At a superficial glance, Leipzig-born pianist Jutta Hipp seems like a curious choice to have been the first female instrumentalist signed to Blue Note, but she makes perfect sense for a label founded by two German Jews who formed a fast friendship after meeting in the jazz clubs of Weimar era Berlin. Hipp’s family, however, didn’t leave, and the young woman—she was 14 when the German invasion of Poland precipitated the start of World War II—lived through one of the heaviest Allied bombing campaigns of the conflict. Through it all, she nursed a secret love of jazz, which the Nazis had banned, and would gather with like-minded teens to listen to clandestine broadcasts and records, where they heard the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Fats Waller.

Hipp herself was an accomplished pianist, having started playing when she was nine. Jazz was big in Germany at the time, and Hipp was attracted to the freewheeling style far more than she was the strict, formal method she was being taught. When the war ended, the Soviet Union took control of Leipzig, and Hipp, now 21 years old, fled the city for American-controlled Munich. However, she found conditions there were harsh. With no money, no food, and no home, she was a refugee in her own country and sought to eke out a living as a musician (her first love, painting, providing no prospects for employment). She also had a son with a Black American soldier, who because the US Army was still segregated and Black men were not permitted to claim paternity of a child with a white woman, remains to this day unknown. The child was put up for adoption, and Hipp continued a rather hardscrabble existence, playing at places like Munich’s Bongo Bar where, as Hipp told an interviewer, live monkeys and leopards were on hand.

However, her profile as a jazz pianist was starting to grow as recordings of her sessions in Germany got shared around, including to well-known British-born jazz composer, broadcaster, and critic Leonard Feather. Feather was impressed by Hipp’s playing, and while on a German tour in 1954, he sought her out and began recording her and the group with which she was playing. Those recordings made their way to America and onto Blue Note Records, which released the sessions as New Faces – New Sounds from Germany, Jutta Hipp’s first Blue Note record, and Blue Note’s first release by a woman.

The recording is not of the same quality as those Blue Note was producing with sound engineer Rudy Van Gelder back in the US, but the slightly lower-fi sound adds to the overall vibe. New Faces – New Sounds from Germany is the sound of a group of musicians who grew up on the hot jazz and swing sound of the 1920s and ‘30s and then emerged from the isolation of the war to find a transformed style of jazz that had shifted away from big bands and into the smaller, more intimate combos of bop and hard bop. It’s raw, bouncy here and melancholy there, and has great energy. It’s very much the soundtrack of a small, smoky European jazz club—only without the monkeys and leopards.

In 1956, Hipp immigrated to New York, where Feather secured her a gig as a pianist at the Hickory House at 144 West 52nd St.—the heart of what was known at the time as Swing Street, and which is today a massive, anonymous office block. Blue Note released two live recordings of Hipp at the Hickory House in 1956. She even performed at the Newport Jazz Festival, and in 1957 Blue Note recorded a studio with her, Jutta Hipp with Zoot Sims, on which she was paired with Zoot Sims, a California-born saxophonist, WWII veteran, former vaudeville song and dance man, and all-around beatnik sort of guy (he recorded stuff with Jack Kerouac)—a Bohemian and a bohemian. Dude probably would have loved the Bongo Bar.

Now with the full might of Van Gelder’s Hackensack studio to capture her playing, Jutta is in great form. She really seems to vibe with Sims, whose laid-back, anything-goes style must have jibed with Hipp’s background playing in post-war Munich clubs. It might be more of a Zoot Sims album than it is a Jutta Hipp album, but her playing still shines—just not as brightly as Sims’ sax. The album is a great combination of upbeat bop and sultry ballads, my favorite being “Violets for Your Furs.” It’s as perfect a late-night mood as has ever been recorded.

Despite struggling to seize her piece of the limelight in the shadow of Zoot Sims, Jutta Hipp’s strong playing on Jutta Hipp with Zoot Sims seemed to anticipate great things ahead for her. But then it all went to hell.

Hipp’s heart had never been in music. In the aftermath of the war, the piano had been a good way to survive, but her discovery by Feather and rapid ascension had never been anything she particularly wanted. She struggled with severe stage fright, not to mention likely depression, alcoholism, and PTSD caused by her experiences during and immediately after the war. There were also stories that she endured ridicule from some American musicians who disdained European jazz artists, and that bad blood between her and Feather made everything harder for her. However, not every American jazz musician was hard on her. Charles Mingus loved her and even name drops her about six-and-a-half minutes into the documentary, Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968.

As the 1950s wound on, jazz’s popularity faced serious competition from rock ‘n’ roll, making it more difficult to pay the bills. Once again facing poverty and homelessness, Hipp took a more dependable job in a clothing factory. She continued to perform on weekends until around 1960, when she took a job at Wallach’s Clothiers and left the world of jazz behind entirely. so completely did she vanish from the scene that Blue Note had a stack of royalty checks to send her but had no idea where she was—until 2001, when Blue Note general manager Tom Evered took it upon himself to track her down. He finally found her thanks to saxophonist Lee Konitz’s wife, Gundula, one of the few music world people with whom Hipp stayed in touch. Evered took a car from Manhattan to Sunnyside, Queens, and hand-delivered to Jutta her accumulated royalties, roughly $35,000. She died a couple of years later, on April 7, 2003.

While you can reasonably claim that she lapsed into obscurity, you can’t really say it was total obscurity, thanks largely to “the more obscure, the better” Japanese jazz fans who became obsessed with her and her then-exceptionally rare Blue Note recordings. These days, those albums are back in print and available digitally, and Jutta Hipp, Europe’s queen of jazz and the first woman on Blue Note Records, has assumed her rightful spot in music history.


One thought on “Jutta Hipp: From Leipzig to Swing Street

  1. Nice one!.
    This is what I think
    Great article highlighting the amazing talent and story of Jutta Hipp, the first female instrumentalist signed to Blue Note Records. It’s wonderful to see her rightful spot in music history being recognized and her albums being made available again.

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