I just learned that Peter Kowald, the great German free-jazz bassist, died early Saturday morning, apparently of a heart attack. Peter was a big part of the New York jazz scene, especially the Vision Festival, and his bald head was a familiar sight. I’m going to shoehorn him into Languagehat by pointing out that the title of his amazing solo album, Was da ist, often provided with a spurious question mark in English-language publications, is not an interrogative; it could be translated as ‘what’s there,’ but the liner notes correctly translate it in context (Kowald’s “Was da ist, das ist ja sehr viel, eigentlich fast alles”) as “What there is”: “What there is is quite a lot, actually almost everything.” Or you may prefer the version at the end of the quote: “…But there is so much there, so much is at my disposal for which I am grateful, and I try to comprehend, to grasp, to utilise and to leave out, simply take what is there [was da ist].” Fine words for any artist to live by.

Update: Tuesday’s New York Times has a well-informed obituary by Ben Ratliff:

There was great power and concentration in his improvising: he had a broad, strong sound, impeccable intonation and could spend long periods investigating a single pitch and its overtones. At certain moments, he would bend his torso so that his bald head pointed toward the audience, aim his mouth at the resonating chamber within the bass and perform the low subharmonic growls of Mongolian throat-singing, which he had learned while staying a Buddhist monastery in Japan during the early 1980’s.

Also, on Wednesday WKCR, in my opinion NYC’s best jazz station, will devote the entire day, midnight to midnight (EDT), to broadcasting Kowald’s music, so if you’re curious, it’s a great way to hear him (they broadcast over the internet).


  1. Over twenty years later: I’ve just learned that Peter Brötzmann, a friend and collaborator of Kowald’s, has died at 82. There’s a good selection of links, and appreciations in the comments, at MetaFilter; you can listen to WKCR’s memorial broadcast from 4 pm to midnight (EST) today.

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