“If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know,” said Louis Armstrong. The Nazis knew what it wasn’t. It wasn’t was the sound of their type of freedom. Josef Skvorecky (September 27, 1924 – January 3, 2012), the Czech writer, played the tenor saxophone (like his totalitarian-fighting hero Danny Smiricky in The Cowards and other books). When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, Skvorecky experienced their “control-freak hatred of jazz”. To like jazz was to violate their law.
Skvorecky wrote in the introduction to his novella The Bass Saxophone:
In the days when everything in life was fresh — because we were 16, 17 — I used to blow tenor sax. Very poorly. Our band was called Red Music, which in fact was a misnomer, since the name had no political connotations: there was a band in Prague that called itself Blue Music and we, living in the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, had no idea that in jazz blue is not a color, so we called ours Red. But if the name itself had no political connotations, our sweet, wild music did; for jazz was a sharp thorn in the sides of the power-hungry men, from Hitler to Brezhnev, who successfully ruled in my native land.
Jazz stood for more than just soul, sex, expression and harmony. Jazz was the American way. “I wanna show that gospel, country, blues, rhythm and blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll are all just really one thing,” said the sublime Etta James. “Those are the American music and that is the American culture.” And if the Nazis want to ban your culture, boy, are you doing something terrific.
“She forgot the definition of ‘jazz’ as well, “writes David Sedaris in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary, “and came to think of it as every beautiful thing she had ever failed to appreciate: the taste of warm rain; the smell of a baby; the din of a swollen river, rushing past her tree and onward to infinity.”
Skvorecky understood the importance of free expression. In 1980 he was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. In his address, Arnost Lustig, a fellow Czech émigré author, opined: “In a country that has not had any democracy for over forty years now, books like those of Josef Skvorecky have become forbidden fruit on the one hand, and a hope for dignity and freedom on the other.”
“I always wanted to be a jazz musician, and was really never much of one,” Skvorecky said in 1989. He recalled the catalyst of his love:
There was a Chick Webb recording called I’ve Got a Guy, which featured Ella Fitzgerald. At the time I didn’t know it was Ella, because most records then didn’t list the names of the singers; the showcase was the band. That was around 1938, when Ella was twenty. I’ve Got a Guy also had a wonderful saxophone chorus, and when I heard it for the first time, I thought I was listening to the music of the heavenly spheres, and I still think that.
The Nazis had rules to combat jazz, its causes and effects. Ten of them were decreed by a Gauleiter, a regional Nazi official, during the Czech occupation.
If you think the Eurovision Song Contest is terrible, you simpatico and syncopated Nazis ain’t heard nothing yet (via):
Pieces in foxtrot rhythm (so-called swing) are not to exceed 20% of the repertoires of light orchestras and dance bands;
In this so-called jazz type repertoire, preference is to be given to compositions in a major key and to lyrics expressing joy in life rather than Jewishly gloomy lyrics
As to tempo, preference is also to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation. On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) or in solo performances (so-called breaks) be tolerated
So-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs)
Strictly prohibited is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit (so-called cowbells, flexatone, brushes, etc.) as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yowl (so-called wa-wa, hat, etc.)
Also prohibited are so-called drum breaks longer than half a bar in four-quarter beat (except in stylized military marches)
The double bass must be played solely with the bow in so-called jazz compositions
Plucking of the strings is prohibited, since it is damaging to the instrument and detrimental to Aryan musicality; if a so-called pizzicato effect is absolutely desirable for the character of the composition, strict care must be taken lest the string be allowed to patter on the sordine, which is henceforth forbidden
Musicians are likewise forbidden to make vocal improvisations (so-called scat)
All light orchestras and dance bands are advised to restrict the use of saxophones of all keys and to substitute for them the violin-cello, the viola or possibly a suitable folk instrument.
Well, some early American reviews of jazz sound very much like Soviet reviews. The difference is that a reviewer in America has no political power; it’s simply an opinion. In Czechoslovakia, on the other hand, a reviewer does have political power, and that’s the basic difference between totalitarianism and democracy. So though jazz in America may have aroused a lot of opposition initially, in a totalitarian state, such bias becomes law.
After the Nazis, the censors held sway in the Jazz Section of the Czech Musicians’ Union:
The Jazz Section was formed in 1971 as part of the government-approved Czechoslovak Musicians’ Union, and consisted of a group of jazz aficionados who sponsored lectures on jazz, staged concerts, and organized the international festival held once a year, the Prague Jazz Days. But as membership climbed into the thousands, and the Prague Jazz Days attracted thousands more potential supporters, the government saw a growing movement with a broad base of popular support and decided in 1984 to crack down on the Jazz Section. So they effectively banned it. The Section itself has claimed that its activities aren’t counter to the principles of Marxism. They even built a monument to the United Nations in the fall of 1985, around which they planted “peace trees,” two of which were planted by Kurt Vonnegut and John Updike. But in spite of this gesture, the government cracked down again. In September, 1985, seven members of the Executive Committee of the Jazz Section, including its president, Karel Srp, were arrested in Prague and charged, according to the Communist Party press, with “unauthorized business activities.”
Censorship is a crime. The Nazis were then. They are evoked today to to slam oppression. But what came next to Skvorecky’s homeland was no jazz age of free speech and free sounds:
My father was a committed Democrat who mistrusted both the Nazis and the Communists, and was arrested by both. I grew up believing that the Communists were not much better than the Nazis. I had an aunt who was Jewish, and also a Communist. “You know,” my father used to say, “she’s really very nice, but she’s a Bolshevik.” She was very pretty, had red nails, smoked cigarettes from a long holder, and wore pants, which in those days was considered very radical. She disappeared in a Soviet labor camp, so when the war was over, I felt that the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia was not much better—and possibly just as bad—as Nazi rule.
And the band played on.