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SPOTLIGHT: Jazz Music in Nazi Germany

Sunday, October 25, 2015

I have always loved jazz music, ever since my mother used to play it to me as a little girl. 

So when I was writing THE BEAST’S GARDEN – my novel set in the German underground resistance in Berlin during the late 1930s and early 1940s – it was a perfect opportunity for me to weave in many of my favourite songs of the era.

The Nazis did not approve of jazz. 

It was seen as a symbol of the decadent and dissolute Weimar Republic. After Hitler came to power in 1933, there were some early prohibitions – jazz music by black or Jewish musicians was banned, for example. 

The repression of jazz music intensified in 1937 and 1938, as many young Germans began to embrace the new jazz-style swing music with its wild dance moves. Many clubs where the Swingjugend (lit. Swing Youth, usually translated as Swing Kids) met to play jazz and dance swing were banned. However, the clubs just moved underground, with the Swing Kids meeting in basements or at each other’s houses. 

Early in the novel, in 1938, my heroine Ava goes to one of these underground jazz clubs with her best friend Rupert. She wants to be a jazz singer, while he plays the trumpet. 

“Listening to jazz and swing was banned, of course. Herr Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, called it ‘niggerjazz’ and ‘jazzbazillus’, as if it was some kind of disease. Ava and Rupert loved it passionately. Whenever they could, they sneaked out to watch Hollywood movies like Swing Time with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or Day at the Races with the Marx Brothers. There was one scene in that film which Ava just loved, where black male dancers threw their short-skirted partners up into the air and spun them in deft somersaults. All the dancers skipped and swung and spun as if they were all so full of joy they were just about ready to burst out of their skins.”



“Ava and Rupert loved jazz because it was all about celebrating the individual. Jazz was improvisation, innovation, inspiration. Nazism was all about subjugating the individual. It was control, constraint, constipation.
And so they defied it the only way they knew how - by singing and dancing and swinging.”

Ava has a form of synaesthesia. When she listens to music, she sees colours and images. This is actually a strange gift of mine, which I gave to her. Often – when I describe Ava ‘seeing’ as she listens to music - I am describing what I myself ‘see’. 

“As long as Ava could remember, words and songs and stories had conjured imaginary pictures for her. When her father read fairy tales at night, Ava saw the dark forest leaning over her bed. When she sang ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, she saw a thin black woman creeping away through a forest, carrying all that she owned tied up in a red scarf, hoping to find freedom, hoping to find love. 

People’s names were like flashes of brightly coloured pictures in her mind’s eye. Her father’s name, Otto, was a railway tunnel through a hill of pine trees. Monika’s name was steely-grey and sharp-toothed, like a trap. Bertha was shaped just like her name, soft and billowy and yet capable of stinging. Rupert’s name was a drag on a cigarette, the first mouthful of smoke, the hit at the back of the throat. Jutta was one of those feisty little black terriers, always barking at bigger dogs. 

Ava’s mother’s name had been Clementina. It was a joyous name, full of sunshine and sweetness, yellow-gold as C major. There was nothing sharp or black or cruel about the name Clementina. Ava had never known her mother, but when she whispered her name she saw her, golden-skinned and smiling. 

Her own name was white-winged, like a bird leaping into the sky. AVA. 

Then there was Nazi. A word with claws.”

Here is Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘Bye, Bye Blackbird’ 

 Ava’s “favourite song of all time was Billie Holiday singing ‘Summertime’, with Artie Shaw on clarinet and Bunny Berigan on trumpet. Billie’s voice was not perfect by any means. It was tremulous, even weak. There were no astonishing vocal acrobatics, no extraordinary range. Yet it raised all the hairs on Ava’s arms. 

As Billie Holiday sang, Ava saw in her mind’s eye a sad-eyed black woman with her head wrapped in a kerchief, rocking a drowsy child in her arms. The endless flat cotton fields stretched away to the horizon, sharp-etched thorns snagging blowsy white balls like clouds hooked from the sky. The light was golden, thunderous. White-winged birds soared high. But the black woman must stay, pinned to the spot, to that life. Her voice broke. She could sing no longer. So the two voices of the trumpet and the clarinet sang for her, giving her the strength to lift her voice again, to spin out that thin thread of hope to the sleeping child. 

Listening to that song, Ava felt it in every cell of her body. It made her want to cry, thickening her throat and burning her eyes. It made her want to dance, a slow sun-worshipping sway, lifting her arms to the sky. It made her want to sing.”

Billie Holiday singing ‘Summertime’ is my all-time favourite song too.

Another favourite song of mine that Ava sings is Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Under the Spell of the Blues’.

And I describe Rupert doing a trumpet solo of ‘The Very Thought of You’. Here is the amazing Wynton Marsalis and his band playing the same song:

After the beginning of World War II, it became even more dangerous to listen to jazz. Many Swing Kids were arrested and sent to concentration camps.  

Rupert was one of them. He was sent to Buchenwald.

One of the biggest and most brutal of the German camps, Buchenwald later became famous for its underground musical ensembles. A jazz band was set up there in 1943, with the musicians been given easier jobs in the camp to protect them. Instruments were bought or stolen, and the musicians ranged from young to old, amateur to professional. Rehearsals were held secretly during official work time. Eventually, the camp jazz band played even to the SS officers, who were bored and wanted entertainment.  

"Buchenwald Concert" - Pierre Mania

In the outside world, jazz was breaking free of Goebbels’ bans as well. German soldiers were so sick of the old-fashioned folk music being released by the Propaganda Ministry they were illegally tuning into British and American radio stations to listen to their jazz tunes. Goebbels knew the importance of maintaining morale, both among the military and civilians. So he set up state-sanctioned jazz bands that played state-sanctioned jazz music. 

However, after the cataclysmic defeat of German forces at Stalingrad in February 1943, Goebbels declared a state of 'total war' and all entertainment venues – including opera houses – were shut down. Most of Berlin had been bombed into rubble, and the dreadful machinery of the Holocaust was grinding millions into dust. 

“For Ava, music had always been the way to heal herself. When she sang of loss and love and longing, she brought those feelings out of the darkness and into the light. She had always thought that she would die if she could not sing, as if music was a part of her body, like her heart or her lungs or her liver. Now Berlin lay in ruins …. Ava was not sure that she ever wanted to sing again.” 

Somehow she finds the strength to sing again, in order to save her husband. Dressed in gold silk, she sings to a room of SS officers. The song is Billie Holiday’s ‘Lover Man’

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