It is of some small comfort that totalitarian regimes are never quite as total as either their leaders or subsequent historians might imagine. As much as the Bolsheviks may have wished to “abolish” religion, faith and observance persisted all through the Soviet sphere and contributed to the disintegration of the Communist system. Similarly and more recently, the Taliban exercised less than certain–and certainly less than the publicized–influence over the people of Afghanistan.
By the same token, we have long been used to the idea that the Nazis proscribed jazz and sought to ban it from every corner of the Reich. To the ideologists of National Socialism, it was a music of racial impurity, lumped in with other examples of entartete Kunst or “degenerate art,” damned as “Judaeo-Negroid” and not fit for the ears of good Germans. In recent years, this rather one-dimensional picture has begun to shift significantly.
One tiny example suggests the complexity of the real situation: the strange tale of guitarist Django Reinhardt, who managed not only to survive but to thrive in Nazi-occupied France, despite the fact that he was a gypsy, and a handicapped gypsy at that, thanks to the patronage and the protection of a jazz-loving Luftwaffe officer. Those last four words represent such an oxymoron that most recent encyclopedia entries on Django, who died half a century ago in 1953, make no mention whatever of Oberleutnant Dietrich Schulz-Koehn. One of the strangest photographs of the war was taken by Schulz-Koehn outside La Cigale, a jazz club in Paris. It shows a gypsy (Django), four Africans and a Jew posed smiling beside a fellow officer. The Germans were there not to arrest these men but to listen to them play. With its whisper of collaboration, this remains an awkward detail for jazz fans to deal with, but it is even more unsettling, given the prevailing notion of the Nazis’ attitude toward jazz.
There have been a number of attempts to rewrite this odd corner of popular music history. Michael Zwerin’s La Tristesse de Saint Louis: Swing Under the Nazis took its title from the habit of disguising jazz tunes–in this case “St. Louis Blues”–from the authorities under safely translated titles. The story of wartime swing is also told in a chapter in Hitler’s Airwaves, a study of propaganda broadcasting under the Third Reich written by business executive Horst J.P. Bergmeier and economist Rainer E. Lotz. Now, though, their exploration of the period has been taken a step further and given additional flesh in an ambitious box set of music with the arresting title Swing Tanzen Verboten: Swing Music and Nazi Propaganda During World War II, just released by the English firm Proper Records with text by Dutch jazz expert Joop Visser. Its four CDs are an eye-opening experience, not so much musically, though there are fine cuts by Reinhardt, but because they raise the possibility that far from banning jazz, the Nazi authorities were aware of and tried to harness some of its appeal.
Imagine for a moment that you are a British or American jazz fan in wartime scanning the airwaves in hopes of finding some familiar music. Out of the ether a male voice begins to sing a familiar melody. “I’m the Sheik of Araby,/Your love belongs to me./At night, when you’re asleep/into your tent I’ll creep./The stars that shine above/will light a way to love./You’ll rule this land with me/the Sheik of Araby.” Before the war you heard umpteen versions of this song, which was inspired by RudolphValentino in The Sheik. Even if a band didn’t have a singer, most fans could mouth the words. But this time, something strange happens. After that first verse, a voice cuts across the music: “Here is Mr. Churchill’s latest song.” The melody stays the same, but the words are unfamiliar. “I’m afraid of Germany/her planes are beating me./At night, when I should sleep,/into the Anderson I must creep./Although I’m England’s leading man/I’m led to the cellar by ten./A leader in the cellar each night/that’s the only damned way I can fight.”