||Interview with Torben Ulrich
He plays every day, although a ball is not always involved
By Lars Movin
Photographs by Steen Møller Rasmussen
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In the 50s, the years that separated traditionalists from modernists, the inheritance from New Orleans from the hot-tempered notes of bebop a new name popped up on the Danish jazz scene. A young man with an insatiable appetite and an uncanny talent for being in the right place at the right time. Extremely active on the local scene, and with an international vision uncommon for the time. A performer as well as analytical. He wrote well, was well-informed and always in good form. His views on jazz were original, he was passionately committed and often fresh or even provocative in wording and behavior. But first of all respected and liked.
The name was Torben Ulrich. Born 1918 in Hellerup north of Copenhagen, son of tennis star Einer Ulrich, and raised with a tennis racket in one hand and a clarinet in the other. Which is exactly what makes Torben Ulrich so exceptional. When reading a Danish newspaper during the 50s, one could follow the tennis player Torben Ulrich's unconventional career in sports. winner of 18 Danish championships, the first in 1948, representing Denmark in 102 Davis Cup matches and participant in numerous international tennis tournaments including Wimbledon. The author Torben Ulrich would keep you posted on the latest tendencies in jazz.
He began writing about jazz in 1945, 17 years old. In 1953, he had a column The jazzmosphere, in a major Danish paper. He moved to another daily in 1960, and stayed on until his Grand Masters tennis career became too time-consuming in 1964, by which time he had written more than 500 jazz columns and several magazine articles and radio shows. All in all, one of the most essential contributions to jazz-writing in Denmark.
He continued writing up through the 70s, 80s and 90s, by now with as much focus on Ulrich's unorthodox approach to sports, and under in creasing influence from his active interest in Buddhism. In the late 50s he introduced Danish readers to Haiku and Eastern philosophy. I the early 60s, he experimented with New Journalism. He became a professional tennis player at 41 in 1969. In the same year, he participated in Jørgen Leth's experimental movie, Motion Picture. In 1976, he was the world's most winning senior. He moved to USA in 1980, in 1985 he held the first exhibition of his pictures made with tennis balls dipped in paint. In 2002, he and his wife, Molly Martin, and director Rick New completed BEFORE THEWALL; BODY AND BEING, a movie based on years of contemplation and experiments on movement.
Torben Ulrich lives and works in Seattle, Washington. He went on his first jazz'n'poetry tour with his poems in the fall of 2002. He plays every day, although – as he himself says – a ball is not always involved.
-As early as 1945, when you were 17, you wrote your first article about Sidney Bechet in the Danish magazine Tribune. Why did you start writing about jazz?
-I started going to jazz clubs when I was 11, in the beginning to hear [violinist] Svend Asmussen and [pianist] Leo Mathisen and people like that. I especially recall a place called Blue Heaven where Asmussen played. That was probably around 1939. I'd heard people like Lionel Hampton and was generally interested in jazz, and in the beginning of the 40s, I had begun collecting Leo Mathisen records.
-In 1943, during the occupation, my mother's family escaped to Sweden, and since we didn't know when we would be able to return, it was decided that I should continue school there. At school, I met a friend who was sharp and interested in jazz. He was a year older, so he took me under his wing and told me a lot about Sidney Bechet and Johnny Dodds and the whole debate about New Orleans music and the imitations. Every day at lunch, whenever possible, we would listen to the radio – I think it was AFN, American Forces Network – they would broadcast these Eddie Condon jam sessions, from New York for the troops. Sidney Bechet was introduced on these programs as a solo act. I bought my first Bechet records in Sweden. I earned the money to buy them as a caddie on the golf course.
-Armstrong and Bechet were towers at the time. They had played together in Clarence WIlliams' Blue Five, and especially Bechet had become a legendary figure after the classical conductor or band leader, Ernest Ansermat, wrote the famous story about having heard Bechet [in London in 1919]. and that this was the music of the future. Ellington considered Bechet one the greats too. There weren't that many in the early years. That was before Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and all the rest.
-As soon as we returned in 1945, I wanted to get in touch with people who were interested in jazz. And when you're interested in something, you go where it's happening. A man who edited a magazine, B0rge J. C. M0ller was his name, knew [vocalist] Valaida Snow and some black ladies. I wouldn't say that I pestered him, but I tried to keep close to him, and offered to run errands and things. One day; I was invited to his mother's house, they served coffee and he played exiting records for me. It was through him that I began writing and meeting others from the scene.
-Early in the summer of 1946, Timme Rosenkrantz arrived in Copenhagen with a band he had put together under the leadership of Don Redman. Timme Rosenkranz was a Danish Baron who used to live in Harlem and knew a lot of jazz musicians [see Jazz Special First International Edition]. Tyree Glenn played vibes in the band and Don Byas was on tenor sax. It was a big orchestra, and although Redman himself was of the old school, he had some young players with him. I remember that some of the unknown musicians wore sunglasses and played bebop and went out on their own. I tried to stay close to Don Redman, and pretty soon he let me carry his saxophone. I think they were in Denmark for a couple of weeks, but it felt like months. One certain episode impressed me: we were outside a train station and it was raining and Redman had money, so we looked for a cab. And while we waited, he took a small bottle and some paper out of his pocket and began rolling something. I didn't know what he was smoking, but I found out. And that was a new dimension. A whole new world opened up.
-Describe one of your typical days in the early 50s.
-Let's say it was one of the periods when our band played every evening. That was usually in Blue Note. And let's say we played from 8 P.M. till around midnight – that depends on whether it was Tuesday or Saturday. At 1 am or so, I'd probably go over to Politiken [large national newspaper] to get something to eat. In those days, the canteen was open all night, and there was always something going on. There were a lot of people there drinking beer, and often they took some guests along: 'Come on let's go over to Politiken" ... So we'd get some thing to eat, and if I had to write The Jazzmosphere, the articles with a deadline Wednesdays, then I'd drink a lot of coffee instead of beer, and I'd start writing and usually I didn't finish before 8 in the morning. And then we'd go drinking in the early morning bars, where the writers, artists and some other people would be drinking, others played chess while waiting for breakfast. After some coffee we might go by Arnold Busck's bookstore, where we knew somebody... he worked in the foreign department, so we'd drop by to say hello and see what new books were in by Beckett or Henry Miller or Anais Nin or one of the others who were opening things up at the time.
-By then it was time for lunch, and around 1 P.M. we usually rehearsed with the band. That would last a few hours, until around five or six when I'd play tennis with the guys from the Davis Cup team. By then it had already been a long day. When evening came 'round, we'd have to play with the band again, and then I'd most often take a bath or two to try to get some energy. Actually, in periods it would go on day and night, and I'd keep up as long as I could take it. Occasionally, I'd wind up in the hospital to rest up. My sister was married to a chief physician, so I could seek refuge there. It was a necessity, but he wasn't very happy about it.
-How could you play tennis under those circumstances?
-Beats me. Well, I probably did get some sleep once in a while, but it doesn't seem like it was very often.
-How was your first encounter with Sidney Bechet?
-Jazz was blooming back then in France, mainly due to Claude Luter's orchestra, and Bechet had been there as had Louis Armstrong and Mezz Mezzrow – and he was one of the big names. There were a lot of exiting things going on around Vieux Colombier on the left bank of the Seine, and I'd been down there myself and was very enthusiastic about everything happening there. So at some point [March 1951] the possibility arose to bring him to Denmark, and naturally money had to be raised for wages and venue rent and other things. I knew absolute nothing about those kind of financial aspects.... I'd inherited some money which I put into the project, because people said that it couldn't fail. If Bechet was on the bill, a lot of people would show up, and everything would be fine. A lot of tickets were reserved, but that evening there was a terrible snowstorm and all traffic in Copenhagen was paralysed, and 90% of the people with reservations couldn't make it. When the concert started, there were very few people in the hall, and the roof was about to give in under the weight of all the snow. And as the snow melted during the next few days, so did the money we put into it. But Bechet came, and that was great.
-Well, I'd begun travelling a lot, and by and by I visited Paris and sat at the master's feet listening to stories from New Orleans. When we played tennis in Paris, we usually stayed at the Hotel Lutetia in the middle of the Latin Quarters, not far from Boulevard Saint Germain, that way we could hurry round the corner to Vieux Colombier. The problem was that going to jazz clubs every evening was expensive whether you drank coke or whiskey, the price was more or less the same – but we solved that too. At one point we figured that since we were there so often, there must be a way to get around it. Why not become employees? They hired us to dance and make a little noise on the dance floor so the tourist's really felt like they'd come to Paris. A bus load of tourists arrived every night at eleven. Chilled champagne was placed on the tables around the dance floor, and the tourists were led to these tables so they had a free view of the dance floor. After dancing a few minutes, one of us would begin yelling or start an argument, and then it would get more heated and one of us would pull a knife and that would mean real trouble. The tourists would watch our commotion nervously, and when they had their money's worth of drink and trouble, they'd drive on to a new club. At 1 am, a new bus load would arrive, and we'd repeat the whole scene. It worked well. That way we could drink a little for free and listen to Bechet at the same time. And when he wasn't playing, we would sit with the musicians at a long wooden table and listen to Bechet and Mezz Mezzrow tell their tall tales. I'd say it was the best possible school – to hear all those New Orleans stories and the music and all the variations from night to night.
-In the 50s you began to travel outside of Europe – to Asia, Africa, Moscow – and write about the music you heard there?
-Yes. The first time I visited South Africa, for instance, I was invited to speak about jazz at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. It must have been the first half or the middle of the 50s; at any rate, I presented Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane as new names. When I stepped in to the room – it was one of those auditoriums where the lecturer is down at the bottom – all the blacks were seated in one side and the whites were in the other. So I stepped up to the rostrum and said that what I was going to speak about had to do with black and white, and not least how the two elements mixed in jazz. Harmonically, rhythmically, instrumentally and in every way. So my suggestion was that everyone leave the room and come back in again and mingle in the auditorium, like in the music. The room went dead quiet, they all just sat there looking at each other not knowing what to do. Here was this little guy from Denmark saying they should do things they never could do. What now? Suddenly they all got up and they did it. It was actually a big moment. After that, I played some music for them and spoke about jazz, and everything went smoothly. Okay, I wasn't invited back, but a few years later it was impossible. I've visited several times since.
-We were also some of the first Western athletes to play tennis in Moscow. That was in 1959, and we met some people from a sort of underground community where they would sit around listening to Voice of America on crackling speakers. We had endless discussions with them through our interpreter about politics and art, but more than anything else, they wanted to hear everything we could tell about Clifford Brown and Sonny Rollins and Max Roach. Being with people who had met Sonny Rollins was amazing to them.
-And you met Louis Armstrong?
-Yes, that was the first time Armstrong visited Denmark through Sweden . They took the ferry from Sweden early in the morning, and we decided to welcome them when they came in. Our trombonist got hold of an open truck for a New Orleans style welcome with him playing trombone on the platform. You know, tailgate. And we hauled a piano up there too. When we saw the ferry break through the morning fog, we started playing. Many of the tunes were Armstrong's, and it turned out that we played some of the same tunes that he played that evening. As they came closer, we could see the musicians on deck listening and waving, while we played on the pier. As soon as they got off, Armstrong jumped up on the truck and began singing and scatting. He joined right in.
-A few years later, we met Armstrong again when the Student's Association elected him Honorary Student . There were concerts in three different cities. I remember in Copenhagen we played at least two tunes where Armstrong joined us: Ain't Misbehaving and On The Sunny Side Of The Street. It was quite an experience. There were some funny situations as well when Armstrong stayed at Hotel Codan and held court from his bath tub. We all sat around the tub listening to stories from New Orleans with the hot water running in the tub and recordings of his concerts drifting in from his room. He had recorded his concerts on steel tape and played them constantly when he was in the room. I remember it as if we spent hours around that tub. At any rate, he was very hospitable.
-Somehow we were always there when something happened. How did we get to talk with Thelonious Monk and his wife Nelly in their hotel room? How did I happen to run around with Don Redman or carry Don Byas' saxophone? I guess we were a combination of groupies and roadies. We wanted to be close to the great musicians because we learned a lot from them. And we took good care of them. I remember waiting for Monk at the airport, arranging cars for them to drive in and making sure that there was a meal for them at the hotel and whatever they needed. They didn't mind that at all. We all know how that feels.
-Next time they came, maybe they had a faint recollection of who we were, and eventually there was a bonding. That's the way it was with John Coltrane when the artist, Klaus Albrectsen, and I were in New York in 1961. The first evening, he played at the Apollo, and naturally we were there hanging around until the doormen threw us out. The next day, he played somewhere else, and we were there. The third day, he played a new place, and we were there again, watching and listening. And after five or six nights, he might say, "Hello"! It was a very slow process, but suddenly he called and said. "It's me. I'm downstairs." And he felt like talking, and we got the story we wanted so badly. But it was built on weeks of showing a continuous and stubborn interest, and that's what they could feel.
-Later, I met Coltrane again in Copenhagen, where another jazz writer, Erik Wiedemann, and I had a very long talk with him at the hotel . He had played a concert and we sat talking for hours late that night. He told us that he planned to meet with Ravi Shankar. They had talked about playing together, but that never materialized because he died. He was very nice.
-I faintly recall that some of these talks were recorded, but I'm afraid that the radio erased the tapes without our permission. At any rate Erik and I made a series of shows called Jazz 61, Jazz 62, Jazz 63 and so on. We interviewed people like Eric Dolphy. Cecil Taylor and Dexter Gordon. And we recorded Don Cherry with the Radio
Symphony Orchestra, playing some kind of chamber music around Don Cherry. It wasn't easy making that kind of deal with the public radio at that time. We had to fight for it. I remember that it was a joint project between the music dept. and the entertainment dept., and the entertainment dept. wasn't too keen on the idea. They wouldn't even talk to us, but we just sat outside the door and waited for an interview, and at some point they must have grown tired of us. At any rate, they gave in.
-However, the most interesting story is about Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor, who were supposed to play together, but that never happened. One of the most fantastic periods in the history of Jazzhouse Montmartre was when Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler both were in town [November 1962]. In the evening, Cecil Taylor played with Sunny Murray and Jimmy Lyons, and Albert Ayler played with' pianist Atli Bjørns' group for a late night show. Those were amazing times, but also very straining for the employees as well as business. Let's say that Dexter Gordon played a tune that lasted eight minutes or a quarter of an hour and then it stopped. Then the waiters could serve the tables. Cecil Taylor on the other hand, he played for around fifty minutes non stop. And on top of that, the clientele he attracted weren't really interested in drinking beer or anything else, so there wasn't much business for the waiters.
-And then late at night, Albert Ayler would come along and roar with his saxophone, and that wouldn't make things much better. I especially remember one night, when Albert Ayler played well into morning. They just went on and on, and at one point, one of the waiters just couldn't take any more. Suddenly he put down his tray in front of the stage, stepped up and socked Albert Ayler and yelled, ..Shut up! ... Shut up! And Ayler was playing, only the white of his eyes showing, and he had no idea what was going on. The room went silent. And afterwards the waiter was miserable, and he hugged Albert Ayler and they cried, and it was terrible. But it goes to show what kind of pressure everyone was under, maybe the musicians too. There was a lot going on.
-It went on that way for a few days with us all hanging out till morning. Albert Ayler and Sunny Murray, who played drums with Cecil Taylor, were good friends, I think they'd already played once in New York at what could be called a historic meeting. But they hadn't recorded together. And so Erik Wiedemann and I decided to make a show with the two of them playing together. As I mentioned, we made these radio shows once a week or maybe every other week, and occasionally we had a chance to invite musicians to play in the studio, either Danes with international guests or local talent. So we asked the director of the entertainment dept. if we could do something with Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor. He mumbled a little and then he asked what it would cost. Well, it wasn't free. Cecil Taylor wanted 15.000 kroner and Albert Ayler and Sunny Murray had to be paid too. No way, and who did this jazz musician think he was anyway! Of course, if it had been Duke Ellington or Count Basie, things would have been different. But who the hell was Cecil Taylor, not to mention Albert Ayler? Eventually they let us do it anyway. It was the most expensive project we ever did.
-The day of the recording came, and let's say the studio was booked for one P.M.. That meant that Sunny Murray would bring his drums from Montmartre and Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler would arrive directly from the hotel. Naturally Erik and I were ready at one 0' clock, drumming impatiently on the table, and it turned 1:15 and 1:30 and not a damn thing happened. So we called the hotel and found out that they thought we were going to pick them up. Okay, we drove over to pick them up. When we got there, Sunny Murray was there without his drums. He hadn't been over to Montmartre yet. Okay! We agreed that he would take a cab over to Montmartre and get his drums. In the meantime, the technicians were waiting. Now we had Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor in the building, but since Sunny Murray was picking up his drums, they figured they'd get something to eat in the canteen. But when they got up there, there wasn't really anything they wanted, so they asked if there was some other place close by. In the meantime, Sunny Murray had arrived from Montmartre saying it was closed, and he couldn't find anybody with a key. So we called the owner, Herluf Kamp-Larsen, to see if someone could let Sunny Murray in to get his drums. By now it was probably two or three o'clock. And Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor had gone across the street to a little restaurant where they could get some real food. They had ordered a couple of hamburgers from the menu, while Sunny Murray was still trying to get his drums and the time was 3:30 or 4:00. They later told us that it took the longest time to make those hamburgers, and finally the waiter came in with a big silver platter with what turned out to be pork with potatoes and vegetables [in Danish: hamburgerrygl, which they didn't intend to pay for. Cecil Taylor got real mad and said they should call the police. The police arrived, and they called the radio studio saying that the police were there and this problem had to be solved. In the meantime it was 5:00 and we had the studio till 6:00. At 5:20, Sunny Murray arrived with his drums, and began setting them up. Naturally, there wasn't much time left to play, because at 6:00 everyone had to leave and there was no chance of working overtime. So we had to cancel the whole thing and send the musicians home.
-Afterwards the directors were furious. That was no way to treat the State Radio. But we hadn't lost hope, we asked if we could try again the next week, because the musicians were still in town and we'd love to arrange this historical meeting. But under no circumstances would the radio pay once more, and certainly not Cecil Taylor. But since it wasn't Albert Ayler who called the police, they would accept a session with him and Danish musicians. This resulted in the record MY NAME IS ALBERT AYLER [recorded in January 1963], on which he performs Summertime and several other tunes along with Niels Brønsted and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, which is fine, but in retrospect it really would have been a historical date if we had succeeded in getting Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor to record together. But at least we tried.
For Torben Ulrich, the great jazz heritage stopped with Albert Ayler's and Cecil Taylor's generation.
-You know, one thinks along these lineages, he says.
-First there was Armstrong and Bechet and their generation. Then came Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie. Then it was Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown and Dexter Gordon. Then Sonny Rollins. Always these lineages. And I'm sure that Albert Ayler considered himself next after John Coltrane. And that Coltrane perhaps considered Ayler the next in line. But then it is my feeling that there hasn't really been anyone since who was the next in line. Nor with the pianists. Many who play avant-garde jazz today, in the U.S. as well, still build on Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor. So in a way, it started in New Orleans and ended with Ayler and Taylor.
However that doesn't mean that Torben Ulrich has stopped listening to and writing about music. But the weight of the balls he had in the air shifted during the 60s, and an eternal hunger for discovering new aspects of life led to tapering down his jazz writing. In 1964, he stopped writing his column, replacing it with more sporadic magazine articles about experiences on the road on his many travels to tennis tournaments all over the world. They were often notes, and often with side-glances towards the new beat and rock music.
Jazz has never disappeared from Torben Ulrich's CD-player, but in his writings from the 60s, there are just as often references to names like The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa. Or other directions altogether as in this extract from a dairy mosaic from 1974: One of the most touching and perfect records I've heard the last couple of years, is the Japanese JAPON on Chante Du Monde LDX 74473. There is shakuhachi flute on one side and one long piece by a woman playing a kind of luth called a biwa on the other.
The first time I visited Torben Ulrich in Seattle in the summer of 1998, the then 70-year old tennis veteran came more or less directly from a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert, which received many enthusiastic comments. And once we were seated on the floor of the Buddhistically decorated room overlooking Puget Sound, he served a very diverse musical fare. First his favorite tune from a new solo cd by Jerry Cantrell from the Seattle band Alice in Chains. Then several Indian artists, whose names I don't recall. And finally a Finish ensemble playing the music of his son's band, Metallica, arranged for string quartet. Each selection was accompanied by enthusiastic comments, gestures and at times even twitching around on the floor, when underlining especially fond passages. It's possible that the heritage of jazz ended in 1964. Torben Ulrich's appetite for life and music didn't stop. He is still busy discovering connections between body, sports, life-style, philosophy, games, work, tennis, training and everything
else that goes with a life in perpetual motion.