novel techniques—like detuning his E-string and chanting low, guttural tones over long drones in the Mongolian manner, or sticking the bow in the strings and rocking it to elicit seesaw overtones—he tended to use them regardless of context.

Somehow Kowald made his collaborations work. "Peter was looking to be a universal world musician," Parker says. "He had what I call the X-factor, an ability to infuse the tradition of jazz bass in his playing and personalize it. He wasn't coming out of jazz, so to speak, but he could play in all the styles, and added his idea of sound to the bands he played with. He always talked about wanting to play the blues, and I'd tell him, 'You don't have to be bothered with that; you are who you are, and whatever blues is there, it's there.' There was restlessness about him, and it seemed on all his journeys he was searching for something. I don't know exactly what."

There was something archetypally German about Kowald's wanderlust. He was a nomad, a road warrior, a wanderer between the worlds—he hit the road not to escape his contradictions, but to confront them. "Peter was very social," says Morris. "He wasn't afraid to talk to anybody. If you said, 'Hey, Peter, let's go to Morocco and walk to South Africa,' he'd say, 'Let's do it.' The adventures and the information he could get were right in line with his searching. Just to be on the way someplace satisfied him deeply. He could see that this music belongs everywhere."

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