Spotlight on…. Unterfahrt jazzclub

Interview with Michael Stückl, Managing Director at Unterfahrt since almost 30 years. As a main occupation he is a Doctor in a hospital's’ network near Munich.

1.    How did the story of Unterfahrt started?

It began in April 1978 when 5 jazz enthusiasts took over a restaurant for railway workers. It was literally next to an “unterfahrt” (under path) below the railway, and this is where it originally got its name from. They made it into a jazz bar, hanging around there and playing free jazz. After two years they created a non-profit organisation in order to receive some money from online loans lenders and the city, especially to buy an upright piano. This is how it started to professionalize. Then the number of concerts started to grow. At the beginning of the 80s it was open 5 days a week, and since 1994 we do 7 concerts a week.

2.    When did it start your involvement with Unterfahrt?

I went to the club for the first time as a guest, I think it was 1982. I was 16 years old and I was organising concerts in a small town in the south of Munich. I was going to Unterfahrt to ask to the bands if they would come and play in my town as well. In 1987 I moved to Munich to study medicine, and one year later I asked the club if they needed a waiter. In order to work there I had to become a member of the organisation. They had something like 19-20 members at that time; it was really like a little community. At my first General Assembly somebody announced that we were insolvent. I intervened: “how can we be insolvent? We are in Munich and it must be possible to run a jazz club in a big city like this”. From that day I became a Board member with responsibility for the finances, and now I am Chairman of the Board for quite a long time.

3.    How many staff do you have?

For me it has always been a hobby, but there is as well some paid staff. I started working for the club together with Christiane Böhnke, who is very well known in the jazz scene. She did the programming for almost 25 years, but left the club two years ago. Since last year we were able to secure Fee Schlennstedt as a new Artistic Director. Rebecca Paas joined the team this year, she is responsible for the production of the concerts. A part-time technician is supported by a couple of volunteers and freelance technicians. We have a young volunteer who is regularly at the office and a part-time accountant. This staff doesn’t include the restaurant and the bar, which are leased to a caterer. All together we have now around 3 full-time staff.

4.    Where is your club located now?

It is part of a complex of almost 2.000 squares meters. It was a former beer cellar, which was transformed into a cultural centre at the end of the nineties, but it didn’t work for 15 years and every attempt went bankrupt. Unterfahrt was one of the few activities that were working well there. Some years ago the Head of Munich Cultural Council asked me to take the whole area and make it into a cultural centre again. We decided to create a new organisation, separated from Unterfahrt. Since 4 years with other Board members we are running this cultural centre, which makes over 700 events per year. It is called Einstein-Kultur (, because there are some links to Einstein in the history of the street where it is located. We do concerts of world and classical music there, but also free jazz and experimental music. We have as well a theatre programme, exhibitions and many other events. Of course there is an extra team for the Einstein.

5.    How is a typical evening at Unterfahrt?

The capacity of the club is of maximum 180 people, mostly seated on tables with a few people standing. Even if the audience is primarily there for the concerts, many of them come early to eat at the club. For the big names people book even a couple of weeks in advance, but there are evenings when people just decide their visit on a short notice. We still do concerts 7 days a week, with many international artists. For example, this month we will have Carla Bley, Richard Bona, Mark Turner and Cyrille Aimée playing all in the same week. On Sunday there are regular jam sessions. On Monday we have big bands, the majority are local big bands, but sometimes as well international ones. Last year we had Maria Schneider playing at our Big Band Monday!

6.    Which approach do you follow for programming at Unterfahrt?

I can tell you what we don’t do… the very traditional styles of jazz like ragtime or dixie, there is no audience for that. We try to have a main focus on European contemporary jazz and to find a good balance between international and local acts. More or less it is 20% local artists, 30% German artists, and 50% European and other international artists. In the last years we tried to move a little bit the programme to include more young and fresh bands, like Snarky Puppy, and this has worked well for bringing younger people to the club.

7.    Who comes to the concerts at Unterfahrt?

We are a membership organisation and at the moment we have around 1.200 members. 20-22% of the audience each night are members, mainly from the Munich area. For the rest I am quite happy because I can see that in the last 2 years the audience is getting younger again, as it was when I started. It is a meeting point for young musicians and students of music schools and universities, and they bring their friends. Jazz courses do their diploma concerts at the club. This is quite good because it helps to bring new audience to the club, and allow us to find many new talents. Every night we see a couple of people at the club for the first time, and some of them are tourists. I remember one concert of Kurt Elling when we had audience from 6 European countries and from 11 German federal states. Many bands are playing their only concert in Germany at Unterfahrt, so the audience sometimes travels a long way to reach the club.

8.    What about the system that you developed for managing the club?

We use a centralised online system for managing all the information. It is an important tool to organise the club. It saves a lot of time when you have little human resources. I am not a programmer, but in my main profession for a couple of years I had the responsibility for an hospital’s IT. In a hospital you must have every information at hand, and at the same time you shouldn’t have any information in two different versions. So I tried to make a system for the club that follows the same philosophy. We have every data inserted one time, so the same information goes to the hotel reservations, to the flyers and posters, in the contracts, in the internet, etc. If you change it in one place it will change everywhere. This system helps us also to do the ticket sales, as well as managing the membership fees. Everything passes through the system. Now for example they system reminds us when it notices that we might need to hire a bass, or to book a hotel. It helps us to keep everything in mind. We never did a hotel booking wrong since we introduced it!

9.    Do you consider the jazz club is having an impact in the city of Munich?

I think we are the most important venue for jazz in the south of Germany. The city of Munich gave us few years ago the highest award they give for music, which usually is given to musicians such as philharmonic conductors or opera singers. In the past 5 years we had a very good connection with the municipality, they acknowledged that we are important and our public funding grew of around 500% in 10 years.

10. What are the main sources of income of the club?

60% of our income is from the ticket sales, around 500-600.000 euros per year. 18% are membership fees and another 18% is the funding from the city.

11. What are the main difficulties in running the club?

In the past there were a couple of very difficult moments and I still don’t know how I managed to get out of them. At the moment the situation is stable, with a good number of members and a regular audience. Lately the main difficulty is becoming more and more the administrative work. People who want to work at a jazz club do not really believe that there is so much administrative work concerning contracts, taxes, insurances and all that.

12. Did your involvement with EJN bring any added value to your activities?

It brought a lot of benefits to me. Sometimes it is quite hard for me to have a hobby that is time consuming like a full-time job. There are moments when I think: “why am I doing this?” EJN is the place where I got to learn why. I met some really nice people, doing the same creative things as I do. After I return from the EJN meetings I always know that it makes sense to engage myself in promoting music.

13. What would you consider are other clubs or festivals of reference in Europe?

I can think of some of the colleagues that are doing a similar work as we are, for example the Bimhuis (Amsterdam), Porgy and Bess (Wien) or Fasching (Stockholm). With some of these clubs we have an agreement that our membership cards are valid in each other’s venues. For example somebody came to us two weeks ago with the membership card of Porgy and Bess. With the Bimhuis we exchanged a programme a couple of years ago. We always talk about new collaborations, but it is difficult as we are always so busy with the daily management of the club. It takes time, but I think is more and more important that we work together and develop new ideas.

14. How do you see Unterfahrt in 10 years time?

We tried in the past to do concerts at bigger venues, because the label Unterfahrt works quite well. This will happen more regularly in the future. Perhaps we should do a festival. We have a good starting point now because we have the cultural centre with 5 stages, and we can add some bigger venues. There is not really a jazz festival at the moment in Munich, so we should do this!