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Overdue Ovation: Han Bennink Likes to See the Horizon

Eighty years haven’t mellowed this Dutch firebrand

Han Bennink
Han Bennink (photo: Ton Mijs)

As the lights dim, a dog wags its tail as it looks up at its master, a tall, clean-cut man whose silhouette fills the doorway leading to the Roode Bioscoop’s cozy dressing room. The pair are tough to separate, the young pup’s presence as necessary as drumsticks to Han Bennink, the canine’s doting owner. Bennink takes a moment to pet his pal before heading up the aisle to perform for a small but erudite audience made up mostly of friends and longtime admirers.

The Roode Bioscoop, a former Communist movie theater (roode, or red, relating to the venue’s political leanings rather than a wall color), is currently Bennink’s home away from home, his favorite venue to perform at in Amsterdam and the place where he celebrated his 80th birthday in April with three nights of performances.

This particular evening, Bennink is playing with bass clarinetist Joris Roelefs, a favorite musical sparring partner. The program is billed as a tribute to Wayne Shorter. It’s immediately obvious that the material is of no importance to Bennink, as he plays in his merrily bombastic way without much worry about the melodic direction provided by Roelefs. Bennink even goes so far as to loudly voice his preference for the much more esoteric work of the legendary saxophonist/composer’s lesser-known brother, Alan Shorter.

Here you have the yin and yang of Han Bennink: a shy, nature-loving older gentleman who happens to erupt into mischief and fiery swing when he gets behind a drum set. He’s been the heartbeat of the Dutch improvised music scene for nearly six decades. In that time, he’s ascended through the ranks from an itinerant, holding the drum chair for generations of Dutch jazz cognoscenti and big-time international artists (including Johnny Griffin, Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon, and Sonny Rollins), to a true innovator in the world of free improvisation, most famously with the Instant Composers Pool, a musical collective he established with pianist Misha Mengelberg and woodwind blaster Willem Breuker. Though Breuker soon left the triumvirate and Mengelberg passed away in 2017, ICP has remained the most iconic of European improvising groups, and the ICP Orchestra still plays regularly around the world.


As the ICP matured, its reach extended further within improvised music and across national boundaries. It can easily be argued that Bennink was instrumental in furthering the European advancements of the blustery Peter Brötzmann and Fred van Hove, along with more singularly abstract musicians like Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. These days, inevitably, he’s come to be seen as an elder statesman, someone that younger musicians should get to know.

JazzTimes reached out to Bennink to reflect on his career, the current state of creative music in the Netherlands, and what his hopes are for the future.

JT: I know that your father was a concert percussionist and a jazz fan. How did he get you involved in the arts?
HAN BENNINK: My father was a very good amateur painter. The style in which he painted—you can compare it with the school from the Hague. The Jacob [Maris], Jozef Israëls, [Anton] Mauve…. He liked that sort of stuff. When I was very young, I went with him to the studio, where they were playing with the big band, because that was the only place where I could play drums. They had rehearsals with the band for an hour. Then they went upstairs for the rehearsals for the trumpet players. What a luxury! Then, they had coffee. They made it as long as possible. They played cards, they played poker…. In the meantime, I had the whole studio to myself. I was training myself on drums.


When we moved from Zaandam to Hilversum … this is also a fantastic story. My father was going on his bicycle from Zaandam to Hilversum. And back! That was about 90 to 100 kilometers. Then he did recording! After a couple years, they bought a house in Hilversum, so I was transplanted from Zaandam to Hilversum. For Dutch people, it is a huge difference.

I’m sure.
It is sort of a luxury thing…. And we actually come from the SDAP, the Sociaal-Democratische Arbeiderspartij. My mom was very heavy into politics, so the whole scene in Hilversum was like some shit. For example, you have a lane there called Jacob van Campen, and Jacob van Campen was a famous Dutch architect. My father says, “I don’t want to go to the Jacob van Campenlaan because there are living too many musicians. They come to see you. They drink all your genever and they fuck your wife in the shed! No way!” [Laughs] So we came on the other side of the railway, which was very, very nice.

I did play with my father. My father took care about … I have two left hands, is what they say in Holland. My father did everything for me. He saw my talent. He provided my drums and all that sort of shit. He brought me to Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman. That was his thing.


When they started after the War to make big bands at the radio, they actually asked my father to be a clarinet player because he was damn good. An excellent clarinet player. My first recording we did in the studio. I think I was 13 years old. I went with my father with a snare drum to the studio. The piano player could record everything, so we had a key to the studio, and so we did it.

I had great parents. Great, great parents.

Your father helped you when you had other bands. He drove you from gig to gig.
He drove me to a certain point.


What was the certain point?
The certain point was when he was coming home from the studio and he had had a bad time because they had to repeat this and that and they were drawn out, and so forth. “Man! Give me a fucking break….” Yeah, yeah, yeah….

Then he heard me playing, because at that time I had no earphones, I just had a little speaker. Very old-fashioned. Playing [along with recordings] all the time. He heard me playing with the Ornette Coleman double quartet, and I think that was it for him. [Laughs]

I guess you also played a wide variety of percussion instruments because they were available through your father. Do you feel that all these sonic opportunities were what helped you become the improviser that you are today?
Yeah, maybe. Don’t forget I used the whole stuff because I had a huge Citroën car, the kind where they sell ice creams now in the Vondelpark, full of drums. Tympani, marimbas, mridangam, tablas, all that sort of stuff. It became a sort of secure thing. I always thought, “When I can’t do this [making a particular sound], I later on go to my tablas.” [At some point], I didn’t want that anymore. I just wanted not to depend on all those different sounds. There was also a time when I lived in a stable. Ice cold in the winter. No heater. No toilets. And I was playing on all the instruments that I could buy, like trombone, viola, sitar, whatever….


Is this during the 1960s and ’70s?

Just trying anything to express yourself…. Your early jazz influences came from your dad, but when you were beginning to get into bebop and postbop language, Americans and some expat Americans were important to you. I know Kenny Clarke was an influence.
The one and only for me.

Were you able to experience his playing live?
Absolutely. He made an album with Rita Reys and Pim Jacobs live at the Singer Museum [Jazz Pictures at an Exhibition (Philips, 1961)]. All of us were there. It was fantastic to see him. Later on, I was part of a crew in Queekhoven in Breukelen. The whole event was organized by a percussion player who later died, Jan Pustjens. But he invited me. And he invited David Friedman, who was there for marimba. He invited Sing Sing Faye, who was a master from Senegal. I said, “If there is someone you have to invite for bebop drumming, it is Kenny Clarke!” So Kenny was there for a couple of days, and I got to know him.

Do you feel that the Dutch musicians of the 1950s and 1960s developed their own persona?
Not really. I’m sorry, guys. I don’t want to piss on you…. But that’s the same thing that happened in England. I’ve played with Tubby Hayes, and he was fantastic! He was as fast as Johnny Griffin was, but still it came from that style.


Do you feel that it was essential for you learning the language to play with people like Ben Webster and other American jazz musicians?
Absolutely. Timing. Timing, again.

Did you make a conscious decision to expand yourself beyond playing the timekeeping role?
I just wanted to play music. I just wanted to be there. And ching-chika-ding-chika-ding, of course, is fucking difficult, but it is done sooo fantastic by all the fantastic American timekeepers. Think of something else. You don’t come from Brooklyn, you come from Loosdrecht!

The other people, they depended very much on imitation. It is absolutely true. We found a way … or we, the ICP and ICP Orchestra … we still can swing like hell. We can swing like a Jimmie Lunceford band, man. I’m telling you. At the same time, there is something happening. “What is this? Is it a plane crash? Are they chasing kangaroos, or what is going on here?” I think that is fantastic thing. In the beginning … I have to mention that word … I hate the word “free jazz.” [Avant-garde tenor saxophonist] Frank Wright said to me, “Motherfucker! What does that mean? Free jazz? We don’t get paid? People get in for free?” I like to call it improvised music. For me, playing in a pulse is exactly the same as playing the rhythm. There is no difference for me. It is only timing.

I guess what I wanted to know is whether there’s anything essentially Dutch in the way you express yourself on the drums.
I’m totally Dutch.


You’re totally Dutch?
I’m totally Dutch. I’m sorry. [Bennink laughs]

Do you care to elaborate?
No. I like [Piet] Mondrian. [Vincent] Van Gogh. I like Dutch. I like the landscape. I’m flat. I like to always see the horizon.

Your music is never flat, though.
No! For fuck’s sake not.

Is that your reaction to the flatness?
Very good. That is your answer. I like it like that.


You began playing with pianist Misha Mengelberg in 1959 but really began to collaborate seriously with him in 1961 with the inception of your quartet, which eventually played at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1966. Did you imagine at that time that your lives would be so intertwined?
No. Never ever.

I also see a change in the music when you and Misha became closer to Willem Breuker. Then there was the establishment of ICP itself. What generated that change from 1966, where you were still playing in what I’d call a modern jazz style, to 1970, when you were playing improvised music entirely?
At that time, I was very interested to have gongs and all those different sounds, like Milford [Graves] sort of stuff. And we heard of John Tchicai. That was also the time when we recorded with John Tchicai, in 1969. The second album with Misha. Misha and I did a tour for four weeks through Denmark with John. We had a good thing going on. It just happened to go like that. I am aware that since I went in the direction of the improvised music, the timekeepers said, “Byeee….” I think they are jealous or so … I have no idea. It is not my thing. I just followed my intuition. It is what I did from when I started playing and I was painting with my father. I had many, many doubts in my life, of course. But I’m still happy I’m here. I’m totally happy that I can play with people I really want. I want it to be like that as long as I go.

“What is this? Is it a plane crash? Are they chasing kangaroos, or what is going on here?”

The initial groups that fell under the aegis of the ICP were composed of musicians from many different countries. Was the inclusion of these foreign improvisers a necessity because of the small community of improvisers in the Netherlands at the time?
No. It came all … not via Internet because there was no Internet. There was nothing like that. But you heard via…. For example, Evan brought Derek Bailey to the attention of Peter Brötzmann. And [Bailey] brought the composer of “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me [Yet]” and very many….


Oh, Gavin Bryars.
Gavin. I know Gavin because of that crazy house, man. Evan lived on Kilburn Street 25 [25 Kilburn High Road in London]. The first floor was a guy from Scotland. The second floor was [South African bassist] Johnny Dyani. The third floor was Gavin Bryars, and the fourth floor was Evan.

What a scene!
An amazing house, it was.

You were going back and forth between here and the U.K.?
Many times. Because at that time, you used all stamps on your drums. Evan was always waiting at the harbor, if I made it or not.


Even now, ICP has a lot of international musicians in it. Michael Moore is from the States. Mary Oliver, as well. Do you think that there’s something about the Netherlands that makes it good for people to come here?
It was. All the Americans were happy to come here. For example, Mary came here after the first October Meeting. If you came with a project, there was money for it. Now, it is absolutely zero. Zero! Zero, zero, zero…. Also for me. It is totally zero. How can you? Give me a break.

They call us the best band in that style internationally. We hardly can have 10 concerts in Holland because there are no clubs anymore. Then, you have to travel abroad. Then, you bring 10 people. You probably want to eat some. They want this and that and so and so. That costs fucking money! If you are playing New York, you have to bring your own money! I think that is fucking stupid!

There were a lot of revolutionary moves in the Netherlands of the 1970s with the establishment of BIM, the Union of Improvising Musicians, and then the Bimhuis, a key Amsterdam venue for jazz and other non-classical styles. Now that there’s been a change of culture at the Bimhuis for the last couple of years and the Fonds Podium Kunsten is no longer giving out subsidies for the performing arts, do you feel …
I feel like starting from zero. At my age. I don’t have to worry about money. I’m lucky. But I’m a fucking old guy. All the other beautiful young people who are coming via us, via that system—where they are now? I fear for them, and I feel very sorry for them because, as they say it: “It is a long way to Tipperary.”


I don’t want to be dour, I want to look to the future. Do you see any good things coming on the horizon?
Man! There is plenty of talent. There is so much talent. Why is improvised music or jazz always lesser-paid than classical music? You have good bebop players, and you have good Schumann performers or good Liszt performers and so on … but the difference is quite fucking big. That has to do with the capacity. I’m not a guy of big capacity. That’s why I play here [Roode Bioscoop]. In my eyes and in the eyes of many musicians nowadays, the whole atmosphere in Holland changed so much that I feel nothing to do it in the Bimhuis. They offered me a night, but I have to do a night with what they want from me. Hello! I’m fucking 80. May I finally have what I want?

Is there anything that you think the community at large, whether it’s ICP or dOek, can do, similar to the actions in the ’70s, to push the agenda forward?
No. I have never thought of that because all of this was before. It was all so incredibly difficult. It will never be…. That’s what I’m sure of. It will never be a music for a big audience.

I want to talk about how you perceive the ICP Orchestra now. Now that Misha has passed, how is the group different since Misha’s passing? Obviously, Guus Janssen is in the piano chair, and the group sounds different because of that.
I’m going to tell you: My guys think that I’m the leader now. I never saw myself as a leader.


First off, Misha was never a fluid piano player. An amazing guy in thought. I learned a lot from Misha. We never became close friends. We became close friends in music. It was not [the kind of] friendship [where] you got a card from somebody when he’s on holidays. No! It was different…

But you had very good rapport on the stage because you knew how to push and pull with each other.
Absolutely. We agreed, music-wise, totally. Because Misha was already doing Fluxus with [artists] Wim T. Schippers and Willem de Ridder. And I was still working my etchings in art school [then]. But I heard about it. And I was much younger. Wim is not so much younger than me but he … Wim T. Schippers is the Marcel Duchamp of Holland. Sorry!  You can’t compare! Bullshit.

Maybe he’ll be flattered. How do you feel about being an elder statesman of improvised music? Do you feel added pressure because of this? I know that there are a lot of young musicians who look up to you.
I am very happy about that because I play with the third and fourth generation. But I have to say something: When Misha and I played with Willem, he was also younger…. The musicians, who are mostly coming from music schools or the conservatory, they mostly play bebop and so on. So, most of the time, I got hired by young bebop players. They wanted me to play fucking time. After a while, I like to destroy it. I like to go in a different direction, or not what they expect.


I play with some beautiful cats, like [guitarist] Reinier Baas and [saxophonist] Ben van Gelder. When we write it down in my agenda, we call it the “kinder trio.” The children trio! I have something coming with [trumpeter] Ian Cleaver, that I really like. But it is all boppish, do you know what I mean?

I must call [multi-instrumentalist] Oscar Jan Hoogland…. For me, he is a very interesting young person. And [guitarist] Jasper Stadhouders and that school.

They are very much of the ICP aesthetic.
Very much. That’s the thing. That’s very cool for me.


Do you feel that there’s a good way to spread the ICP ethos even further?
I wish we could. That’s why we actually start now with my absolute favorite reed player, at the moment, Joris [Roelefs], and there aren’t many reed players like Michael [Moore]…. The good thing from Joris is that he beats me in philosophy. He knows so fucking much about Nietzsche, it drives you fucking crazy. But I love to play with him, and he was lately in Drenthe, where we live. We have three houses. One house where you can stay, and he loved it. And he got lost in Drenthe. You don’t get lost in Drenthe.

Those are people who I am very interested in. But I also knew Joris when he was going to jam sessions in [Amsterdam’s Café de] Engelbewaarder with his mom, who was teaching in the gymnasium, and he was 14 years old. And he played all the tunes by Charlie Parker, but everything in the same key.

You gotta start somewhere. What do you do to keep your creative mind going?
It is going. It is just going. I sometimes get so annoyed…. Anyway, we have to start all over again, so I start all over again. What else can I do?


Eric Dolphy: Last Date (Limelight, 1965)
Sonny Rollins: Rollins in Holland: The 1967 Studio & Live Recordings (Resonance, 2020)
Peter Brötzmann: Nipples (BRÖ, 1968)
Han Bennink/Misha Mengelberg: Bennink Mengelberg (ICP, 1982)
Clusone Trio: I Am an Indian (Gramavision, 1995)
Uri Caine: Sonic Boom (816, 2013)