Remembering an extraordinary person and gifted musician

The pianist Willy Bischof was an established figure on the Swiss jazz scene and made his mark on the programmes of Radio DRS as music editor and programme director. In December 2019, the long-standing SUISA member died at the age of 74. Obituary by guest author Pietro Schaller

Willy Bischof: Remembering an extraordinary person and gifted musician

Willy Bischof at Studio Mulinetti in Genoa on the occasion of the CD production of “A Pianist In Parisˮ in September 2004. (Photo: Pietro Schaller)

Dear, caro Willy

In 1968, I saw and heard you for the first time – as pianist of a quintet in a dance hall. As guitarist and trombonist, I played in a dancing band, too. I made the decision to “get outˮ in mid-May 1978. Trigger for this was a contact to Radio Bern, which produced a live recording of our band in July 1974 in the Kursaal Bern – Georges Pilloud was the initiator.

At the end of May 1978, I contacted you at Radio Studio Bern, “Do you need an archive staff member?ˮ “No! A producer is urgently needed, come to Bern, details will be discussed later.ˮ The first meeting with you took place in the radio play studio. You at the Steinway Concert Grand piano. “Do you know Cantaloupe Island?ˮ I asked, you played it right away. Perhaps this was the prelude to our long-standing relationship.

Monday, July 3, 1978 was my first day of work at the radio studio in Bern. No sign of Willy. I was on my own, because your workplace was at the Montreux Jazz Festival – together with Ruedi Kaspar. For several years you were the “Radio dream teamˮ in Montreux – unforgotten are your multilingual interviews with world-class musicians. At that time, I did not know that you had made a brilliant coup years earlier by acquiring the broadcasting rights for all live broadcasts on Radio DRS2.

The following 2 months were a crash course in “how Radio DRS worksˮ: Departmental structures, reading and interpreting minutes of meetings, as well as ways of speaking and sensitivities of media workers. Whenever the “regularˮ working hours were exceeded, these extra lessons were moved to the garden of a nearby pub.

Your plan was to manage the programme area of entertainment music at DRS1. Together with Ruedi Kaspar you invented “5 after 4ˮ, the first radio show with pop and rock music. Polo Hofer was a discovery by the two of you, and your presence on this show was the cornerstone of Poloʼs career and of dialect rock.

Your specifications for a balanced DRS1 music programme were easy for me to meet. Like you, I was not afraid of any kind of music: in our opinion, it had to be well played and sound good. There were numerous records of almost every genre, and all the music editors maintained extensive archives of their own. I didnʼt know at that time that you had established a free sampling service through your excellent relationships with the record industry approximately 5 years earlier – a classic win-win situation. Without this coup de main, your ideas of a successful DRS1 radio music programme would have failed – simply because the desired music repertoire would not have been available.

Your appointment as “Chief of Entertainment Music Radio DRS1ˮ occurred in 1978. In the following year, your new place of work was Studio Zurich, Ruedi Kaspar “dislocatedˮ to Studio Basel. The fact that this was the prelude to DRS3 was unknown to me. However, inside the radio it was suspected that a 3rd radio programme could be in the planning phase. In autumn 1982, I followed your call to move to Studio Zurich to build up the “Zurichˮ part of the music editorial department. With the success of Radio 24 (start of broadcasting 28.11.1979), Radio DRS increased the implementation speed.

On 1 November 1983, SRG General Director Leo Schürmann symbolically pressed the start button: DRS3 broadcast for the first time.

The following 5 years were the most successful years of DRS3, despite some major differences of opinion between the three editorial offices in Basel, Bern, and Zurich. As “Head of the Music Departmentˮ, you mastered these difficulties with great expertise, caution and gentle pressure.

In 1988, he moved from DRS3 to DRS2. It is possible that recurring discussions of principle on the subject of “musicˮ as well as overflowing meetings and bureaucracy left their mark. It may also be that your love of jazz and music-making as a member of the DRS3 management team had been neglected. The takeover of the “jazzˮ department was the prelude to the establishment of the CH jazz scene, which became a valuable platform with studio sessions for young talent and lesser known formations. For Radio DRS2, this was an important undertaking, which also established the station as an institution for the promotion of culture.

1991 was the birth year of “Apéroˮ, the radio show on DRS2, which you conceived. On the occasion of an annual studio party in Studio 2 in Zurich, you played a Duke Ellington Medley on the concert grand piano, which made everyone present – radio director Andreas Blum was also present – realise that you were a brilliant pianist.

I have always been a big Hazy Osterwald fan. My idea was to re-produce the jazz repertoire of the Osterwald Sextet with an identical formation consisting of you and former DRS band musicians. Together we discovered more than 70 recordings of Hazyʼs best formation from 1951-1964 in the Zurich radio archive. Jazz of the highest level in excellent recording quality, produced by Radio Beromünster in the studio in Basel with Eddie Brunner as sound engineer – former member and later band leader of the famous Teddy Stauffer Band. With your help, a significant document of Swiss jazz from the years 1951-1964 was produced in 1994, the CD box set “50 Years of Music with a Touch of Swingˮ was a great success.

Our intention to realise a production with the post-produced “Hazy Osterwald Jazz Hitsˮ was not executed after careful consideration: Sound, charm, groove of this epoch were too unique and could not be reproduced … A wise decision and a reference to the great recording technique of Radio Beromünster and the producing of Eddie.

In November of the same year the “Berner Song Daysˮ took place in the “Bierhübeliˮ. Your formation, the Willy Bischof Jazztet with Hazy Osterwald, Willy Schmid, Peter Schmidlin and Stefan Kurmann, founded in 1993, was invited as guest of honour. Radio DRS1 recorded the concert. The subsequent CD “Swiss Airˮ is still available today.

In 1998 you were awarded the long overdue “Prix Waloˮ for the radio show “Apéroˮ.

Willy Bischof warming up in the studio. (Photo: Pietro Schaller)

In 2004, I had the idea to produce a recording with you as a solo pianist. The planned location was Studio Mulinetti in Genoa. Versions of Italian classics such as Roma Nun Faʼ Stupido Stasera or Estaté were up for discussion. No persuasion was needed on my part – you were immediately enthusiastic about the project. We assembled the repertoire together. Victor Eugster from “Activ Recordsˮ financed the project. The production date was the end of September 2004. However, shortly before the recording date you changed your mind: “I would rather record French chansons in my own versions – a CD title is already available – ʻA Pianist In Parisʼˮ … Suitable chansons were quickly evaluated. I travelled to Camogli – 30 km east of Genoa – at that time my second home to prepare the production.

The session was successful – all participants got along very well and you played superbly as always. I remember that this was perhaps one of your lucky musical moments.

Your retirement in 2005 encouraged me to retire a year later as well. In the following years, our meetings became rarer – I learned through the grapevine that your health had become unstable. Our last personal contact was on the occasion of a concert I organised with your trio on 21 January 2011 at the Hotel Palace Lucerne.

What remains is the memory of an extraordinary person and gifted musician. You didnʼt strike me as a superior. You were a friend.

Addio Willy

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