Peter Materna has a multifold presence in the German jazz scene: He is not only a performing saxophonist but also the founder, creative director and managing director of the Jazzfest Bonn. Since its founding in 2010, the festival has become a central part of cultural life in Bonn, a northwestern city on the Rhine more famous for being Beethoven’s birthplace. But Jazzfest’s top-notch musical programming with performances by national and international stars has put Bonn on the jazz map.
DW: Mr. Materna, how did you come up with the idea of starting a jazz festival in Bonn, of all places? In the city of Beethoven?
Materna: For my part, I never had planned to run a festival. The idea came about in 2002 after a meeting with the new head of the culture department for the city of Bonn. He knew me as a musician and as we were talking about Bonn’s cultural scene, he asked me what else I could imagine alongside the city’s focus on classical music. Naturally, the idea arose from there quite quickly.
Wasn’t it a risk to open a jazz music festival?
All the signs at the time were very negative, in part because we were in the middle of the financial crisis and there was no money for culture. Cuts were being made everywhere. And then in 2008, when I took the first steps towards realizing the concept, I had the feeling that it could only work anyway if we had support from private individuals. So to answer your question, yes, it was totally crazy, but I did it.
That means you are either a hopeless optimist or jazz has a particularly strong place in your heart.
Jazz definitely has a special place in my heart, and I am also an optimist, since what we do in jazz brings optimism with it. The skills that we musicians use every day are precisely the ones demanded by society. That means if you are not a strong optimist, you have already lost.
What is it about jazz in particular that grabs you?
Jazz has many qualities that cannot be found in other types of music and that do a good job reflecting all the craziness going on in the world at this particular moment in time. Jazz demands a lot from the performers and also from the listeners. You have to dive in deep and push yourself. But we can also simply enjoy it, close our eyes and get lost in the cinematic world of our minds, just like we do when reading. When you read a gripping book, you are suddenly transported to another world. These qualities are also found in jazz, because its musical developments are often surprising. You don’t find that in many art forms any more.
The Quasthoff Quartett will be performing at the ceremonial opening on May 16. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will attend.
You place a large emphasis on double concerts in which young, up-and-coming musicians play with established jazz greats.
The idea is to combine the unknown with the famous, but the unknown should have at least the same level of quality. It’s not an easy thing to find, but it’s getting easier because we have an exploding pool of young talent.
Every year I have around 10,000 applications, giving me an abundance of resources to draw from, and many of them are impressive at the highest levels. This is something that also encourages me to stick with this concept, because the surprising moments that come from unknown artists are the most beautiful.
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What has changed for you as a festival organizer? Has it become easier to attract international stars?
It’s become very easy to communicate with stars’ managers. They take us seriously. It used to be different. If you are a totally new festival, you may not even get a response sometimes when you approach the jazz scene.
Who goes to Jazzfest?
We’ve done surveys over the years and found out that a lot of our audience, sometimes up to 50%, was going to a jazz concert for the first time. And we also found out that roughly half the audience had only listened to classical music before. We are trying to give people a new quality through jazz music.
When you look back over the past 10 years, what concerts have been particularly memorable?
There have been many, many very unique moments and that makes all the effort worth it, because you can share these with others. Sitting in the audience with 500 other people listening to Django Bates with his trio was phenomenal. Or Simone Zanchini, a virtuoso accordion player who almost nobody knows, entranced the audience with her solo — that was really very moving. And then naturally there was an unbelievable concert with Brad Mehldau and his trio in the opera house. Unforgettable moments, and there are just so many of them.
The 10th edition of Jazzfest runs from May 17-31 and features 25 unique concerts, including a free outdoor concert on the 18th. DW is a festival media partner and will be recording six concerts for the podcast series “Jazz live!”