Danish Drummer Jørn Elniff Takes the Stage as Bebop Reaches Copenhagen
Our Dangerous Sounds story continues in Copenhagen with perhaps the most important Danish sideman ever—Jørn Elniff. Elniff is a legendary figure in Danish jazz, an overlooked and underappreciated star. His story has it all—honor, glory, horror, heartbreak, and never-ending parties with infinite supplies of drinking and drugs... even suicide attempts.
His story represents a very important time in Danish jazz—a period that would officially put the country on the map as a jazz destination. Here’s Elniff at the peak of his powers playing with jazz legend Eric Dolphy.
Elniff’s musical career begins in the early 1950s. It’s hard to imagine the little quiet feudal society of Denmark developing into a hot spot for the creative and original African American art form: jazz.
One of the biggest stars of the 1940s, Leo Mathisen, is terminally ill and can no longer perform, while another, Svend Asmussen, spends most of his energy playing jazz in a comedy and variety show. His music isn’t pushing any cultural boundaries at the moment.
In the Danish jazz underground, however, things are starting to happen. A new, dangerous sound is in the air—BEBOP—and the minds of musicians and listeners are opening up to the newest style of American music from Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and other innovators.
Even though Jørn Elniff is very young the first time he hears bebop, the music does something to him. The call of bebop pushes Jørn to get a drum set and join his first band.
Jørn’s talent is undeniable; and at that time in Denmark, if you’ve got talent, you have to study at the conservatory. But in the early 1950s, that’s an expensive luxury not afforded to people coming from modest means with a single mother, in what was Copenhagen's worst slum back then.
Elniff auditions and gains acceptance. There's just one problem. It’s forbidden to play jazz at the conservatory! In fact, you can even be expelled if you’re caught playing jazz. So Jørn Elniff practices—with brushes instead of drum sticks—and plays jazz in secret, hiding in the basement under the conservatory. He has some close calls during those undercover practice sessions and nearly gets busted a couple of times.
The conservative Royal Danish Academy of Music eventually accepts the new musical genre that’s spreading across the country. Finally, in 1955, Jørn Elniff presents the first official jazz concert at the conservatory. It’s a two-hour concert, and afterward, there’s no doubt that Elniff is the ambassador of the new sound in Denmark.
The new dangerous sounds have finally been accepted by the musical elite at the conservatory—the highest musical institution in Denmark. And as for (the) 17-year-old Jørn Elniff, after the concert, everyone wants to play with him. The world is his for the taking.
After Elniff’s concert at the conservatory, things move quickly for our young star on the drums. He’s the first person people called when they need a drummer. And in ‘62, you can find him in the middle of all the musical action at Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen.
They’re dubbed “The Best Jazz Trio in Europe” —American pianist and living bebop legend, Bud Powell, the Danish virtuoso bassist, Niels Henning Ørsted Pedersen... and Jørn Elniff on drums.
Listen to episode 3, Sidemen from Heaven, of the Dangerous Sounds podcast here.