Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Rolf demonstrated an early interest in music and was classically trained in theory, harmony and arranging. At 8 he took up the accordion, and at 12 the clarinet. As a teenager he discovered jazz while living in Leipzig (he was there when American troops invaded the city in 1945). Kuhn became part of the post-war boom in German jazz, emulating idols such as Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. In 1946 he joined the Kurt Henkels band, a group which emulated American swing bands, and over the next ten years Kuhn became one of the top jazz musicians in Germany, regularly winning polls in the music magazines and playing in major festivals.
By the early fifties, musicians around the world were feeling bebop's influence, and Kuhn was certainly no exception. He began emulating Buddy DeFranco, and he caught the ear of Leonard Feather in 1954. On the critic's advice he moved to the states in 1956 to try his luck, though he was pessimistic and nervous about leaving a solid career in Europe. In fact, he had little trouble establishing himself in New York, attracting the interest of top talent scouts like Willard Alexander and John Hammond, who arranged for some recording dates on the Vanguard label.
In 1957 and 1958 Kuhn joined Benny Goodman's band, subbing for Goodman during an extended illness, and he also did time with Tommy Dorsey and Urbie Green's big band. During this time he also did small group work and recordings with both modern groups (in sessions with Art Farmer, Oscar Pettiford, and Toshiko Akiyoshi) and more traditional configurations (he played the Newport festival with Dick Johnson). His playing during the late fifties revealed a very fluent player in the bebop idiom, very much in the style of Buddy DeFranco.
Kuhn returned to Germany in 1962 to lead a jazz orchestra in Hamburg, and his career has been based there ever since. During the early sixties, he began revealing ever more modern tendencies. His younger brother, the pianist Joachim Kuhn, began playing and recording with him, and over the course of the next few years he recorded several records which may be the first evidence of free jazz brought to the clarinet. This development reached a high point in 1967 with the release on Impulse records of Impressions of New York, a quartet date featuring both Kuhns, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Aldo Romano on drums.
Through the sixties Kuhn continued to perform and record in a variety of settings, including a co-operative group with his brother (who became a major player himself), a sextet, and various projects in the late sixties and early seventies featuring players such as John Surman, Barre Phillips, Chick Corea, Eberhard Weber, Tony Oxley and Randy Brecker. One star-studded occasion found him leading a recording date with Phil Woods, Joachim, Peter Warren and Nana Vasconcelos (The Day After, MPS/BASF). It is worth noting that at no time on any of these dates did Kuhn double on sax, as might be expected in an era when the avant-garde and fusion ruled the scene.
Today, Kuhn continues to be active in both traditional and more experimental environments. He recently made a duo recording with Joachim (their first), as well as a fine CD featuring Kuhn and the NDR Big Band playing material associated with the 1938 Goodman band.
duo recording with Joachim
Big Band Connection (1993)
As Time Goes By (1989)
Don't Split (1982)
Symphonic Swampfire (1978)
Total Space (1975)
The Day After (1972; with Phil Woods)
Mad Rockers (1968)
Impressions of N.Y. (1967)
Be My Guest (1961)