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Camden New Journal - OBITUARY
Published: 29 January 2009

Claus Baess: tireless zest for entertaining
Unsung legend of the post-war jazz scene

CLAUS Baess, an unsung legend of London’s post-war trad jazz pub scene, has died at the age of 87.
Claus (also known as Roy) was a pianist familiar to jazz fans in Camden, Islington, the City and further afield, where he and his trio plied their trade through the austerity of the 1950s, the Swinging Sixties right up until 2007, when he finally retired.
He was affectionately known as the oldest swinger in town and a pianist with a tireless zest for entertaining.
His immense knowledge of jazz standards and ability to vamp the pop hits of the day won him a loyal following and the admiration of better-known jazz greats such as Humphrey Lyttleton, George Melly, band leader Joe Loss, and Digby Fairweather.
Born in Berlin in 1921, all Claus ever wanted to be was a musician like his boyhood heroes Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
At the start of the Second World War, at the age of 19, Claus was forced to join the German army, which he ­hated, being a pacifist.
Under Hitler’s Third Reich, however, there wasn’t really an option of being a conscientious objector; anybody seeking that status was usually never heard of again.
Claus loathed the Nazis but for him to express that would have almost certainly cost him his life. While many of his school friends were sent to the freezing Russian front, and eventually died there, Claus was fortunate enough to be sent to Italy and saw service as a corporal.
When the Americans landed in 1943 he saw his chance to escape the war, and one night left his camp under the cover of darkness and walked to where the Americans were camped in order to surrender.
He was taken over to California where he was sent to a prisoner of war camp until 1945.
Because he could speak English he was put in charge of the 200 German prisoners and was allowed to form a band, the Dixieland Seven, in order to keep the prisoners’ spirits up.
When the war ended he was sent to England, where he stayed at a POW camp in Twyford, Berkshire, eventually being released in 1947. He settled in London and met his wife, Trudi.
Claus’s passion for music grew and he got work playing in tough pubs in Islington and Clerkenwell – sometimes five nights a week.
There he experienced and eventually overcame the predictable prejudice against his nationality.
The task of slowly rehabilitating the reputation of his compatriots among those who had suffered from the Blitz and fell to Claus and thousands of other Germans who had stayed on in Britain.
In 1964 he joined the staff at the West German embassy, becoming a diplomat. He retired in 1985. But throughout all of those years, music was central to his life.
Able to switch between the styles of Count Basie, Errol Garner, and Oscar Peterson, Claus could well have become nationally famous but the prevailing musical wind changed with the birth of rock’n’roll and skiffle in the mid-to-late 1950s.
As much as Claus felt displaced by rock’n’roll, he loved the scene’s piano players such as Fats Domino, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis and would include their hits in his repertoire.
Through the 1960s and 1970s Claus continued to play in the Islington and Clerkenwell areas in pubs such as The Red Lion in Clerkenwell, The Artillery Arms,in Bunhill Row, and The Sturt Arms in New North Road, Islington.
But his happiest days came in the late 1980s and 1990s in Camden.
He was offered a residency at The Washington, in England’s Lane, and musicians would come from far and wide to sit in with Claus’s band: there would sometimes be up to eight mus­icians on stage.
He then played at The Haverstock before moving to The Load of Hay, where he played for three years.
A funeral service for Claus, who lived in ­Belsize Park, will be held at St Peter’s Church in Belsize Park at 11.30 am today (Thursday).
I corresponded with Claus last year regarding his stay in California
as a POW. I live on the camp site and he was very gracious and kind to send
me a couple of photographs and information. I am very sorry to hear of his
passing he was an extraordinary individual. My condolences to his family.
Steve Lehman, USA

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