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Culture Clubs: Part IV: When Jazz Met Europe

Karl Ackermann By

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For all intent and purposes, 1920s music journalists in Germany seemed to relate the entire jazz genre to a singular element—the Charleston. The Paul Bernhard book, whose German title translates to Jazz -A Musical Issue (Delphin-Verlag/Munchen, 1927), noted that the presence of Josephine Baker in 1925 Berlin was a mutual love fest. Baker was the manifestation of the Charleston at a time when it was all the rage throughout Western Europe. "Tiger Rag"—first recorded in the U.S. in 1917 by the Original Dixieland Jass Band—and a popular Charleston dance tune, was re-released on a German label in 1920. While American musicians had a clear influence on their German counterparts, the country was relatively quick to adapt to a home-grown brand of jazz. Paul Whiteman was extraordinarily popular in Berlin and his concerts were broadcast live. From the mid-1920s into the early 30s German radio was flooded with popular American jazz music from Armstrong, Ellington, Red Nichols and others. The prestigious Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt (founded in 1878) instituted the first known academic jazz studies program in 1928. But National Socialism decimated the jazz scene in 1933. With Hitler's rise to power, jazz was dealt multiple setbacks. Some of the most popular band leaders and composers in Berlin—such as Stefan Weintraub, Karol Rathaus, Efim Schachmeister and Paul Godwin—were Jewish, and fled the country. Less directly, the "racial purity" doctrine of the Nazi party decreed that jazz was black music and therefore unacceptable. Finally, the perceived cultural "Americanization" of Germany went from aspiration to abomination in very short order. The Nazi reaction to jazz was not simply manifested in closing down venues that promoted the music. The Swingjugend (Swing Kids) were a loosely organized group of apolitical boys and girls aged fourteen to eighteen who continued to play jazz in various locations. In 1941 they were rounded up by police and their leaders sent to concentration camps. A jazz club "scene," on the scale of what occurred in France and Britain, didn't have the same opportunity to develop in Germany during the Jazz Age but the movement was resilient and withstood more than one submergence to the underground.

The Zig Zag Club is a massive twelve-hundred person capacity club in Berlin is known for its state-of-the-art sound system. It is a venue for electronic and jazz music and its recent performers have included Myra Melford, Ron Miles, Liberty Ellman, Stomu Takeishi, Gerald Cleaver, Wayne Escoffery, Jason Miles and Reggie Washington. The A-Trane, in the old section of West Berlin dates back to 1997. The club was originally relegated to the basement of what had been a potato processing factory. The A-Trane is widely known, drawing audiences from four continents and has been the site of live broadcast for radio and recordings. Trumpeter Till Brönner was the first act to play the club and returned to perform for their twentieth year anniversary. The early 2018 schedule includes concerts from Chris Speed, pianist Julia Hulsmann, saxophonist JD Allen, Pericopes +1 and trombonist Nils Wogram. Jazz clubs are ubiquitous in Germany and reach well outside Berlin. Among the most popular are the Tonne Jazz Club in Dresden, which dates back to communist-ruled East Germany, the Jazzkeller in Frankfurt, the Zur Unterfahrt in Munich and the Bix in Stuttgart.


Like Germany, Poland experienced an eruption of enthusiasm in the 1920s and the country's musicians were quick to incorporate ethnic and traditional influences. The same political forces that suppressed jazz in Germany, dominated Poland. It remains largely unrecognized that the Polish jazz culture predates Louis Armstrong's modern improvised jazz. As early as 1923, Polish jazz musicians were touring Eastern Europe in the company of Chicago and New Orleans Dixieland players. The American perspective of Polish jazz is principally defined by trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, violinist Michal Urbaniak and pianist Krzysztof Komeda. Along with later arrivals to the scene, such as pianists Marcin Wasilewski, Adam Makowicz and saxophonist Zbigniew Namyslowski, this group of artists constitutes much of what American audiences have experienced in Polish jazz. A more global recognition was further delayed by the Nazi occupation and later Soviet control. Jazz didn't re-emerge until the late 1950s but artists from saxophonist Gerry Mulligan to pianist Brad Mehldau have been influence by the rich traditions of jazz rooted in this country.


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