The mysterious genius of Claus Ogerman

Seven months after his death on March 8, 2016, Claus Ogerman‘s passing was finally confirmed. I’d first read about it in June, in a Facebook post from his colleague, the American sound engineer Al Schmitt. But neither Ogerman’s family nor his office confirmed it. A close contact’s of Ogerman, who asked not to be named, was the only one to say, yes, it was true.

I first discovered Claus Ogerman on an album by Brazilian artist Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim. “All music composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim – All arrangements by Claus Ogerman” was embossed on the cover. Bossa Nova classically arranged. Captivating, complex, melodic, profound, dreamy, melancholic.

Years later I was surprised to learn that Ogerman was actually German, born as Klaus Ogermann in 1930 in what was then Upper Silesia and today Poland. After the war he studied music in Nuremberg and began working as a composer, arranger, pianist and singer for various radio orchestras, like the ones directed by Kurt Edelhagen and Max Greger. At the same time he founded his music publishing company for his own and other’s compositions. It became his other prime source of income.

In 1959 he moved with his wife Inge to New York and soon met Rolf Kühn, who was already living there playing in Benny Goodman’s orchestra. As Kühn recently told me, Ogerman asked him if he could show some of his arrangements to Goodman. His hope was to get an entry into the US jazz-scene. He’d said he’d be happy to. In part it was in honor of Ogerman’s wife, whom Kühn had known back in his days in Leipzig. That was quite a favor, yet Ogerman never came up with the arrangements. Maybe it was because he’d immediately gotten attractive offers from producers and record companies. In no time at all, he became one of the most sought-after arrangers in the USA. Dinah Washington, Solomon Burke and Ben E. King were the first artists he worked with. He even arranged Lesley Gore’s number 1 hit “It’s my Party,” quickly establishing his bona fides. One of his steadiest clients was Quincy Jones, who became artistic director of Mercury Records in 1961.

It was in 1963 that the fruitful collaboration began with Tom Jobim. They worked on many joint projects. Among them was the 1967 masterpiece Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim. Ogerman served as both arranger and conductor for the sessions.

He arranged a total of 300 albums by over 250 artists, among them Barbra Streisand, Stan Getz, Astrud Gilberto, Dr. John, Oscar Peterson, Freddie Hubbard, Stephane Grappelli, João Gilberto, Sammy Davis Jr., Michael Franks and Bill Evans.

Ogerman had an eccentric lifestyle. James Last met him in New York in 1967. “Sometimes he didn’t know where left and right was,” Last related. “Sometimes he was married, sometimes he had a boyfriend, a very dazzling figure.“ Ogerman had a fondness for psychedelics, too. As Last reported in his autobiography My Life, “After a few drinks he served us coffee, and I saw that he put something it. I had no idea what that could be, it wasn’t sugar. My drug experience until that day was limited to occasional drags on a joint. But we didn’t want to make a big fuss about it and drank the coffee. At night I woke up and was completely crazy, totally high.” Heinz Voigt had the same experience when they all went to Colorado with Ogerman, Last says. “In the middle of the night my wife was standing over the bed singing operettas,” Voigt told him. “Whatever was in the coffee,” Last said, “Once and never again.” ´Dosing` was standard in the Grateful Dead’s commune, but Claus Ogerman?

I had my first contact with Ogerman in the winter of 1997. He called me at the Polygram office. I’d left several messages at the two addresses I had for his publishing company, one in New York and one in Munich at Ottostrasse 19. That was the same building where 70s schlager star Rex Gildo would later leap out of a window.

Ogerman couldn’t be reached directly by telephone, although he had an official number in Munich. When I called somebody always picked up. “Good morning, this is the telephone service of the German Post. Who would you like to speak to?”

“Mr. Ogermann,” I said. Yet again I’d leave my name and telephone number.

Hours, days or weeks later Ogerman would contact our office. Mostly he’d call from a German airport, before departure to the USA. Often I’d miss him. When I was in a meeting, out for lunch or just stepped out of my office, he’d call and my assistant would tell me “A Mr. Ogerman just called.” My day was ruined. It would take days or even weeks until he called again.

I was desperate to reach him. Till Brönner wanted Ogerman to arrange his upcoming album and we were on a tight schedule. Though Ogerman knew and appreciated Brönner’s albums, he politely refused. In 1979 he had resolutely ended his career as an arranger for jazz and pop musicians. From that point on he vowed to dedicate himself exclusively to his own works and classical compositions. “I have made picture frames in America. I didn’t do the actual paintings,” he explained in the 1985 TV documentary Time Present, Time Past, directed by Christopher Nupen. “I want to concentrate on my own work, do the things I wanted to do 20 years ago.” Till wasn’t the only one because Ogerman also refused to cooperate with Prince, Sting and Natalie Cole.

In 1998 my interest in contacting Ogerman intensified. My colleague Matthias Künnecke and I had the idea to release a special edition of Ogerman´s work. Künnecke was the perfect collaborator for a project like that. A few years earlier I had hired him on the spot as product manager after he entered my office as an intern with the question, “Are you doing a Walter Wanderley compilation right now?” Somehow he’d heard about it. And he was the first employee at Polygram who knew the music of the Brazilian organ-player Walter Wanderley, who was nearly forgotten by the mid-nineties. The job interview was successfully passed.

We often stayed late in the office and raved about all the forgotten hits, B-sides and heroes whose master tapes gathered dust in the hidden corners of the archives. We sifted through these and released a series of elaborate sets of great music. It was the reward for all the overtime hours we had to endure. The bosses got their fat bonuses and we our fancy special editions.

Our favorite subject was Claus Ogerman, a man misjudged and unknown in his German homeland. That had to change. In 1998 we set to work together with the music expert Stefan Kassel, who co-produced and designed the special edition.

Finally I got Ogerman on the phone. He was pleased when we told him about the plan. But it quickly became apparent that approval from Ogerman was only the first of many steps in a long process. Compiling his work meant including some of the greatest and biggest stars in contemporary music. We’d have to approach George Benson, Barbra Streisand and the estate of Frank Sinatra for authorizations. Want to know how complicated that is? We submitted the request to Frank Sinatra at Warner Music Germany – including the planned track list, the dealer price of the box and our sales estimate. Warner Germany forwarded this information to Warner USA, who in turn had to get the OK from Tina Sinatra. With our rather modest sales expectations (“Claus who?”) our hope to get a clearance or even an answer was slight. And then, when it came to Barbra Streisand, she  wasn’t known for her willingness to cooperate. Especially when the box would hardy bring in much in the way of income.

But we got help from our then Verve Records president Tommy LiPuma, a beloved, old school record business executive producer. He was quite the character. Expense was no issue, whether costly studios, top flight musicians, sound engineers or exclusive restaurants. Every day he held his meetings at his favorite Italian restaurant in Manhattan. Each bill matched my monthly salary. During his visit to us in Hamburg, we went to Le Canard, the best restaurant in the city. True to form he ordered a 300 German mark bottle of white wine – then called over the manager and staff. For 30 minutes they sniffed, tasted, sniffed again, until the restaurant agreed to open another bottle.

Tommy had just celebrated a worldwide success with his latest discovery, the singer and pianist Diana Krall. Her music was the perfect soundtrack for every candlelit party and intimate dinner. Tommy‘s plan was to convince Ogerman once again to write jazz arrangements. He’d tried first to get him to work on Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable album. Nothing doing. With Jonny Mandel stepping in to arrange, the album was later awarded multiple Grammys and seven million sales in the USA alone.

Ogerman had his own goal in mind: to finally issue his works on a respected classical label. The greatest of all, of course, would have been Deutsche Grammophon. But with his track record of 20 years in popular music, the people in charge at DG wouldn’t even listen. Even respected recordings with Gidon Kremer & Co. didn’t help. Had he been married to Anne-Sophie Mutter, then perhaps… After all, Andre Previn, who also wore the stain of Broadway and Hollywood, managed to issue a release under the yellow label. But Ogerman was denied the honor. The second choice was Decca, another respected classical label. For that, a deal was made. If Ogerman arranged Diana Krall’s album, Decca US’s Black Label would release Ogerman’s Two Concertos.

It took four years to release all the different albums. During this period Claus Ogerman remained the main topic of conversation among Verve president Tommy LiPuma, Christopher Roberts, at the time international Universal Music Classical boss, and me. Not a bad subject about which to converse with top executives.

The necessary authorizations from Tina Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and George Benson for our Ogerman box set were declared a matter for the president. Tommy personally worked on getting the permissions for all the songs and that alone took 12 months. In times of Spotify and Apple Music it reads like the last millennium, and that is what it was.

Ogerman had clear ideas about the look and feel of the box. He commissioned the seiminal journalist Gene Lees for the liner notes. He paid for the mastering and gave us two unreleased tracks recorded by him and Joyce, a renowned Brazilian composer and interpreter. He rejected titles from his early time with Kurt Edelhagen and from his RCA albums Watusi Trumpets and Saxes Mexicanos. The titles alone probably tell you why. Our suggestion to use a photo from the Frank Sinatra session as cover image was answered with a lawyer’s letter. If we were to use it, a fine of 10,000 German marks would be imposed. Accepted, Maestro.

Despite the hard work and good music and three full projects, our hope to make Ogerman a household name in Germany went unfulfilled. Although Diana Krall made a smash hit with The Look of Love, Ogerman remained in the shadow of her success. The classic work Two Concertos received the greatest media attention, including a full-page ad in the classic magazine Fono Forum, which Ogermann placed at his own expense – and without even informing us. Our 4-CD box-set The Man Behind The Music, in turn, irritated the jazz people, for whom the music seemed too shallow. And it irritated the classic music people, for whom it was too pop. And, you guessed it, it irritated the pop people who thought it too classical.

We remained faithful to the artist we so revered. Another deal followed in 2007. The jazz label Emarcy released Danilo Perez’s album Across The Crystal Sea – produced by Tommy LiPuma and arranged and conducted by Claus Ogerman. At the same time Decca (the red-blue-label) released the Works for Violin & Piano by “Ogermann” (written with two “n’s” in the classical tradition) recorded by Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Yue Teng.

For years I tried to set up concerts with Claus Ogerman and his music. I tried to convince the programmers of the Berliner Jazz Tage to organize a Claus Ogerman tribute night. Yet every year the answer was, “We are not a pop or classical music festival. We do jazz.”

We did get close. The WDR almost initiated a big Ogerman gala. Lothar Mattner, head of the TV Classics department, called me on behalf of his top executive. A big concert was planned to connect the four orchestras of WDR, the symphony orchestra, choir, big band and radio orchestra. He knew that I was interested in different genres, whereas he was dedicated exclusively to classical.  My first thought was that this is the perfect stage for Ogerman! Who else could shine with all these orchestras? Ogerman had even worked for the Big Band in the 1950s and with the WDR Choir in the 80s. Mattner liked the idea and it came to a meeting in Cologne with the respective heads of department. Thumbs up from the managers of the big band and the radio orchestra. Thumbs down from the managers of the choir and symphony orchestra. Afterwards we met with Ogerman in Munich, where he had a long-term residence in the Hotel Bayerischer Hof.  He was still open to doing it. But unfortunately the idea silted up in the waters of the WDR.

Still we tried – and how close we got! The next attempt for an Ogerman gala was aimed at Rio in 2014. I met André Midani, Brazil’s legendary record industry mogul. He was present at the first recordings of João Gilberto, signed Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and many artists for Philips do Brasil in the late sixties, and was later director of Warner Brazil and Warner International. He is today over 80 and still influential. Midani was commissioned to put together a music festival programme for the 500th anniversary of Rio de Janeiro. While talking to him about great artists it didn’t take us long to reach Ogerman, who is worshipped in Brazil for his work on bossa nova but who had never played or even been there. With Midani’s connections and respect he could easily have managed to hire a big orchestra and an All-Star Brazilian line-up. With Midani’s approval I sent an invitation to Ogerman in Munich. But a few weeks later he sent the saddest note, made sadder still after coming so close and trying for so long: “Unfortunately my health is no longer playing along… Sad, but true.” Heartbreaking is more like it.

In 2015 I had my last telephone contact with him. For years I’d wanted to release a production, one he initiated, produced and arranged in 1977 at his own expense with the Brazilian singer-songwriter Joyce. Top musicians like Joe Farrell, Buster Williams and Naná Vasconcelos had joined in. Joyce remembers:

“I met him in NYC in 1977. I was living and playing there, and João Palma, a Brazilian drummer who used to play with Jobim, introduced me to Claus. We had an audition. He liked what we were doing and decided to produce and arrange an album with us.

During this time, he was the kindest and most accessible person – he would take us out to dinner at quite expensive places, it was really a treat. And it was always a delightful conversation. He had great sense of humor, was witty, smart.

Then I had to leave. My visa was about to expire and my daughter Clara was sick in Brasil (she and her sister Ana were staying with my mom in Rio while I was in NY). I returned home, but Claus and I remained in contact, by letters and phone calls. He was very enthusiastic about the album, and tried to hook me up with Michael Franks to have my lyrics put into English. He wanted me to go back to NYC in order to record the vocals in English with these possible new lyrics. But then I got pregnant with my third child and couldn’t leave Brasil. And little by little our contacts became rarer, until I lost track of him completely.

And that was it. I never heard from him again.“

Ogerman wanted to release the recordings with a major label at that time, but no one showed interest. The Brazilian jazz wave had passed. Disco and New Wave had become the music of the moment.

Still, I would have been grateful to release the album myself. Ogerman regularly put me off. Sometimes he said he didn’t know where the tapes were. But then he unexpectedly contributed the title “Descompassadamente” to our box The Man Behind The Music. During our last conversation he told me, “You know, Mr. Kellersmann, the recordings still have to be mixed. And I only do that with Al Schmitt. But just for opening his studio door, he already charges 20,000 dollars.” Well, that certainly wasn’t in my budget.

So as consolation I can enjoy the album Symbiosis, from 1974, which will be re-released on vinyl and CD. Piano: Bill Evans. Composed, arranged and conducted by Claus Ogerman. Is it Jazz or Classical music? Never mind – I don’t care. It’s Claus Ogerman(n)!

3 comments

  1. HP Bushoff on

    Schöne und schön geschriebene Geschichte, Christian! Antonio Carlos Jobims wunderbares WAVE-Album war 1971 meine erste Begegnung mit Claus Ogerman. Kurz danach wohnte ich in einer Münsteraner WG, hörte Dylan, aber auch Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Buddy Rich und Antonio Carlos Jobim. Auf den wöchentlichen Küchentribunalen ging es neben Problemen wie Müllruntertragen oder Badezimmersauberkeit auch darum, dass man aus politischen Gründen nicht sowohl Dylan als auch Sinatra hören könne. Those were the days.

  2. Ulli Maier on

    Sehr gut geschrieben und voller interessanter Details – mit Spannung und Vergnügen gelesen. Châpeau!

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