Aaron Gilbreath | This Is: Essays on Jazz | Outpost19 | August 2017 | 21 minutes (5,900 words)
In 1960, four years after the venerable Blue Note Records signed pianist Jutta Hipp to their label, she stopped performing music entirely. Back in her native Germany, Hipp’s swinging, percussive style had earned her the title of Europe’s First Lady of Jazz. When she’d moved to New York in 1955, she started working at a garment factory in Queens to supplement her recording and performing income. She played clubs around the City. She toured. Then, with six albums to her name and no official explanation, she quit. She never performed publicly again, and she told so few people about her life in music that most of her factory coworkers and friends only discovered it from her obituary. For the next forty-one years, Jutta patched garments for a living, painted, drew and took photos for pleasure, all while royalties accrued on Blue Note’s books.
Hipp was Blue Note’s first white female and European instrumentalist on a roster composed largely of American men of color. Hipp’s records had never been big sellers in the United States. Her identity was obscure even to ardent jazz fans. But her four Blue Note records sold well in Japan. Japan is a hotbed of jazz fandom — when it comes to jazz there, the more obscure the better — and her cult status earned her and Blue Note a lot of money. Hipp just wasn’t getting any of it. When she quit performing, she severed contact with the label, as well as with most of the people who could have told Blue Note where to send her checks.
In 2001, Tom Evered, then Blue Note’s general manager, did some research on the money the label owed to Hipp and was surprised by what he found. In order to get Hipp what she’d earned and to clear the company’s books, Evered got her phone number from Gundula Konitz, the wife of influential saxophonist Lee Konitz. The Konitzes were among the few people she kept in touch with from her jazz days. When he reached Hipp, he told her he had good news: There were around $35,000 in her royalties account, and he wanted to cut her a check.
The line fell silent. Seconds passed. Then, in her heavy German accent, she said, “Mein Gott.”
“I just had to laugh,” Evered recalled. At that time, Hipp was seventy-six years old, unmarried, living on Social Security and a little union pension, with no family in America. “She couldn’t believe it. I mean, to come out of nowhere with that much money.”
The line fell silent. Seconds passed. Then, in her heavy German accent, she said, ‘Mein Gott.’
Most Blue Note artists had been receiving royalty checks through the years. At a big, well-managed label, royalties accrue automatically. But if a musician moved, died, or disappeared, and no one notified the company, the checks got returned. Then they were sent a second time, via registered mail, and if they were returned again, the royalty department filed them under what Evered called the “Bad Address List.” After discovering Hipp’s unclaimed royalties, Evered said, “I kind of became a detective for the company, trying to dig up estates or actually find the people, which was pretty interesting, especially when I called up [tenor saxophonist] Hank Mobley’s father to let him know that there were — I can’t remember exactly how much, but it might have been eighty-something thousand dollars.” Although Mobley had been a regular session musician and staple of the Blue Note catalogue, his sales were never big. After he died, in 1986, his family and the company lost touch, and the royalties piled up — until Evered found the family.
He did the same with Blossom Dearie. Popular in the 1950s and ’60s, Dearie was a pianist-chanteuse famous for the breezy, thirty-minute-long “May I Come In?” Evered called her. “She had this little girly voice, and she said, ‘Oh, Tom, I don’t get any royalty checks anymore.’ Even though the record’s kind of short and had been in and out of print for a while, it was a few thousand dollars here and there. I said, ‘Blossom, did you move?’ She said, ‘Oh, yeah.’” This happened regularly, but the royalty system placed the onus on the musician to keep in touch with the company, not on the company to track down musicians. “And Jutta,” Evered said, “had not gotten any royalties in a long time.”
Rather than mail Hipp her check, Evered arranged to hand-deliver it. He and Astrid Heppner, secretary to Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall, had a car service drive them from the company’s offices to Hipp’s apartment in Sunnyside, Queens. As their car sped east, Manhattan’s skyline dipped below the jumble of warehouses and apartments that fill this pocket of Queens. Visiting retired musicians was far from the usual sales and marketing jobs Evered performed as general manager. Heppner typically answered the phones and scheduled meetings. Reflecting on the errand, Evered thought it was as if they were bringing Hipp more than money. This was, he said, “money coming from a world she had left a long time ago.”
* * *
You’ve heard of Jutta Hipp? Yuh-tuh Hipp. Yuttahipp.
Barely seven minutes into Thomas Reichman’s documentary Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968, the great bassist mentions Hipp: “A piano player friend of mine, Jutta Hipp, from Germany, was there when, um, she said she saw the beginnings of it — and this was eight years ago she told me, here in New York — the beginning of Hitler’s so-called rise.” Mingus lowers his head as if watching a fugitive thought, then lifts his gaze up to the camera crew. “She’s a great piano player,” he says, smiling. “She’s better than Toshiko [Akiyoshi], incidentally. You’ve heard of Jutta Hipp? Yuh-tuh Hipp. Yuttahipp.” Off-camera, the filmmaker says, “Yeah, you told me about her.”
Though Hipp considered herself an amateur musician, she arrived in the United States in November 1955 with a solid reputation. Born in Leipzig in 1925, she learned classical piano at age nine from a church organist. She lived in a musical house. “My father played piano,” Hipp said in a 1998 interview in Marge Hofacre’s defunct magazine Jazz News, “my mother sang terribly.” By age thirteen, the noise her family made at home drove Hipp nuts, so she started tuning into the radio stations that the Nazis had forbidden. Families kept their lights off at night because of air raids. After her family went to sleep, she sat alone in the dark, listening to jazz stations. “I heard Count Basie and Fats Waller and Jimmie Lunceford,” she told one interviewer, “and I wrote down some of the tunes with a little light there.” She also heard jazz at the popular Leipzig Hot Club. A local drummer owned tons of jazz records, from Duke Ellington to Belgian bands, items that were hard to obtain in Nazi Germany. Using her piano skills to figure out this new music, Hipp jammed with other jazz musicians at the club, before and during the war. When Soviet troops took control of Leipzig in 1946, she fled west to the Allied-occupied zones.
She crossed the border at Tegernsee in the Alps. “There was a group of us,” she said in 1998. “We found out by word of mouth where they had the crossing. We had some money with us and some liquor, and we had to give it to the guide. Some woman was too loud, and he told her to stay back. We tried to cross at one place but there were guards there. So we went to another place. At a certain time, we walked down the hill and across the dirt road in the country. And then we were in West Germany. The guide said that when we saw the barracks, we would be in West Germany. Then we went into the barracks, and there were others in there who had crossed. Oh, it was scary.”
The drummer with the jazz records crossed with her group, as did a professor from the Leipzig Academy of Art, where Hipp had studied visual art as a teenager. She brought her records, some photos, paintings, and books. The only clothes she had were the ones she was wearing. Her first change of clothing in her new home was a dress made out of an army blanket.
In West Germany, she played in a circus band. She played in nightclubs for civilians and in military clubs for American soldiers. In Munich, she played at a venue called the Bongo Bar. “The place was full of little huts and leopards and monkeys,” she said, “and the customers sat on small bongo drums instead of on chairs. The leopards were supposed to be tame, but I was always scared to death of them.” Life was better, but tough. “We had to play from, say, seven to five in the morning with one break,” she said. “Sometimes we played seven days a week, and sometimes we played in the afternoon too. That was murder. You just worked, slept, ate, worked, slept, ate. That’s all you did.” After playing in other people’s bands throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, she formed her own quintet in 1953 and recorded three albums as a leader for German labels. That same year, she toured Germany with Dizzy Gillespie.
Sometimes we played seven days a week, and sometimes we played in the afternoon too. That was murder. You just worked, slept, ate, worked, slept, ate. That’s all you did.
She was initially enthralled by the swing pianists she’d heard in Leipzig, but her range expanded when she discovered bop innovator Bud Powell and the gospel-infused, hard-driving Horace Silver. Her style wowed listeners. In the fast style known as Bebop and into its bluesier, more rhythmic successor Hard Bop, the standard jazz song had musicians playing the song’s theme. Each musician then took a turn to solo, moving through a limited number of chord changes, before returning to the theme to wrap it up. Hipp could play fast enough to keep up with Bop, and soulfully enough to play slower, more melodic songs. Her style wowed listeners — she was brilliant, and this style of music was still spreading in Germany. Not only that, but her gender: Here was a woman leading her own band. Jazz was a predominately male world, and still is, with women working almost exclusively as vocalists. Hipp didn’t set out to blaze trails; she was playing piano because she enjoyed it. But she was aware of the lure and marketability of her gender. As she told one interviewer, if she was well known in Germany, it was “because I was female, I guess.” (Later, this reputation would put immense pressure on her, but it also helped launch her US career.)
In 1948, she gave birth to a son whom she named Lionel, after one of her favorite vibraphonists, Lionel Hampton. The father was a U.S. soldier stationed in Germany. He was African-American. The segregated military didn’t allow GIs of color to claim paternity with white women. The GI returned home, his identity unclear, and Hipp gave Lionel up for adoption.
Around 1950 or ’51, an American soldier in Munich recorded Hipp’s band and mailed a copy to critic and composer Leonard Feather. Feather was a big name. Jazz artists like Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, Dinah Washington, and Count Basie performed his compositions. He’d penned album liner notes, produced records, and written for publications like Down Beat. The tape proved pivotal. While touring Germany with Billie Holiday in 1954, Feather caught Hipp performing in a club in Duisburg and was knocked out by both her playing and, it seems, her beauty. Hipp had long black hair. Her eyes seemed permanently set at half-mast, making her look sultry. Her powerful piano style only multiplied her charms.
In his memoir The Jazz Years, Feather says that after their meeting, he “corresponded with her for several months, [and] she began to express interest in coming to America.” As she said, “The real good musicians were in America.” The immigration paperwork took a while, as did her decision to move. Was it wise to leave Germany? How would she survive in America, as a single, non-native English speaker? But what reason did she have to stay? After WWII, her country lay in ruins. Her taxing nightclub engagements never earned her much money. After what Feather called “a long period of indecision,” Hipp boarded a passenger ship to New York. When she arrived, in 1955, Feather met her at the pier.
Feather and his wife put Hipp up for a few months on the top floor of their home. He introduced her to booking agent Joe Glaser, helped sort things out with the local musicians’ union, and initially functioned as her cultural liaison, her advocate, and essentially her agent.
Using his connections and Hipp’s reputation, Feather laid the groundwork for what he hoped would be an auspicious start to a long career. He talked to New York City club owners and promoters to get her gigs. He convinced Blue Note’s cofounders, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, both German immigrants, to issue one of her German albums in the U.S., retitled New Faces—New Sounds from Germany. On July 28, 1956, Blue Note recorded her and American saxophonist Zoot Sims at Rudy Van Gelder’s famous home studio in Hackensack, New Jersey. Jutta Hipp with Zoot Sims was her first studio album in America. Sims’s rich tone and easy air paired well with Hipp’s rollicking, energetic playing, and the album they created together is arguably her finest. When the house pianist at the beloved Hickory House venue went on tour, Feather got Hipp a six-month headlining stint there in 1956. Blue Note recorded her live there and released the performance as a two-record set. That same year, Hipp performed at the famous Newport Jazz Festival on a bill that included Count Basie, Charles Mingus, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Newport was the ideal venue for a musician seeking a wider audience, which was precisely what Feather wanted for her. He’d helped other musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughn write, record, and book gigs. He was a businessman. He made money off music. But money and recognition were more Feather’s goals than Hipp’s.
Hipp was shy. Although she loved playing music, she preferred performing for fun rather than for a living and, even then, only to small audiences. Large venues terrified her. Performance anxiety was already an issue during her first months in New York. The day after her debut at the Hickory House in 1956, New Yorker writer Whitney Balliett reported that Hipp “was still recovering from the stage fright she’d suffered the night before.” “I’m so glad to be here,” Hipp told Balliett, “and so anxious to succeed.”
* * *
In the early and mid-1950s, New York was the crucible of jazz. The music originated in New Orleans, but it rapidly evolved and diversified in New York. Everyone from Miles Davis to Art Blakey regularly played in the clubs, and pianists like Monk, Wynton Kelly, and Kelly Drew were recording as sidemen. “You go from playing jazz in a small German club that’s maybe the only jazz club within fifty miles,” Evered said, “to playing 52nd Street, or playing around the Village, when Thelonious Monk might drop by to see what you’re up to, or Bud Powell might come in.” That’s a lot of pressure. Hipp recalled Duke Ellington coming into the Hickory House every night to eat steak. “I saw him a lot,” she said.
Hipp arrived in New York at the end of the bop era. Charlie Parker, one of bop’s architects, had died nine months earlier. Popular as it was, bop seemed increasingly trapped in its own conventions. The speedy chord changes and patterns that had once separated bop from swing were now familiar, even restrictive, and musicians were searching for new modes of expression. Blue Note players like Horace Silver and Art Blakey reacted with a new bluesy, churchy form with a driving backbeat called Hard bop. Miles Davis and John Coltrane reacted in distinctive ways, too, Davis with experiments in “cool jazz,” as well as by structuring songs and solos on modal scales instead of chord progressions, and Coltrane by playing unique chord progressions in a style that became known as his “sheets of sound.” Jutta floated somewhere between tradition and innovation, a fan of Silver’s thunderous, rhythmic approach but not an architect of the new. She played what she liked to listen to without feeling compelled to overthrow the old order, and that was part of her brilliance: she played with feeling, not career ambition. The album Jutta Hipp with Zoot Sims exemplifies this. Sims, like Hipp, was a straight-ahead player: not experimental, but rather approachable, swinging, compellingly listenable, which endeared them to listeners and fellow musicians alike. That captures the tone of their collaboration — mostly standards, done straight but incredibly well. Still, Hipp’s reputation and talent set her apart, so when Blue Note offered her a contract, she signed it.
Through the record company, she became peers with some of jazz’s biggest names: Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk. She also became the label’s first white female and European instrumentalist. This wasn’t an exception to some label bias. It was a reflection of the talent pool from which Blue Note pulled. Wolff and Lion didn’t need to look far beyond New York City to find musicians, and most of them happened to be American men of color. Blue Note did sign Gil Mellé, who was white. And there were plenty of talented players in cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. But many of them moved to New York to work, and even more went underrecorded and were, in turn, lost to history. Though female jazz instrumentalists like Jutta existed, compared with female singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, they were scarce.
As Beryl Booker said, ‘They didn’t want no woman playing no piano. So I had to say, move off the bench, daddy-o, here I am.’
There was pianist Beryl Booker, who taught herself to play, never learned how to read music, led her own all-female trio in the ’50s, and opened for Billie Holiday in Germany every night on her 1954 tour. There was pianist Barbara Carroll from Massachusetts, who earned raves from Down Beat and played for decades. There was the Japanese pianist whom Mingus mentioned, Toshiko Akiyoshi, who moved to the United States in 1956 after her talent caught the attention of record-label owner Norman Granz and pianist Oscar Peterson. The pianist whom Hipp temporarily replaced at the Hickory House was a woman named Marian McPartland. And then there was the precursor to them all, Mary Lou Williams, a versatile, respected pianist raised in Kansas City, who worked with everyone from Louis Armstrong to Benny Goodman and played until age seventy-one. But few of these women were taken as seriously as their male counterparts, and they had to constantly prove themselves. As Beryl Booker said, “They didn’t want no woman playing no piano. So I had to say, move off the bench, daddy-o, here I am.”
* * *
During 1956, Hipp and Feather parted ways. The split was not amicable. He had suggested she record some of his compositions. She declined. Popular jazz and blues singer Dinah Washington had recorded a few of Feather’s songs and had success with them. Etta James and Billie Holiday had, too. In 1951, Louis Jordan recorded Feather’s “How Blue Can You Get,” and when B. B. King recorded the song in 1964, it was such a huge hit that it became a standard part of his repertoire. Jutta didn’t work that way. She preferred recording songs that she was drawn to naturally — not suggestions, not possible hits or crowd-pleasers, but songs she liked on their own merits.
Hipp not only turned down his compositions, she turned down his advances. Although Feather’s memoir makes no mention of any sexual tension or personal conflict, Hipp’s biographer, Katja von Schuttenbach, found evidence when she interviewed musicians who knew Hipp; they said that Feather pursued Hipp romantically once she was in the United States. Feather was married and a father at the time, and Jutta was engaged to a Hungarian guitarist named Atilla Zoller. Even though they called off their engagement after he moved to the United States in 1956, Zoller and Hipp remained lifelong friends.
Von Schuttenbach has been researching Hipp since 2005 as part of her master’s thesis, and she intends to publish as a biography. Her account will show how Feather retaliated, turning Hipp, in von Schuttenbach’s words, “from protégée to persona non grata.” Feather had written about Hipp four times in the German magazine Jazz-Echo, but something changed, and Von Schuttenbach points to Feather’s disparaging descriptions of Hipp in both his memoir and his book, The Encyclopedia of Jazz. For fans of jazz who respect Feather’s descriptions, this news is disappointing to hear.
In his memoir, Feather writes that Hipp’s playing changed for the worse in the United States, when she “came under the influence of Horace Silver.” This, he believed, “seemed to have the effect of destroying Jutta’s individuality.” Feather characterizes her retirement as a “loss to jazz of a potentially significant talent,” but he blames her for it. “Her personality was a major problem,” he says. “Extraordinarily withdrawn and totally without self-confidence, she was very near-sighted but refused to wear glasses.” And yet, one wants to say, she did headline gigs like the Hickory House and Newport, and she was assured enough to make numerous records.
Hipp was also a talented visual artist, which Feather mentions only to disparage. “Much of her spare time in New York,” he writes, “was spent doing black-and-white sketches in a style I found somewhat frightening, all the faces, even those of friends we knew to be cheerful and perhaps handsome people, somehow looked gross, menacing and ugly.” A few of Hipp’s drawings have appeared in print. Some of the players have bulging eyes. Some have deep facial lines, protruding lips, and dark shading around the eyes. They’re hardly frightening. Curiously, Feather never mentions their falling out. He never hints that professional disagreements, or the nature of the music business, might have played a part in her retirement. He only says, “By 1958 we had lost touch with her; word reached us that she had taken a day job at a tailor’s shop.”
The first edition of Feather’s The Encyclopedia of Jazz, published in 1955, includes an entry about Hipp. By 1966, Feather had removed her entry, commenting in the preface that she was no longer “a conspicuously active figure on today’s jazz scene.”
* * *
Regardless of the story Feather tells about Hipp, she did begin, in 1958, to perform less often. She worked at the factory during the week, and she performed on weekends and on her days off. Instead of Manhattan, she kept to smaller venues, like the Continental Club in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and Copa City in Jamaica, Queens. She loved these clubs. The venues were intimate. The audiences were enthusiastic and the owners nice. Innumerable musicians hung out and played in them, so Hipp met everyone from Coltrane to James Moody to Fats Waller’s son Maurice. According to letters that von Schuttenbach has obtained, Hipp’s fondness for these clubs reflected her belief that jazz was an intimate art form best experienced in small venues. In the late 1950s, she toured the American South with saxophonist Jesse Powell’s band. It was a scrappy tour that generated little money, but Hipp enjoyed it so much she counted it as one of the high points of her career. In a 1998 interview, Hipp said, “I want people to know that the real jazz happens in the little clubs.” She also said: “I don’t go to those places [where the well-known musicians play]. I go to those little unknown places, where the musicians love to play. There’s nothing arranged there, you know. They just play and enjoy it. All these other places have arranged music, and [the musicians] always play it the same way. And [the public doesn’t] like it unless they do it the same way.”
* * *
In 1958, Hipp failed to pay the rent on her apartment, in Manhattan, and had to move. She took a room for two weeks at the Alvin Hotel, a now-demolished building on 52nd Street where many musicians lived, including Lester Young, Curtis Fuller, and Yusef Lateef. “I saw him in his room,” Hipp said of Young. “He had a tiny room with a bed in the middle and no window. And on the sides of the bed were all kinds of bums sleeping. And when he came downstairs, he was all dressed up smiling and waiting.… The Alvin Hotel was terrible.” After the Alvin, she moved into another hotel, and finally into an apartment on Horatio Street in the Village. When she got a job at the garment factory in Queens, she found an apartment nearby.
By 1960, however, Hipp had quit music altogether. The Continental Club closed, and gigs dried up. Copa City’s owner, Murray Jupiter, closed his club in frustration. “On the last night, he couldn’t take it anymore,” Hipp said. “He took all the glasses he had behind the bar, and he smashed everything.” Without her favorite haunts, she relied on the factory. “It saved my life,” she said. “Because I couldn’t survive any other way.”
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Without piano in her life, Hipp spent her time painting and drawing. She was hardly the only prominent jazz musician to quit. Trumpeter Jabbo Smith played like the Dizzy Gillespie of his era, “as good as Louis [Armstrong in 1930],” according to bassist Milt Hinton, but by the late 1950s, he’d taken a job at Avis Rent a Car in Milwaukee. Composer-saxophonist Gigi Gryce, who wrote some memorable jazz standards, quit performing and became a teacher. The financial and emotional strains of a career in music overwhelmed him. His second-to-last album is called The Rat Race Blues.
Hipp’s factory job was a union gig working for the once-thriving Wallachs men’s clothing chain. “I just stayed there because it was easy,” she said. “It didn’t take much out of me, you know. I still had enough time to paint… I really didn’t care what they made if the people were nice.”
* * *
Meanwhile, American music continued to change. Free jazz developed out of more melodic, rhythmic forms like hard bop and went so far out that it no longer resembled the music Hipp had played. At the same time, rock ’n’ roll eclipsed jazz as the people’s music, pushing Blue Note and its players into the cultural margins, and sending record sales plummeting. Tom Evered remembers, “Traditional jazz was on the decline and fusion/contemporary jazz was on the rise. The founders of the label, Francis Wolff and Alfred Lion, had moved on.” The label’s owner transferred the offices and master tapes from Manhattan to Los Angeles. There, far from the East Coast urban environment that created the music, its legacy sat neglected, until younger generations rediscovered midcentury jazz during the 1980s, and a visionary producer and fan named Michael Cuscuna spearheaded a program of reissues and previously unheard releases. By the time Blue Note began to experience a revival of interest and business, key jazz players such as Hank Mobley, Grant Green, and Lee Morgan had died. Others still played: Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Smith, Lou Donaldson, and Jackie McLean. Some, like pianists George Wallington and Beryl Booker as well as Jutta Hipp, were alive but had gone dormant.
* * *
When Tom Evered and Astrid Heppner found Hipp, she was living in a four-story walkup. The brown-brick exterior was crisscrossed by fire escapes, with air-conditioning units hanging outside of windows. Apartments stood on one side of the street and a plain warehouse on the other. Inside, the building was dark. Evered and Heppner followed the hall to unit 1C and knocked on the door. Hipp answered, smiling. “I wouldn’t have recognized her,” Evered said. She didn’t look like the smooth-skinned woman with lustrous black hair on the album covers.
The apartment was simple — just a bedroom and a sitting room — and the furniture was spare, but art decorated the walls: drawings and paintings, photos and sewing, most of which Hipp had made. “There was not a piano in the house,” Evered said. It was one of the first things he noticed. He and Heppner offered to take Hipp to lunch, but she was under the weather. Instead, they sat on her sofa, and she served cake and coffee. “She was very happy that we were there,” Evered said, “very personable, and she wanted to be a good hostess even though she wasn’t feeling well.” They talked about her royalties, talked about her paintings and drawings, talked about the cake. “She didn’t have stories on the tip of her tongue about playing with various people,” Evered said. “She didn’t want to talk about Alfred Lion or Germany.” So the conversation fluttered from one light topic to the next, and when it fizzled, Evered scrambled for things to say. “I was looking for something she might want to talk about,” he said, “to make her at ease.”
He’d noticed an image on her living-room wall: a framed photo of the Concorde supersonic jet. That’s strange, he thought. The previous year, a Concorde had crashed at an airport in Paris. “Why do you have a picture of the Concorde on your wall?” he said.
“Oh,” Hipp said, “I just love the looks of it. My friends and I used to go out by JFK and sit by the bay, and we would wait for the Concorde to take off.” She had photographed it more times than she could count. She told Evered and Heppner about how much she enjoyed going to Jamaica Bay to paint watercolors and watch birds. Years later, he found out she’d sold these paintings at local street fairs. The year before his visit, some of the paintings had hung at the Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center in Queens.
Evered spotted another framed item on her wall: a piece of paper on which Hipp had written important dates in her life. One of them was November 18, 1955: the day she arrived in the United States.
Even when the meeting felt labored, it never became truly awkward. “But the conversation,” Tom said, “really just didn’t keep going.” As a jazz fan, he had a few questions he wanted to ask her, questions about who, she’d played with and where she played, and if she still listened to jazz, but they were questions he didn’t ask. “I didn’t want to just bombard this old woman with questions,” he said, “because she didn’t really seem like she wanted to talk about the old days.” He did ask her whether she played music anymore, though, and he says he’ll never forget the look on her face as she said, “Ach, no. I don’t play anymore.” Then she put the issue to rest in her accented English. “I wasn’t very good.”
“I think, sadly, that’s kind of the way she judged her career,” Evered said. “We, of course, disagreed, but she had made up her mind and we weren’t going to argue about it.” She’d just written off that part of her life. “It was sad to see somebody who’d turned her back on what talent she did have.” Today, he looks back on the visit with regret that he didn’t ask her more questions or come back and visit her again. “I kind of kick myself for not reaching out to her a little more,” he said. “I think on her own, Jutta would have just been too shy, or too self-deprecating, to get on the phone and check on royalties.”
Evered and Heppner stayed for about an hour. “We gave her the check, and I said, ‘Is there anything else I can do for you?’ Because I saw how she was living — which wasn’t destitute by any means, but not a lot of luxuries. She said, no, she was just happy to get this.”
* * *
A week after their visit, a box of little German cookies arrived at the Blue Note office, a thank-you gift from Hipp. She and Evered spoke a few times on the phone, and she received a few more royalty checks. Two years later, she died.
She had no heirs. She wasn’t in touch with her son. When she’d moved overseas, she wanted to bring her mother and brother, Hajo, to the United States, but that never happened, though her brother visited once a year. Hipp called him a jazz fanatic, because he spent so much of his trip sitting in her apartment, listening to jazz on local 88.3 FM. He was too sick to attend her funeral.
Hipp’s apartment was cleaned, and new tenants moved in. She’d willed her body to Columbia University Medical Center for research. In 2005, her ashes were sprinkled over one of her favorite places: Long Island Sound.
* * *
Four days after Hipp’s death, the New York Times ran an obit. It provided a detailed account of her life, though it wasn’t without errors. “She was living alone in Jackson Heights, Queens,” the article said, getting the neighborhood wrong. Also incorrect was the line “In 1958 she stopped playing jazz because of low self-confidence.” It was more complicated than that, and anyway, she’d kept performing until 1960. But perhaps the mistakes were understandable, given how far off the cultural radar Hipp had moved. Over the years, she had declined so many interviews too. When she did finally speak about her life, it was in a 1998 interview for the now-defunct Jazz News. It includes dates. It includes Hipp’s financial reasons for retirement as well as an account of her escape from East Germany, along with other stories about her life. When the interviewer asks about moving to the United States in 1955, Hipp mentions living in Feather’s house. “I had a little room,” she says, “and I had to share a bathroom with a girl. The bathroom was in between us. She was from church, and she would always sing chorales. [Laughs.] Those were miserable times. I don’t want to remember them.”
She describes walking home from school one day after Allied aircraft bombed Leipzig, how she walked for hours among burning buildings. “I didn’t even know if my parents and my brother were still alive.” She tells a story about the time she tried to talk to Miles Davis at a New York club, and Davis yelled, “Get the hell out of my face!” And she tells a story about riding through Brooklyn with the jazz patron Pannonica de Koenigswarter, how de Koenigswarter was driving so crazily that the other passenger, singer Babs Gonzalez, said to Hipp, “Let’s get out of the car,” and they took the subway home.
“It’s too bad that you don’t play piano anymore,” the interviewer says.
“No,” says Hipp, “it’s good that I don’t because there [are] so many good piano players who are a thousand times better.”
“But wouldn’t you find piano playing to be relaxing?”
“Well, so is painting and listening,” she says.
The interviewer then asks whether she’s received other requests to talk about her life and music, and all the tired issues that had shadowed her for decades rise up—issues of obscurity, of why she split the scene, the same questions about the old days and what she’s been doing and whether she’ll ever perform again. Laying it all to rest, Hipp says, “I don’t really care for that. I’ve said everything I have to say already.”
Adapted slightly from This Is: Essays on Jazz by Aaron Gilbreath. Copyright © 2017 by Aaron Gilbreath. All rights reserved.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in print in issue four of Jesse Pearson’s Apology magazine.
Editor: Michelle Weber