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Monday, August 22, 2022

Rolf Kühn (1929 - 2022)

Rolf Kühn. Photo by Gregor Fischer, picture alliance
By Martin Schray

Rolf Kühn, the great clarinetist and elder statesman of German jazz, died August, 18th at the age of 92.

Kühn was born in Cologne in 1929, but grew up in Leipzig, where his family had moved shortly after his birth. He quickly discovered his musical talent and learned the violin, accordion, piano and eventually the clarinet. In Nazi Germany, however, the family went through hard times because Kühn’s mother was Jewish. His father, who worked at the circus, was not allowed to perform anymore because he refused to divorce his wife, which led to the family's financial problems. Early on, Kühn therefore earned extra money by playing the harmonium at funerals. Still during the war, in 1944, Kühn’s younger brother Joachim was born, who was to become a famous jazz musician as well. After 1945, Rolf Kühn then played dance music as a professional musician and through the pianist Jutta Hipp he became acquainted with the music of Benny Goodman, which was to change his life.

Via various orchestras, Kühn became first saxophonist in the RIAS dance orchestra in Berlin. But the clarinet was always his real instrument. In 1956 he  moved to New York. “Everything went surprisingly well, so I stayed for six years and I think they were some of the most important years in my life. To really play in place with the people you knew from records for many years, that was great. And there were a lot of opportunities to play with them," he said in an interview with the Bavarian Broadcasting Station. Benny Goodman (whose orchestra he conducted in the absence of its leader), Tommy Dorsey, Cannonball Adderley, Chet Baker - these are just some of the jazz greats Rolf Kühn played with in the USA. There he also recorded his album Be My Guest (Panorama, 1960) with guitarists Chuck Wayne and Jim Hall, George Duvivier and Henry Grimes on bass, Don Lamond and Ray Mosca on drums, John Bunch on piano and organ and Jack Sheldon on trumpet. At the beginning of the 1960s Rolf Kühn returned to Germany and became the leader of the NDR television orchestra in Hamburg. In 1964 he played in a quartet at the Jazz Jamboree festival in Warsaw with his brother Joachim, a month later he recorded Solarius (Amiga, 1964), in quintet with Michal Urbaniak (then saxophonist), Joachim Kühn (p), Klaus Koch (b) and Czeslaw Bartkowski (dm), which remains, to this day, one of his best albums.

In 1966 he helped Joachim to escape from the GDR. This was achieved with the help of a friend, the pianist Friedrich Gulda, who organized a jazz competition in Vienna in 1966, and at Kühn’s request Gulda invited Joachim there as a participant from the GDR. Joachim Kühn went to Vienna and did not travel back to the GDR. In the same year the Kühn brothers played at the Berlin Jazztage and the gig became a sensational success.

After this concert, the Kühn brothers were booked for the legendary Newport Jazz Festival and in 1967 they traveled together to the USA. Several great record productions followed, many for the Black Forest-based label MPS. Transfiguration (Saba, 1967) - with Karlhanns Berger (vib), Beb Guérin (b) and Aldo Romano (dm) - shows that Rolf Kühn was familiar with free jazz as well,

In the 1970 and 80s he composed more and more for film and television, but he always remained faithful to jazz and kept releasing records. He remained open to new, interesting sounds throughout his life. At the same time, his curiosity seemed to have become even greater and his musical approach even freer. This can be heard, for example, on the recording Stereo (Edel, MPS) with his Unit from 2015, with Ronny Graupe on guitar, Johannes Fink on bass and Christian Lillinger on drums.

Rolf Kühn was an excellent technician, but always far more than that - a great musical personality with a completely unmistakable playing full of brilliance, daring, sovereignty and beauty. 
Listen to the Rolf Kühn Unit here: