I lead the life of a traveler who goes to play for the people, opens his hand, gets some money, comes back home, and goes to the next one. —Peter Kowald, September 12, 2002
In the mid ’90s, the late bassist Peter Kowald—a man Butch Morris says “could drive for 24 hours and only stop for gas”—spent a full year at home in Wuppertal, Germany. His intention, Morris speculates, was “to lock in on who the Kowald was in his body.” He kept his car parked and rode only his bicycle. At his house, he presented concerts with world-class improvisers, collaborated with various Pina Bausch dancers, held workshops with local amateurs, and made forays into spontaneous form-sculpting with a “conduction” ensemble. Befitting an abiding passion for all things Hellenic, he fell in love with and married a Greek artist. Then he returned to the road and broke up with his wife. He flew to New York in 2000, bought a 1968 Caprice station wagon, and, accompanied by French filmmaker Laurence Jouvert and a small crew, spent 10 weeks circumnavigating the United States in a succession of self-booked one-nighters.
Not long after they returned, Jouvert made the documentary Off the Road, an account of Kowald’s musical and conversational encounters in more than a dozen cities across America and various points along the highway. Meanwhile, Kowald, who had established himself as an important figure in the New York improv scene through his frequent visits over two decades, purchased a Harlem pied-à-terre to solidify his base.
The final week of this robust 58-year-old’s life was entirely characteristic. On Thursday, September 12, 2002, a few hours after joining me on WKCR to publicize an upcoming series of New York events, he flew overnight coach to Italy for a pair of weekend concerts. He returned to New York on Monday. On Tuesday, he made a recording session and worked at Triad with saxophonist Assif Tsahar and drummer Hamid Drake. The next night he worked downtown with saxophonist Blaise Siwula and guitarist Dom Minasi. On Friday he would play at B.T.M. in Williamsburg with trombonist Masahiko Kono, guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi, and drummer Tatsuya Nakatani. He was scheduled to perform on Sunday at CBGB Lounge in trio with White Panther blues poet John Sinclair and Loisada saxophonist Daniel Carter, and then with Last Global Village, an ensemble comprising three Chinese flutists, Korean cellist Okkyung Lee, vocalist Lenora Conquest, and percussionist Ron McBee.
After the gig at B.T.M. Kowald began to feel unwell. On the ride home, he asked Kono to drop him off at the East Village apartment of bassist William Parker and dancer Patricia Nicholson. There he expired, of a massive heart attack.
Had Kowald been an actor, director Rainer Fassbinder might have cast him to play proletarian everyman Franz Biberkopf in his epic film Berlin Alexanderplatz. Burly and attractive, with close-cropped hair, Kowald moved with the deliberation of a butoh dancer and parsed his words with precision honed during youthful work as a scholar of ancient languages and translator of Greek poetry into modern German. He was a utopian, a pragmatic activist, a skilled organizer who learned the art of institution-building in the fractious milieu of radical ’60s German culture.
At last year’s “Vision Festival,” Kowald worked the food stand, constructing $2 cheese sandwiches with the meticulousness of a master sushi chef. We can trace the existence of this annual event to his friendship with Parker, which began with a chance sidewalk encounter in 1981. Within a year, Kowald brought Parker to Berlin to play with heavyweight European free improvisers in concerts organized by FMP, the do-it-yourself grassroots German music collective co-founded by his old friend Peter Brotzman, to which Kowald had contributed mightily for more than a decade. In 1984 he received a government grant to live in New York for six months. He brought with him a 50,000-mark stipend from the millionaire painter A.R. Penck, with a mandate to make something happen.
Acutely aware that New York’s outcat community would mistrust his motives, Kowald reached out to Parker as a liaison. They held meetings to plan the logistics of the first “Sound Unity Festival,”settling on the FMP payment policy of $100 per musician, including bandleaders. In 1988, again using Penck’s money, Sound Unity spent $1,000 to rent the Knitting Factory for a week, and played to a packed house every night. This did not escape the notice of proprietor Michael Dorf, who established the “Knitting Factory Festival” the following year. In response, Patricia Nicholson launched the Improvisers Collective, which in 1996 evolved into the “Vision Festival.”
“Peter would stop by a place that an American musician would walk past 20 times, and get something started just by being personable,” Parker says. “Especially black musicians, it seems you’re fighting all the time. You get worn out. You can lose your perspective if you’re not on top of things. But Peter was always probing and looking for signs of life wherever he went.”
Wuppertal is an industrial city of 350,000 in the Rhine basin, the home of the Pina Bausch Tanztheater and the birthplace of Engels and German Communism. During Kowald’s formative years, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s electronic studio was a half-hour’s train ride away in Cologne, while Wuppertal’s own Galerie Parnass presented Nam June Paik’s first one-man exhibition and new work from Joseph Beuys. Saxophonist Peter Brotzman, who had come to Wuppertal to attend the local art school in 1959, worked as Paik’s assistant, and accompanied him on Fluxus happenings in southwest Germany and the Benelux countries. Brotzman urged Kowald, a teenage tubist, to learn the bass, preaching Paik’s liberating dictum: “The space is completely open, you can use any material, any ideas—everything is possible.” They began to play on a nightly basis in Brotzman’s basement studio.
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.”