A recent post on Boing Boing discussed the newly discovered “rules for jazz performers during the Nazi occupation.” Jewish and Black people — two groups targeted by the Nazis — were also the primary innovators of jazz music. But even as the German state denigrated jazz, jazz musicians, and swing dancers, Nazi soldiers loved jazz! How to handle such a contradiction? Rules for playing jazz music: no “Jewishy gloomy lyrics,” no “Negroid excesses in tempo,” and no “hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races.”
It’s well worth a look, as is this post from 2010 explaining how many groups vilified by Nazis survived the Holocaust by playing jazz for Nazi soldiers…
I have a favorite historical musician: Django Reinhardt.
Reinhardt was a Roma jazz musician. During World War II both Roma and jazz musicians were targeted by the Nazi regime. Over a million Roma were exterminated for presumed racial inferiority and jazz was believed to combine the worst of Blacks and Jews (i.e., “musical race defilement”). Just listening to a jazz record could get you sent to a concentration camp.
Reinhardt, however, enjoyed the most lucrative period of his career during the war, while living and playing openly among Nazi soldiers.
Reinhardt biographer Michael Dregni, recently interviewed by NPR, explained:
The Germans used Paris basically as their rest-and-relaxation center, and when the soldiers came, they wanted wine and women and song. And to many of them, jazz was the popular music, and Django was the most famous jazz musician in Paris… And it was really a golden age of swing in Paris, with these [Romas] living kind of this grand irony.
Reinhardt, then, survived because the Nazis loved jazz music, even as Hitler censored the music and, on his orders, people who dared to listen to, dance to, or play it were encamped and members of the groups who invented it were murdered. Irony indeed.
For more on Reinhardt, jazz, and World War II, here is a clip from a documentary on Reinhardt’s remarkable talent, career, and luck:
UPDATE: A commenter, Bernardo Soares, offered an interesting critique/clarification in the thread. Here’s part of what he had to say:
…I think it is grossly misleading to write that Reinhardt “enjoyed the most lucrative period of his career during the war”. He enjoyed the protection of some individuals in the German occupation force. This is not so unusual — the composer Richard Strauss who headed the Reichsmusikkammer used his influence to protect some Jewish composers. But as many other examples show, this was extremely precarious. As long as these individuals had the power to protect him, he was probably relatively safe, but he could still be shot by any soldier at a whim or be accidentally included in a deportation action. Also, these individuals could lose their power, or some higher-ranking officer could order him to be deported. Reinhardt tried several times to escape occupied France.
[Also] …the whole issue of music and art politics in the Third Reich is much more complex than stated in the video. The Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music Chamber) was not the only institution regulating music politics. As with many other bureaucratic institutions in the Third Reich, several agencies struggled for influence and power. This means that music politics was often contradictory, and the absence of a clear regulation as stated in the video opened the door for arbitrary measures – again emphasizing the precarious situation of musicians. The competition and struggle for power between different agencies led to a radicalisation of racial and cultural politics, and this was even taken further in the occupied countries.
I do love this topic. I also have a post on racial borrowing and lindy hop, the dance that made me love Django. A paper I wrote about gender and lindy hop can be found in the journal Ethnography. And I have a talk based on the paper that I love to give in theory classes.Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.