Manfred Burzlaff - my Berliner Vater
Updated: Aug 11, 2021
Soon after I had moved to Berlin in 1981 I was looking for a mallet instrument teacher.
As there were no jazz courses in Berlin back then - how things have changed - I considered auditioning for classical percussion studies at the Berlin Conservatorium of Music. I had started studying timpani with Konstantin Avgerinos, the son of Konstantin Avgerinos, principal timpanist of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Furtwängler.
Herr Avgerinos recommended studying mallet instruments with Manfred Burzlaff. Both were teachers at the Musikschule Neukölln (Berlin). After managing to buy a vibraphone, I think from one of Manfred's other students, I started taking weekly lessons.
As it turned out, I not only learned to play vibraphone and marimbaphone from Manfred, a jazz virtuoso, but also a huge mount about harmony, scales, improvisation and arranging. I quickly got 'side-tracked' and stopped pursuing a 'classical' career.
The anecdotes Manfred told, especially about his time as a musician in post war Berlin, when he played with many revered American jazz musicians, were more than just interesting and funny stories. They gave me an insight into the soul of an incredibly dedicated musician and the forces that drive a person to excel in their art.
During lessons he frequently asked me to select and album at random from his large Jamie Aebersold play-along collection, put it on the record player and drop the needle anywhere in the middle of a track. He then proceeded to improvise along without hesitation or hitch.
He told me about the challenges to play songs he didn't know without charts, as the visiting U.S. artists assumed that everyone knew the 'standard tunes', maybe not realising that there had been a ban on 'swing' music for over a decade during the Nazi years. Indeed, the way that many German jazz musicians learned new tunes was to transcribe a few bars at a time, when they were broadcast on AFN (American Forces Network). I often relate that story to current students, confused by too much choice and easy accessibility to music.
Learning a mallet instrument was a great exercise in reduction. When comping, you need to be able to express every harmony and chord changes with a maximum of four notes, even better, just two. Also an excellent strategy for arranging and orchestration.
Manfred had a theory that every chord progression in every song can be expressed using major 7th chords (I fail to recall all the details, sorry Manne). He told me to me re-harmonize Cole Porter's 'I Love You' in all maj 7th chords. And yes, it is possible...sort of. I wrote an arrangement for big band based on this concept, recorded by the Jugend Jazz Band Charlottenburg/Berlin - JJBC (Youth Jazz Band Charlottenburg).
I could go on writing about the purely musical aspects, but I want to also relate that Manfred was a true teacher in that he transcended his craft and rose about merely communicating knowledge. He was passionate He was enigmatic He was caring He challenged his students
He encouraged and supported his students
He was a little bit crazy He was a Guru
Because of his age (Manfred was born a year before my father) and because of a similar disposition as my Dad (self-assured, ebullient and opinionated) I will always think of him as my 'Berlin Father'.