Q&A with German-born Jazz bassist Martin Zenker - Music can be one of the languages that can combine the common aspects that any and all cultures share.

"Jazz in itself may have a more ambiguous history than other styles, because it is a product of so many social y and cultural and economically different ingredients."

Martin Zenker:

Music Emotions & Jazz Feelings

Martin Zenker was born in Munich and has been a freelance bassist since 1987. Performance credits include Jimmy Cobb, Billy Hart, James Moody, Jim Snidero, Steve Grossman, Barbara Morrison, Peter King, Don Braden and many more. Now based in Hamburg, he was Professor of Bass and Jazz History in Seoul, South Korea from 2008 to 2012.

Martin says: "Music is about emotion - it’s the music’s purpose to trigger emotions. These emotions do not always have to be good or happy, because there is a lot of beauty in sadness and longing. But these emotions have to be valuable and unfiltered - there is a misunderstanding in my opinion among certain critics and musicians, who claim, music has to have a message. I strongly disagree! Music has to have a meaning and an emotional content, but it should not be abused as a vehicle for transporting messages that could be expressed much better through other means and need an explanation, when expressed through music."

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Jazz influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

That’s a good question to start with, and I guess it goes vice versa. Jazz has influenced my travels and the other way around. In fact, my first professional engagement was in Athens, when I was 19. It was of course a great and new experience. Music can be one of the languages that can combine the common aspects that any and all cultures share. Honestly, I think in today´s world, it becomes more and more important, to fight greed, populism and capitalism with communication and love and both are vital elements in music, with the ability to join different cultural and social environments and ideally, enable them to understand and maybe even care for each other. In that regard playing music and travelling is almost sort of a mission.

What characterize your sound and music philosophy? What touched (emotionally) you from the bass?

Let me try to answer both questions at once, because they are both very personal: Music is about emotion - it’s the music’s purpose to trigger emotions. These emotions do not always have to be good or happy, because there is a lot of beauty in sadness and longing. But these emotions have to be valuable and unfiltered - there is a misunderstanding in my opinion among certain critics and musicians, who claim, music has to have a message. I strongly disagree! Music has to have a meaning and an emotional content, but it should not be abused as a vehicle for transporting messages that could be expressed much better through other means and need an explanation, when expressed through music.

"I would eliminate the moment when human beings lost control over the most valuable ingredient in music, the beat, and gave it up to machines. If I could, I would ban click tracks, metronomes and any kind of artificially created beats." (Photo: Martin Zenker)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

My first impulse is to treat every meeting as if it would be the most important of your life, because you never know… however, to be a little more down to earth: Rick Hollander, Billy Hart, James Moody, Ed Thigpen, Jimmy Cobb… these guys fought me a lot, not only about how to play music, but how to perceive music and - most importantly - how to be a decent human being. And I mainly speaking about Billy Hart and Ed Thigpen here. There was no single piece of advice that changed my life, but a combination of advices that over the years boiled down to something like this: Don’t look for shortcuts! You can cheat anybody else, but you cannot cheat yourself!

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Ha! Too many… There are two extremes, that regularly occur: The incredible feeling of completeness and satisfaction after a great gig and the incredible feeling of emptiness that can hit you after a long tour, when you know you have to start over again. My favorite musical environment these days is the band with Jesse, Paul and Minchan. We have been together for five or six years now and the moment we hit - at least for me - feels like diving into an aquarium - into a different world. It’s hard to describe, but I hope we can share it through our music. It’s just when you see that the spark flies among the musicians, whatever level… when they take off and get in the zone. It’s an incredible moment.

What do you miss most nowadays from the Jazz of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Honestly, I am not so concerned about today’s or any times fancies - nowadays. I am not a big fan of reminiscing the past or blaming shortcomings on present circumstances. All this stuff gets in your way, when you try to do your thing - and that’s what you have to do. I think we musicians never had as many opportune ivies and chances in the history of music, in fact this is true for humanity, not just music, I believe. We just need make sure, we are driven by the right motivation: Honesty, integrity, passion and love. And to cut the philosophic crap: Of course, I would give an arm and a leg to see Trane´s Quartet and Mingus in 1962. My hopes for the future: That more and more people find motivations, I just mentioned, an attractive ingredient to music, regardless whether they perform, listen or study.

"I think at a certain level, once you get to play with stronger players, the cultural differences get more and more blurry, getting overruled by music. So, I mostly refer to my experiences as an educator or my experience in music business." (Photo: Martin Zenker)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

That’s a short answer: I would eliminate the moment when human beings lost control over the most valuable ingredient in music, the beat, and gave it up to machines. If I could, I would ban click tracks, metronomes and any kind of artificially created beats.

What are the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in European and Asian scene?

I think at a certain level, once you get to play with stronger players, the cultural differences get more and more blurry, getting overruled by music. So, I mostly refer to my experiences as an educator or my experience in music business. But in general - and I hope you are not disappointed - they pretty much reflect the common stereotypes: In Europe, at least north-western part, music is often perceived on a very intellectual level, individuality, creativity is on one side and craftsmanship, ability, spirituality and fun are often out of proportion. In Asia it is craftsmanship, ability, respect/fear that sometimes tends to overshadow such values as individuality, emotion, expression, when dealing with younger generation or not yet confident players. You can make top that same equation for the US or African scene. In the US its ability, business, entertainment that tend to override emotion and honesty. But again: this view is from a very wide, general angle and it is simply the impact that each society´s cultural identity has on individuals. The same way, people have different was of behaving in traffic. It does not say anything about the individual musicians. As I mentioned before: My favorite musical setting consists of an Asian, a European living in Asia, an American living in Italy and myself, European but living in Mongolia.

What is the impact of Jazz music and culture on the racial, spiritual and socio-cultural implications?

I think there is hundreds of books written about this subject and there are hundreds more to write. The music, that thousands of styles, that have been forced into that box that is commonly known as jazz, is very ambiguous and it takes a deep look into the history of this music and its variety - and will still be short of too many definitions - to come op with even an individual answer, that you can consider right or wrong for yourself. It is kind of like finding an answer to question: What is the impact impact of language. I am not shy to try an answer, but before I do so, I´d like to state: Like language, you can use music to spread love, hate, motivation, stupidity, boredom, panic… all kinds of emotions. It depends on who is talking and on this person’s intention.

Please mind: This paragraph reflects my personal opinion - I am ready and willing to discuss it, but I am not claiming it’s the way it is: Jazz in itself may have a more ambiguous history than other styles, because it is a product of so many social y and cultural and economically different ingredients. So, it has been used for entertainment and for protest, and it was very powerful in both. Before the 40ies or the rise of Bebop, to be more precise, it gave the Afro-American community a lot of opportunities and, like in any business, there was a lot of capitalistic abuse - same was true for white Americans, except they were not suffering racism. But even in New Orleans and Chicago of the 20ies Jazz was a more unifying element. Louis Armstrong, in fact, was a perfect example, on how to balance the discrepancy in the society. The separation between ethnic groups of the US that started in the 40ies, when Jazz was not only music for entertainment anymore, and got stronger on the fringes in the 50ies and even more in the 60ies was not necessarily beneficial for the development of the music, because in certain scenes less music-related messages became the driving force behind it. Nowadays, for my taste a lot of it is a little to clean and driven by fast changing market forces, in which opportunism tends to override social relevance. But, seriously, who I am to make such a statement. My honest believe and probably most valuable answer to this question is: If you are blessed with being musician, use this gift to spread love and communication.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

In terms of attending a concert: Birdland, October 8, 1963 - John Coltrane Quartet. I have listened to this record a million times and every single time a try to imagine what it must have been like to be there. Otherwise… I am answering these questions in a comfortable train going from one European city to another, with my very valued colleagues, starting a six-week tour that will take me all over Europe, to Mongolia, South Korea and South Africa… couldn’t be happier of where I am right now!

Martin Zenker - Home

(Photo: Martin Zenker)

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