"I was fired after one or two years in the conservatory in Amsterdam when I was 17 or 18 years old," confesses Willem Breuker. "They told me, 'You don't have any talent for music so it will be very bad for you in future if you continue making music.' "
Composer, woodwind player, pianist and leader of the Willem Breuker Kollectief, the 40-year-old chairman of the Dutch Foundation for Jazz and Improvised Music had the last laugh. "Now they say to everybody, 'He's one of my pupils.' "
Breuker will take his 10-member Kollectief into Baird Auditorium at 8 tonight for a Smithsonian Resident Associates concert that will no doubt raise eyebrows as well as spirits, for Breuker's music comes from the entire spectrum of jazz as well as from such far-flung sources as his own folk roots, Bach, Gustav Mahler, beer-hall music, the 12-tone compositional music of Arnold Scho nberg, Kurt Weill and band experience with iconoclastic compatriots like Misja Mengelberg and Han Bennink, who led the Dutch jazz vanguard before Breuker upstaged them.
Until a couple of decades ago the jazz played abroad by Europeans was nearly devoid of originality, deriving what little spark it had from the contributions of expatriate American jazz players, many of whom had settled permanently in Paris, Copenhagen, Berlin and other cultural centers. Then, in the mid-'60s, something happened.
"European musicians started to be independent, not hanging all the time on American ideas and copying what came on records or from American musicians that played in Europe," Breuker says. "We set up our own music based on European ideas. We have a long tradition of music, as you know, and also a lot of music from the people -- folk music or whatever you want to call it. So let's say we make a mixture of improvised music with that tradition -- it's a different point of view."
The tradition Breuker springs from, apart from the folk idioms, is a compositional one, and Breuker is the first to admit that form and structure play an important role in his creative efforts. After all, he is noted throughout the continent as a prolific composer and an exemplary film scorer. But while Breuker is at odds with the free-for-all blowing style that characterizes some of the other contemporary bands based in Europe -- such as the international Globe Unity Orchestra -- he can hardly be described as paying slavish attention to the written arrangement.
"We don't sit at home at our table and think, 'What shall we do?' I mean, most of the things come spontaneously and later on you build a form out of it and you use it or you don't use it," he says.
It would be only a partial description of the Willem Breuker Kollectief in performance to say that it is seriocomic in the way of Sun Ra's Arkestra, that in its respect for the past and its vision of the future it is akin to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, that it partakes of spur-of-the-moment theatricality in the manner of the Living Theater, and that its members aspire to Ellingtonian standards of individual expression.
The word is out to be prepared for a high-energy, musically rewarding and madcap program by these Dutchmen on their third visit to this country. Their six-week tour will be about half over when they march -- yes, march -- into Baird Auditorium tonight. Anything could happen.
"You find your own things during playing," Breuker points out, "watching other musicians or watching the public . . . sometimes we have to change our program when we see the stage."