Peter Brötzmann, 82, dies; His thunderous saxophone shook jazz traditions
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Peter Brötzmann, 82, dies; His thunderous saxophone shook jazz traditions
Peter Brötzmann performs in New York, June 6, 2011. Brötzmann, an avant-garde saxophonist whose ferocious playing and uncompromising independence made him one of Europe’s most influential free-jazz musicians, died on June 22 at his home in Wuppertal, Germany. He was 82. (Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times)

by Mike Rubin

NEW YORK, NY.- Peter Brötzmann, an avant-garde saxophonist whose ferocious playing and uncompromising independence made him one of Europe’s most influential free-jazz musicians, died June 22 at his home in Wuppertal, Germany. He was 82.

His death was confirmed by Michael Ehlers, director of Eremite Records, who served as Brötzmann’s longtime North American tour manager and business partner.

No cause was given, but Brötzmann had suffered from respiratory issues for the past decade. A self-taught musician — best known for his tenor saxophone work, he also played various clarinets and the tarogato, a Hungarian woodwind instrument — he said that his practice of pushing too much air through his horn might have caused his health problems, which he likened to the lung damage suffered by glassblowers.

“I wanted to sound like four tenor saxophonists,” he told British music magazine The Wire in 2012. “That’s what I’m still chasing.”

The force of Brötzmann’s abrasive squall felt tectonic. “I can’t think of anyone that played with more power than Peter,” British saxophonist Evan Parker, who appeared on several of Brötzmann’s early records, said in a phone interview. “I don’t think it can be done, to get more out of a saxophone than that. Sometimes his nose would bleed because he was blowing so hard. He gave everything.”

Brötzmann described his style as a means of exorcising demons — particularly those of Germany’s crimes against humanity in World War II.

“Younger people don’t understand, but what has happened to us in Germany is a kind of trauma of our generation,” he told The Wire. “There is a great shame there and a terrible kind of trauma. And that’s why maybe the German way of playing this kind of music sounds always a bit different than the music from the other parts of Europe, at least. It’s always more a kind of scream. More brutal, more aggressive.”

Hans Peter Hermann Brötzmann was born on March 6, 1941, in Remscheid, an industrial city in western Germany. The city was almost destroyed by Allied bombardment in 1943, and Brötzmann’s earliest memory was of running through the streets holding his mother’s hand to escape the firestorm.

His father, Johannes, a tax officer, had been conscripted into the Nazi army. Captured by the Russians on the Eastern Front, he didn’t return until 1948, after escaping from a POW camp in Siberia. Brötzmann grew up in Remscheid with his family — his father, his mother, Frida (Schröder) Brötzmann, and his sister Mariane — but moved to Wuppertal for school and remained there the rest of his life.

He studied graphic design and visual art in the late 1950s at the School of Applied Arts in Wuppertal, where he created fonts: striking, blocky alphabets that he later used on the covers of many of his albums. He had his first gallery show in 1959 and participated in early performances staged by the experimental, interdisciplinary art movement Fluxus. In 1963, he collaborated on the first major exhibition by Nam June Paik, a Korean American artist who would become known for his video work, but who at that point was building musically oriented installations and interactive sculptural objects.

Brötzmann continued making artwork prolifically even as music assumed a place of priority in his life.

“From the very start, he didn’t love the art-world milieu,” said John Corbett, co-owner of the Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery in Chicago, who began curating exhibitions of Brötzmann’s artwork in 2003. “But he continued privately making visual art. He was interested in beauty, but it had to be accompanied by a certain kind of honesty and forthrightness.

“He really could not deal with people who were false, with art that was false, and with music that he felt was false,” Corbett added. “He was quite intolerant of all those things.”

In 1967, Brötzmann released his first album as a bandleader on his own label, BRÖ. If its title, “For Adolphe Sax,” read like a provocation aimed at the 19th-century inventor of the saxophone, then his next BRÖ album, “Machine Gun,” released in 1968 and credited to the Peter Brötzmann Octet, announced all-out war on everything that had come before.

“Machine Gun” was a nickname trumpeter Don Cherry had given him, as well as a reference to the carnage of the war in Vietnam. A milestone of collective improvisation, the album boasted three tenor saxophonists who would become titans of European free music: Parker, Willem Breuker of the Netherlands and Brötzmann.

Brötzmann’s violently expressive sounds, combined with confrontational album titles such as “Nipples” (1969) and “Balls” (1970), “was something to get used to,” Parker said. “It wasn’t the gentle school of English ‘after you, sir’ kind of improvising.”

In 1969, Brötzmann co-founded a label, FMP (the initials stood for “free music production”), for which his poster and album designs helped create a distinctive visual aesthetic. His trio with Dutch drummer Han Bennink and Belgian pianist Fred Van Hove — both veterans of “Machine Gun” — lasted a dozen years before Van Hove, struggling to be heard above the din, departed; Brötzmann and Bennink continued collaborating as a duo.

But Brötzmann’s reputation was largely confined to Europe until the mid-1980s, when he joined with guitarist Sonny Sharrock, bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson to form Last Exit, a group whose amplified cacophony flirted with heavy metal and raised his profile in North America.

Beginning in the late 1990s, reissues on Corbett’s label Unheard Music Series made Brötzmann’s early music readily available to a new generation of listeners, while collaborations with younger musicians such as Chicago Tentet (which featured saxophonist and composer Ken Vandermark) established him as a revered figure in that city.

Throughout, Brötzmann toured relentlessly, earning the nickname Soldier of the Road, which was later the title of a 2011 documentary about him.

He almost never turned down a booking invitation, regardless of the money involved or the distance to be traveled; he even performed in Beirut in 2005 during the chaotic aftermath of the Cedar Revolution. That concert, like most of his travels, resulted in yet another album.

By Ehlers’ count, Brötzmann appeared on more than 350 records, including 180 as leader or co-leader.

Into his 70s, Brötzmann was traveling in minivans across North America with Ehlers, playing at theaters, clubs, do-it-yourself art spaces, community centers and occasionally even squats. He paid his audience back in kind, Ehlers said, through “the little gesture of playing every concert until he almost collapsed from the effort.”

In recent years, he toured in a duo with pedal steel guitarist Heather Leigh and played frequently with bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake, whom he considered his favorite rhythm section.

“Peter had his own relationship with sound,” William Parker said in a phone interview, “and every time he played, he tried to, as we call it, go to the moon.”

Brötzmann married Krista Bolland in 1962. They eventually separated, but remained close. She died in 2006.

Brötzmann is survived by a son, Caspar, a free-form rock guitarist with whom he recorded “Last Home,” a 1990 album of incendiary duets; a daughter, Wendela Brötzmann; and a grandson. His sister died before him.

Brötzmann’s restless creativity sometimes found unlikely admirers. In a 2001 interview with Oxford American magazine, former President Bill Clinton was asked to name a musician readers would be surprised he listened to.

His response: “Brötzmann, the tenor sax player, one of the greatest alive.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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