Doin’ the Riverboat Shuffle

Playing for time: Vienna’s old-time Storyville Jazzband hosts a crowd of devoted (but ageing) fans for an evening on the water

One of the many instruments aboard the boat | Photo: Andra Goran

Hard to imagine a better setting for a good night than summer, sun and jazz on a boat trip up the canal. Did it go as I had hoped? Not quite…

We embarked on the MS Schlögen, a bit raggedy, but charming-looking typical canal boat, where we were greeted by Werner Christen, the prime organizer of this and many other classic-jazz events in and around Vienna.

Christen, in his 70’s, simply dressed and frail, seemed happy to see us. As soon as we took a look around, we realized that we were most likely going to be the youngest passengers on board for the night and probably the youngest jazz enthusiasts the “Riverboat Shuffle” had seen in a while – which was a surprise, considering the young crowds at Porgy & Bess and at the new hip local Zwe. But, it must be mentioned, the riverboat does tend to a very different crowd. This particular crowd of  around 50-60 people had an average age of about 60, and, we later found out, half of them were friends and family of the band members performing that night.

The layout was, in my view, not exactly ideal. The cabin was separated by the gangway in two unequal parts, the bar and most of the tables were on one side, and the make-shift stage and another couple of tables were situated in the smaller part.

While perhaps unavoidable, the setup still caused the stage to be isolated from the majority of the crowd and the performers. Additionally, a drastically undersized sound system made it hard to hear the music for those sitting anywhere other than right next to the stage. Finally, considering what a lovely day it was, it would have been nice if the event could have taken place outside on the upper deck rather than inside.

As the boat prepared to leave port, Christen thanked everyone for coming, recognizing the day’s competing events – the Donauinselfest and the on-going World Cup. He then introduced the first act: Jürgen Pingitzer, long-time member and piano player for the renowned Viennese jazz band Blue Note Six, sat down in front of his keyboard and began playing an early Dixieland jazz tune, followed by rags from as early as 1899.

Sitting not more than three meters away from this talented classic-jazz piano player, as afternoon became evening and the sun showered the small boat in orange light, was a real treat. As Pingitzer’s hands swept across the keys and his feet stomped fiercly in rhthym, the subdued audience sat back and relaxed, many ordering food and drinks and quietly conversing.

Although Pingitzer made sure to introduce each song over the limited sound system and inform the audience as to which type of jazz the pieces belonged to, sadly, I doubt most of the audience could hear him. But the passion that he played with permeated the crowd and was impossible to miss: Pingitzer was clearly performing not only for his audience, but for himself and the sake of jazz as well.

Surveying the crowd, it was hard not to feel slightly out of place. There was something affable but also slightly saddening about this aging crowd, a sense of longing for a life fully lived but that was now nearing its end. While there smiles on most everyone’s faces and people were certainly enjoying themselves, the usual energy and electricity usually associated with a jazz crowd was noticeably missing.

Still, it was a beautiful evening spent sailing by cozy, riverside cafés and Viennese scattered about enjoying the sunshine in the grass. As we passed by the fantastic incineration plant in Spittelau, designed by the genius Hundertwasser, the main act, Turnaround – as we later found out was the “youngest” jazz band connected to the Viennese old-time jazz scene – took the stage in the bow of the ship. They delivered a more lively performance with a focus on the more modern jazz of the 40’s and the 50’s with swing and Latin influences, playing songs by the likes of Benny Golson.

It had taken them a little while to find their sea legs, but as the boat was raised in the lock at Nussdorf to exit the canal and enter the actual Danube, their performance seemed to rise as well, and the crowd began to liven up ever so slightly. People swayed to the music – not only to the rocking of the boat – and a few even stood up and came closer to the band to better enjoy the show. With a view of Leopoldberg and the gracious St. Leopold church set atop, along with the picturesque vineyard ripening below, I found myself truly enjoying the experience.

Among other things, the singer, Monika Trotz, was a breath of fresh air with a pleasant, velvety voice and a coy smile. Her passion whilst performing was tangible. Alto saxophonist Gert Kolaja stood out as a very capable musician with enticing, accurate solos and an impeccable timing. Completing the sextet was a laidback and strong leader in Martin Beyer on guitar, the renowned Manfred Holzhacker on trumpet, a sturdy Helfried Schneider on the double-bass and an energetic Ali Kollar on drums.

While enjoying the band we also wanted to enjoy a meal. The food menu revealed an understandably limited selection of three warm dishes; Spaghetti Bolognese, Wienerschnitzel, and some pork cutlets. Oddly enough, this waterborne vessel has no interest in serving fish…The drinks menu, though, was stacked to the roof with beers, a decent wine selection of whites, reds and in-betweens, and, of course, hard liquor.

I decided on the Spaghetti Bolognese. What came out of the galley, though, was sadly not particularly satisfying. About half a kilo of pasta accompanied by barely half a ladle of sauce did not feed the fancy of this hungry seaman. My partner in crime, though, chose the traditional Wienerschnitzel and got a massive slab that barely fit the plate and was quite good – leaving yours truly regretting his choice.

During the break between sets, Pinzinger yet again commandeered the piano and I sat down with Werner Christen to find out more about both this unusual tradition of the Riverboat Shuffle and the jazz scene of Vienna.

“I incidentally happened upon the very first Riverboat Shuffle,” he said, slightly slurring his words with the help of a glass or three of Grüner Veltliner, “that was arranged back in 1956 –  the same year I got into the Vienna jazz scene.” In the early 60’s, Christen took over as manager, “when nobody else bothered to,” and has since expanded the Riverboat Shuffle season from a single cruise to seven trips a year. Today, the season includes one full day trip to Bratislava and continues throughout the summer on two different ships.

In 1967, Christen became the manager of the legendary Original Storyville Jazz band – who are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year – and he has been organizing and participating in numerous classic jazz arrangements in Vienna over the past fifty or so years, including the Wiener Jazzbandball. He is also the president of Classic Jazz Club Wien. In 1991, in relation to the Original’s 30th anniversary, the band and he, together with over 200 fans, took the trip to the cradle of their passion, New Orleans, where they were made honorary citizens of the City of New Orleans.

But despite his obvious love affair with jazz, which started after World War II when he was only 8 and jazz infiltrated the Blue Danube Radio, it was sad to hear that he believes the old-time jazz scene is dying in Vienna, and that there may be no reason for it to come back. Maybe it’s due to the dwindling crowds, he muses, the fact that young faces are rarely seen at classic-jazz events in Vienna; or maybe it’s the fact that for the first time since 1972, after 51 years, the next Wiener Jazzbandball is being cancelled for lack of interest. Where once there were 400 to 500 jazz enthusiasts filling the dance floor, in more recent years, crowds have been down to 200 to 300, and fewer every time.

“Classic jazz will never return to its glory days,” he sighed. And despite my enthusiasm, looking around at the crowd and hearing Christen talk about how hard it has become to put together a decent event, I could not help but feel a little of his heartache.

“We are all getting older, and our fans are dying with us,” he said.

But then he brightened: How did we think he could begin attract a younger crowd, a light in his eyes – proof of the driven man he must have been to achieve all that he has, a spark showing that he has not fully given up hope that one day, classic jazz will have its revival.

But somehow, one could also see that he was at peace with the idea that once he and the others in this tight-knit milieu would pass on, the scene – or what will be left of it – will also disappear, leaving little behind, if not a pleasant memory in the minds of two youngsters who did enjoy this lovely night on the Danube canal.

The Riverboat Shuffle is arranged seven times this year on two different boats. The smaller MS Schlögen embarks from Schwedensbrücke, sails up the canal to Grosse Donau and seats about 120 people. The bigger boat, Admiral Tegetthoff, seats about 450 people, and sets sail from Schiffstation Reichsbrücke, taking its passengers to Greifenstein and back, save one special all-day trip on Aug. 15 with a three hour stop in Bratislava. This ship, either on the trip to Bratislava or any of the other events, seems to me to be the better choice. It is a far bigger ship and more modern with a dining area and a dance floor, specifically intended to also house a band. I imagine that many of the annoyances on the MS Schlögen, such as the limited sound system and the odd separation of band and crowd, wouldn’t exist on the Admiral Tegetthoff.

A further argument for choosing Admiral Tegetthoff is the price difference. A ticket on the MS Schlögen costs steep € 28 (€ 31 if you buy the ticket on the boat), whilst on Admiral Tegetthoff it’s only € 4 more, except for on the all-day event to Bratislava which is a mere € 48 (€ 52) for what must be a more rewarding experience. Both ships are normally in the service of the DDSG Blue Danube, and can also be enjoyed during one of their many sightseeing and theme cruises on the Danube in and around Vienna.


Riverboat Shuffle
Schlögen: Jun. 25, Jul. 16, Aug. 6, 27
From Schwedenbrücke (U1/U4) to Grosse Donau and back
Admiral: Jul. 2, 23, Aug. 15 (all-day)
From Schiffstation Reichsbrücke (U1) to Greifenstein and back.
All-day event to Bratislava (three hour stop) and back.
Tel: (05) 05 22 5000

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