First Lady of European Free Jazz

I am not really into Free Jazz as I have discovered in a self-experiment. So, why a blog about the First Lady of European Free Jazz? Because the story of Swiss Jazz can never be complete without Irène Schweizer!

If you like this, please keep reading, there will be more! But even if you are not into that sort of Jazz, you might admire Irène Schweizer, because there is much more to her than “just” her music. She was and is a true activist on various fronts and a very interesting person.

According to her own words, she has always been a quite radical person. She early on decided for herself that music was her thing, but not any kind of music, it was Jazz which interested her. At the end of the 1950ies, roughly twenty years old, she wins the first prize at the Zurich Amateur Jazz Festival with her own trio. At that time, Rock’n’Roll was the big thing amongst the youngsters, but she had no ears for that.

Africana Instead, she becomes a regular at the Café Africana and listens to, but also plays with, many other Jazz musicians. Not only Swiss player but more importantly, she gets to see foreign bands which bring totally new influences to this country.

For example Abdullah Ibrahim/Dollar Brand and Dudu Pukwana play their South African sounds in the Africana (where else?) and get Irène Schweizer going with their energy and style.

Although the sixties and seventies are a very difficult time for Jazz music, also in Switzerland, Irène Schweizer further develops her own style. And in the early 70ies, she is ready to break with all the rules. She plays the piano with her elbows and plucks the strings in the instrument with her fingers, with the result that parts of the audience leave the concerts – booing at her.

Which doesn’t let her to be deterred, she develops the music of her influences Cecil Taylor, Thelonious Monk and the above mentioned Dollar Brand from a European view.

The rejection she receives from part of the audience stems not only from her extreme way of playing, but also because she is a woman. In Switzerland, women just got the right to vote in 1971.

But her music fits well with the turbulent times. Starting in the late sixties, also the else quite sleepy and peaceful Switzerland gets its share of riots and civil commotions. The locally famous “Globuskrawalle” took place in 1968 and the youth, like in the rest of Europe, is in the streets.

But Irène Schweizer is not only an “activist” on stage, she also helps founding a musicians association with the aim to improve the position of the musicians. And later on she is heavily involved in setting up Intakt Records, a new label ( which exists still today (and distributes all her records!).


In 1981, together with other musicians and concert organiser she creates Fabrikjazz Zürich, with the aim to give contemporary Jazz a stage. In the over 30 years until now, almost 750 orchestras have played there.

Out of her involvement in the feminist as well as gay movement, she becomes part of the Feminist Improvising Group out of which later she forms the trio Les Diaboliques with Scottish vocalist Maggie Nicols and French bassist Joelle Leandre. Together they release four records, here’s an example what they are up to on stage.

All the above show that Irène Schweizer does not live in an isolated musician world, preoccupied only with the next record or concert. She is active on many fronts and if there is a lack of something, a label or a concert venue for her music, she goes and helps creating it!

With this, back to her music. A centre piece of her works are five records she creates in the ten years between 1986 and 1996. Five piano-drums duo pieces with five of the greatest modern Jazz drummer: with the South African Louis Moholo, the German Günter Sommer, the US American Andrew Cyrille, the Dutch Han Bennink and the Swiss Pierre Favre.

Have you enjoyed what you have heard so far? Then I would like to recommend you two more records from Irène Schweizer. First Storming of the Winter Palace, recorded at the Jazz Festival Moers and the Taktlos Zurich (see above) where she played with George Lewis – trombone, Maggie Nicols – vocals, Joëlle Léandre – bass and Günter Sommer – drums. Released in 2000 this record was extremely well received.

And secondly, Where is Africa recorded with the Swiss saxophone player and singer Omri Ziegele, released in 2005.

Given that you are still here, you must really like the music of the First Lady of Free Jazz! She might not be as wild anymore as she used to be, but even in her early seventies she is nothing short of being boring – just check out her last record Spring!


2 thoughts on “First Lady of European Free Jazz

    1. Thanks for your comment! Agree that not all Free Jazz is the same. Both “Africa” records of her I find more accessible and also the latest ones. She seems to have calmed down a bit. Although I might not like every piece of Irene Schweizer, she has been hugely influential in Europe and Switzerland in particular!

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