Jazz Church

A remembrance of Verena Loewensberg’s beloved Zurich record shop, City-Discount

Interviews by Stefan Zweifel
Illustrations by Nicholas Blechman

  • 12 April 2024
  • Issue 10

Verena Loewensberg (1912–1986) was a Swiss painter. In her twenties, she visited Paris on several occasions and was introduced to Hans Arp, Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Georges Vantongerloo. In particular, the work of Vantangerloo served as a strong influence. In the 1930s, she became affiliated with the Zurich Concrete artists, a group that included Max Bill, Richard Paul Lohse and Camille Graeser; she established a lifelong friendship with Bill and his wife Binia.

In the 1960s, Loewensberg had something of a parallel career, running a record shop in Zurich’s Old Town that quietly became legendary among aficionados of jazz and avant-garde music. In those years, Loewensberg was the only record seller in Switzerland directly importing the newest releases—records by Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, as well as experimental music by artists like Moondog and Frank Zappa—from the United States. The store, called City-Discount, became a popular hangout for die-hard music fans and for musician themselves, who looked to Loewensberg as a guide and tastemaker. Because she ran the store under her married name, Mrs. Wickart, many of her customers had no idea that their favorite record dealer was also a prominent painter.

Although City-Discount remained a busy cultural crossroads in Zurich for years, no photos of its interior or exterior seem to have survived; only a scattering of things that once belonged to the shop—an old black telephone, an elegant leather desk chair, a stereo amplifier, folders of ephemera—exist now to give a sense of its legacy. But Loewensberg’s children, Henriette and Stephan Coray, spent much of their early lives inside their mother’s shop and retain vivid memories of its look and layout. With the help of their recollections and old floorplans they provided, illustrator Nicholas Blechman has brought City-Discount and its singular sensibility back to life in a series of specially commissioned drawings for Ursula, accompanied here by a gathering of voices of those who loved the shop and still remember it well.

Stephan Coray: At that time, Zurich’s jazz axis ran between Club Africana and my mother’s record store, City-Discount. I’d often help out there, especially when she went to her studio to paint. She didn’t like talking to customers about her art. In any case, most musicians didn’t even know she was a painter.

She described her practice as: “I’ve got no underlying theory, so I have to depend on an idea popping into my head.” She also couldn’t bear banal chitchat. But she always liked talking about jazz—“real” jazz, that is, not Dave Brubeck, although her store did carry his famous Take Five—or about astrophysics with Fritz Zwicky, who’d worked on morphological analysis at ETH university, and with her husband, Alfons “Föns” Wickart, who was also interested in that topic.

Henriette Coray: It’s always been said that City-Discount existed from 1964 to 1970, but I recently found lists of record orders from 1960, and the store was still listed as a sales outlet for the underground magazine Hotcha! as late as the summer of 1968, so it existed pretty much as long as the Africana jazz club, from 1960 to 1968.

Those early lists were by Föns Wickart, who helped my mother choose records for the shop. He loved making lists. My mother also had a great interest in modern classical music. She listened to Glenn Gould’s 1956 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations again and again. But her interests ranged even farther, to Japanese and Indian music. We went to just about every Ravi Shankar concert.

My brother and I helped out in the store, just like my mother’s friend Doris Stauffer did, so that my mother could find time to paint. She loved her long chats with Urban Gwerder, an artist and writer and the editor of Hotcha!, whom she considered very smart and who was more into Frank Zappa and underground music; with the art restorer Paul Pfister she discussed modern experimental music.

SC: My mother explained her thoughts on jazz quite well in a 1971 radio interview that the writer Stefan Zweifel recently unearthed. It was crazy to hear my mother’s voice again after fifty years. It’s also clear that—just as in the store—she doesn’t make small talk but sticks to her ideas very strictly about, for example, Charlie Parker or Miles Davis, whose Zurich concerts she, of course, attended, where his blue velvet suit with red lining mightily impressed her. He was a beautiful man. In Zurich, Hans Kennel was like a Miles Davis, Jr.—beautifully dressed. She liked talking with him, as well as with the radio interviewer Frank Biffiger, a world champion at drinking white wine who seemed beyond reproach and whose horizons were very broad.

“As a young kid of seventeen, eighteen, coming to this record store was always an event. . . . You sometimes felt like you were disturbing her, but she was always very sweet, very distingué.”—Dieter Meier

Dieter Meier: As a young kid of seventeen, eighteen, coming to this record store was always an event. The interior was very minimalist, and Loewensberg was often in the store by herself listening to jazz. You sometimes felt like you were disturbing her, but she was always very sweet, very distingué.

Going in, you entered a kind of sanctuary, a church where someone is singing something just for you. At first, her face would be hard to read, but she was always happy when she could pass something on to the people who came into the store. Over time, us boys became persona grata, and every time we skipped school and dropped by, she’d bring out the most interesting records, saying: “You have to hear this—and this, too!”

If I remember correctly, you couldn’t put any records on yourself, unlike at the Jecklin store, which had sets of headphones at its counter. Verena Loewensberg always put the records on herself, because she didn’t want the records to be scratched. And she’d play the latest music. That was an elixir to me. That’s when I first learned you could discover and do something entirely personal to you.

Sissi Zöbeli: I attended the Cantonal High School in the cloisters of the Grossmünster on Kirchgasse, and once we’d had some wonderful potato salad at Café Pony, we’d spend the rest of our lunch break at City-Discount. She really impressed me, Verena Loewensberg.

Of course, I never dared ask to listen to something—you couldn’t put the records on yourself, and she really was a grande dame—but sometimes I pulled myself together, and I appreciated her opinions. While I wasn’t that interested in jazz, she was the first to sell funk music. And since Dollar Brand lived in Zurich and played at the Africana, we did go and see him there. The scene was relatively tight-knit, and she was a real anchor point.

Anton Bruhin: As I came from the countryside, I hardly knew any jazz except for what came on the radio. But the first record I bought was a jazz record from Verena Loewensberg. There was a gramophone in her store, and I was amazed at how it looked, with the weights, full of technology. I was so young. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

DM: I remember getting my first turntable and playing all this music in my room after midnight, secretly listening to Miles Davis and Eric Dolphy when I really should’ve been sleeping. And behind my books, I’d stashed a bottle of cognac, out of which I’d take a couple of sips as I smoked a cigarette and blew the smoke out the window so nobody would notice.

Dolphy was my hero, and then Charlie Mingus. Miles Davis was already almost too kitschy for me. Erroll Garner and Count Basie were like candy—brilliant, of course, but I was more into the hard-core avant-garde. Once at a Mingus concert, his double bass arrived two hours late, and many in the audience had already left. He unwrapped it, threw off its protective fabric and played. We all had tears in our eyes. It was a revelation.

Objects and ephemera from City-Discount record shop, Zurich, ca. 1960-1969. Photos: Jon Etter

SC: I went with my mother and Föns Wickart in 1953 to Lucerne to my first jazz concert, a Norman Granz “Jazz at the Philharmonic” production with Gene Krupa and J. C. Heard—very accomplished drummers, mind you, creating these percussive orgies; I remember Heard used brush drumsticks to create a “Black swinging sound.”

My favorite jazz musicians were John Coltrane and Elvin Jones. I was really into the rhythm section and wanted to be a drummer myself for a while; the great-grandson of Gerhard Hauptmann gave me quasi-mathematical drum lessons. One time, in 1962, I was in a wonderfully good mood and went to a Coltrane concert at the Volkshaus. As soon as I heard Elvin Jones on drums, I said to myself: “There’s no point in me continuing.” We were worlds apart. I understood what he was doing, but it was unattainable.

The best concert I ever saw in Zurich was Mingus’s show at the Limmathaus in 1964. He was two hours late, his double bass wrapped in fabric so it wouldn’t get damaged in transport. Mingus didn’t like where they’d put the piano, and the stagehand, in his blue shop coat, had to push it from the left to the right-hand side. Then Mingus threw off the bass’s protective fabric, just kicked it off, and it was stunning. Suddenly, he spotted someone in the third row with a tape recorder under their chair, and he went over and stomped on it. That’s how furious he could get.

During the break, many people left, as the concert had already started much too late. But they never forgave themselves for missing the second part—Mingus thawed completely, and the audience absolutely loved it. Only Coltrane’s concert at the Volkshaus was of the same caliber for me.

Bruno Spoerri: I probably met Verena Loewensberg at the Africana, where I played saxophone every week with the Remo Rau Quintet—Remo on the piano, Hans Kennel on the trumpet, Alex Bally on the drums and Hans Foletti on the bass. We were kind of their house band. And then there was Dollar Brand, whom I also met there, in 1962. This continued until 1966, when Jürg Grau left the Africana and moved his concerts to the Vorderer Sternen.

At the time, City-Discount was the only record store that really cared about new sounds. All the others just sold what the big record labels were putting out. But at her store, you could find these extreme recordings nobody else had.

Between 1964 to 1966 is when I worked the hardest in my life. Besides music, I had just joined an advertising company making commercials, working day and night, and sometimes quickly running to the record store to buy something, so I had far too little contact with Loewensberg. I only found out much later that she was a painter and had a studio on the Weite Gasse 4 where she worked in her free hours.

It was at her store that I discovered Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” a hit at the time, and we started playing it as a jazz song, which became our transition to jazz rock. We were becoming more and more experimental. I was commissioned by the city of Zurich to do poetry and jazz. I started using electronic instruments such as the ondes Martenot, which I bought new in 1967 and played in the jazz group that same year, probably the first time this classical instrument was used in a jazz group, which certainly interested Loewensberg.

Her fascination with avant-garde musicians such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt remained even after the store closed, and her work clearly shows how music and painting can synesthetically blend.

AB: One of my favorite records was one in which Artmann translated François Villon’s robber ballads into the language of Viennese pimps with jazz by Fatty George. It’s a marvelous, wonderful record, a combination of the jazz, literature and art scenes. Cage, too, was important to the scene, just like the minimal and experimental work of Steve Reich and Karlheinz Stockhausen. These worlds were also strongly represented at Loewensberg’s store—not just the usual jazz and free jazz.

DM: At that time, Bellevue Square was the heart of a network of artists and music fans. Very different worlds met there: Friedrich Kuhn and the heavy drinkers; the Schwarzer Ring, where the tough guys went; or the Select, where I played chess. Then there was the Odeon, of course, where for years I lived out my poker addiction on its second floor. In 1968, I staged a three-hour street- theater tragedy about women’s lives. Afterwards, I used a megaphone to conduct an auction of wedding dresses and other women’s clothes. Loewensberg’s record shop belonged to this network around the Bellevue. You couldn’t help but admire her. Every visit was an event for me, my initiation into the world of music.

AB: Zurich was extremely stuffy at that time. Everywhere there were signs saying “KEEP OFF GRASS.” It went pretty far. But there was also a counterworld of sorts, a tight-knit network of galleries and pubs all connected by jazz and art.

In addition to City-Discount, the Rössligasse also had the Weisses Kreuz restaurant. A good, Fellini-esque pub, it attracted some extreme characters, and the host himself was a smooth guy who had these cowbells and played on the bottles.

Otherwise, I bummed around Café Odeon—I never went up to the second floor, where they played billiards and poker, but I could hear the jazz and the gamblers’ clatter coming from upstairs. There was also the Café Select and the Eckstein restaurant on Hechtplatz, all just around the corner, and each of them had a different scene.

“At the time, City-Discount was the only record store that really cared about new sounds. All the others just sold what the big record labels were putting out. But at her store, you could find these extreme recordings nobody else had.”—Bruno Spoerri

Art and jazz overlapped. I met Irene Schweizer at the Africana, where Dollar Brand was playing. He sometimes used to visit us on Venedigstrasse. I saw him a few times and used to play his records. Damn cool music.

There were many shows at the Limmathaus and the amateur jazz festival at the Urban Cinema and the Weisser Wind. There was the jazz club at the Vorderer Sternen on Bellevue, and free jazz with Peter Brötzmann, who played so wildly that the verb brötzen even found its way into the German dictionary.

I was more likely to go to clubs like Platte 27, the Antaris on the Limmatquai, or the Blackout discotheque, where Peter Schweri projected experimental stuff, including a film that has me reading magazines and smoking in bed at Friedrich Kuhn’s apartment. Kuhn had a studio right below the Burghölzli psychiatric clinic, in whose gardens Fredi M. Murer shot his film Picnic.

Yes, despite all of Zurich’s stuffiness, there was also an opposing force, one that really sought to épater la bourgeoisie. There was this wild corner on Südstrasse where artists played enfant terrible, where excess was the order of the day. That attitude was also omnipresent in Niederdorf, a wilder “Züri.” These all didn’t seem like distant individual oases in a desert to me. Together, they formed a scene where something was really going on.

SC: When my mother’s record store closed, the era of “real” jazz in Zurich also ended. She listened to a lot of Mozart and Bach, especially the fugues. The Africana was already closed by then, and the jazz scene had wandered on to Willisau. I, too, switched over from jazz after hearing Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.” And the underground slowly made its way in through the poet Urban Gwerder and his Hotcha! magazine, as was the case with Hans-Heinrich Kunz, also known as HHK, who took over the store under the name Musicland.

I became Zurich’s first traveling disc jockey, playing at Club Platte 27. I built two large speakers, two power amplifiers and a mixing console and made a psychedelic liquid light show with strobe lights. A rich kid from Zürichberg gave me the keys to his Citroën 2CV Fourgonnette so I could drive around as a traveling DJ.

I also played fashion shows at Gassmann or Globus, and later set up the discotheque Blackout in an old airplane hangar in Zurich-Kloten, with film projectors, Tiffany lamps
and scaffolding above the bar. Wilson Pickett even came to the opening!

Although my mother was still interested in the experimental work of Bruno Spoerri, whom she knew well from when he played the saxophone at the Africana, for her the time of “real” Black jazz was already over. At my mother’s funeral, Föns Wickart played Charlie Parker from a tape.

Translated by Florian Duijsens

Nicholas Blechman is creative director of The New Yorker. Previously, he was art director of The New York Times Book Review and The Times Op-Ed page. In 2012, Blechman won the Rome Prize in Design at the American Academy in Rome, where he created “Food Chains,” an illustrated blog for The New York Times. He co-authors One Hundred Percent, a series of limited- edition illustrated books, with Christoph Niemann.

Anton Bruhin is an artist and musician. He is a virtuoso on the jaw harp and a collector of Trümpi instruments.

Henriette Coray is Verena Loewensberg’s daughter and the president of the Verena Loewensberg Foundation.

Stephan Coray is Verena Loewensberg’s son.

Dieter Meier is a musician, conceptual artist and entrepreneur. He is the front man
of the electronic music group Yello.

Bruno Spoerri is a jazz musician, an electronics pioneer and author of the reference book Jazz in der Schweiz.

Sissi Zöbeli is a fashion designer of Thema Selection, now located on Spiegelgasse in Zurich.

Stefan Zweifel is a Swiss author, philosopher and translator. He is a former member and host of the Swiss television talk show Literaturclub (2007–14). He has translated the works of Raymond Roussel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Marcel Proust and the Marquis de Sade into German. Zweifel writes on theater, music and literature for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and other European newspapers.

Verena Loewensberg. Kind of Blue” is currently on view at Hauser & Wirth New York, 69th Street, through 27 April 2024.