Remembering Dutch Jazz Musician Willem Breuker

Willem Breuker i i

Willem Breuker played with his ensemble, the 10-piece Willem Breuker Kollektief, for more than 30 years. Kollektief hide caption

itoggle caption Kollektief
Willem Breuker

Willem Breuker played with his ensemble, the 10-piece Willem Breuker Kollektief, for more than 30 years.

Kollektief

The classic sound of Willem Breuker's big band, Kollektief, is precise, forceful and a little jokey — like Spike Jones. I'd been thinking about Breuker, who was in a hospital and dying of cancer, during the World Cup Mania that gripped his hometown of Amsterdam a few weeks ago. The sound of swarming B-flat horns streamed out of most TVs in town, and solitary horn blasts echoed down the canals at any hour. It made me wish for the music Breuker surely would have written for vuvuzelas. Street music was one of his key inspirations — in particular, the sound of mechanized barrel organs that get wheeled through the city's open-air markets. Early on, he even wrote street music for them.

Breuker made a name for himself as a bad boy of Dutch music in the '60s, playing noisy versions of pop songs in talent contests. He soon teamed up with drummer Han Bennink and pianist Misha Mengelberg as the Instant Composers Pool. Together and separately, they helped establish European improvised music, with jazz as a key ingredient, alongside marches and other homegrown melodies. The main countries involved developed their own styles. The Germans played loud and fierce, the English quiet and cooperative, while the Dutch were the funny ones: the ones with a little ironic distance from their material, no matter how much they might respect it. Sometimes, in a Willem Breuker solo, he'd sound like a really good free-jazz saxophonist one moment, and the next he'd appear to mock free-jazz saxophonists for not knowing how to play at all.

The first time Willem Breuker and his 10-piece band toured North America in 1977, they were an instant hit: funny, energetic and recognizably European, with those echoes of barrel organs and Kurt Weill's theater music, as well as American composer Carla Bley's arrangements of revolutionary anthems. The Kollektief toured a lot after that, and was very entertaining, performing comic routines within the music. Breuker might banish seemingly incompetent musicians from the stage, in a spoof of Charles Mingus. Breuker was a self-taught composer who often wrote for the theater, and as a theater guy, he had no problems repeating a joke. I once attended a New York gig where some audience members turned hostile — we saw these gags on their last tour. But Breuker's irreverent attitude epitomized Dutch jazz for American audiences, for decades.

In 1972, pianist Louis Andriessen had asked Breuker to help collect players for a mixed jazz and classical orchestra, de Volharding. Writing for that ragged band, Andriessen began blooming into Holland's most acclaimed composer. He once said, "Willem's lousy wooden-shoe timing was very helpful in developing the musical language of Holland." Breuker's rough staccato saxophone sound carried through Andriessen's music to his disciples among downtown New York composers.

In the 1970s, Breuker also helped shape Holland's celebrated subsidy system, where jazz improvisers and composers got modest government stipends. His own musicians stuck with him for decades. Breuker got commissioned to write for chamber ensembles, but didn't take himself so seriously even then. The words to one choral work came from the choir director's frantic letters, wondering where the score was. Breuker was a keen student of the music of Gershwin, Weill and Italy's Ennio Morricone, but he also loved trashing the popular classics. It was one way to connect with the working-class people he came from. One of his Dutch obits quoted him as saying, "My music is for the guy from my neighborhood, for you, and for the Waterlooplein flea market." Willem Breuker was both a typical gruff Amsterdam type, and an unforgettable one of a kind.

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