A Short History of Jazz in Germany

The year was 1926. The word jazz had only been around for sixteen years, and in a musical context for just eleven. Already, though, the term had made its way to Germany, and while New Orleans had discovered a sound which could use the label, German musicians essentially didn’t have a clue. But all that changed when Henry Ernst discovered, in a small, local bookshop, a photograph accompanying some sheet music. Ernst noted in his memoir Meine Jagd nach der ‘Tschetzpend’ that it was this photograph depicting a London jazz band, rather than the notation itself, which was to shape his perception of the music.

Jazz has always been an puzzling term, no more so than in The Weimar Republic. Imported from the states following the influx of American musicians to Germany after the First World War, jazz referred to more than just a sound. It arrived parallel to a wider importation of fashionable American lifestyle, dances, and a particular American mentality – a mentality of freedom. With the same zeal with which people refer to America nowadays, the United States was considered ‘the seat of modernity and vitality’, and jazz was a potent symbol of this. America was the saviour of avant-garde music and the epitome of modernity, important attributes in an economically tumultuous post-war Germany.

But there was a dark side to perceptions of jazz. The war had left a significant number of black French soldiers in Germany and as the economy crashed in 1929 a general feeling of xenophobia grew. Linked intrinsically to race due to its origins in blues and African music, jazz began to be regarded as racially dangerous to German culture. Mentalities morphed from feelings of freedom and experimentation into fear and racism and jazz began to be associated with degeneracy and chaos. The music, almost exclusively played by white musicians anyway, took a back seat, and its extramusical facets grew in importance. The rise of the National Socialists and their conspicuous and stalwart views on race and social order served as a powerful sign that jazz’s days were numbered. And yet, it survived.

Naturally, the Nazis issued a ban on jazz. Their hatred stemmed from their racial beliefs. It was degenerate music, a part of so-called ‘nigger culture’, and was aesthetically inferior to high German culture. African blacks were perceived as primitive, promiscuous, lazy and idiotic. Their music, by extension, was fundamentally un-German. It was even worse that it originated from America. The Nazis thought America to be the seat of all which was wrong with the world; a safe house for Jews, unregimented, free. The Nazis hated jazz. More powerful than their flawed arguments, however, was the solid truth that jazz, and the communities in which it flourished, survived the Third Reich.

Mike Zwerin’s beautiful memoir of jazz under the Nazis describes the oppressed groups of both musicians and listeners of jazz music and recounts their own extremely personal stories. Zwerin recalls Horst Lippmann, who imported jazz records from France and played them to the customers in his father’s restaurant. He recalls Otto Jung telling him that jazz was a ‘political problem’ and that the Nazi’s desire to suppress it made them enjoy it even more. He tells the story of the Ghetto Swingers, a jazz band who performed in the concentration camp in which they were persecuted. Zwerin’s account takes a precious history of those at the bottom end of society, the outcasts who did not believe in the Nazi ideals and rebelled against them, and retells it with incredible clarity.

Jazz music had become more than a mere importation, more than a certain improvisation or swing – it had become an integral part of German national identity. At complete odds with Hitler’s Volksgemeinschaft, in total contrast to Beethoven and Bach and the Nazi’s perceptions of German identity, jazz endured the ban and instead flourished. Any ideas of it being un-German manifested in the National Socialist disdain for anything of American origin had been utterly dispelled; the Germans wanted jazz. And, after Berlin fell, jazz is exactly what the Americans gave them.

Its denunciation under the Nazis had turned it into a vehicle for anti-fascist and oppositional thought, and this lasted through the divide of Germany. Jazz became an idiom of democratic rehabilitation after a period of wildly oppressive rule. The music with its focus on improvisation once more became symbolic of freedom. More importantly, it was adopted by a younger generation of adolescents looking to flourish in the American cultural transfer, a culture which was shaping young German men. The Swinging Youth, as they became rather fondly known, whose prominence had become evident during Nazi Germany, carried on into Cold War Germany. Jazz remained a popular oppositional movement for adolescent Germans. Banned in the GDR, it never died out, and the FRG even used jazz as a Cold War weapon, a symbol for democracy, anti-communist thought, and America.

And then it was over. Rock and roll came along and obliterated everything in its path, and listening to jazz changed from being oppositional to boring, conformist, even. Rock and roll was the new way to go. Jazz steadily became more and more accepted, its threat diminished, and in the fifties histories of German jazz essentially fizzle out.

The term jazz, ever enigmatic, will always be contested. For a long time in Weimar Germany, musicians who purported to play it had never listened to American jazz. Henry Ernst learnt more about jazz music from a photograph than he did from the musical notation accompanying it. Yet herein lies the importance in recognising the nature of jazz, especially in Germany. Jazz was more than just music – jazz was a whole lifestyle, a mindset, the meaning of which changed very little, and perhaps has still changed very little to this day: freedom, liberty, experimentation. Jazz epitomised an imported American culture of democracy. Jazz was opposition to fascism, to communism, to racism, to a forced German national identity. Jazz will always be intrinsically linked to identity. The body of literature surrounding the subject of jazz music in Germany is meagre at best, but tells an important story: it was the music of the oppressed, and gave freedom to those who had none.

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