Proper Records, specifically the Properbox division, is perhaps one of the most valuable record labels putting out work today. Proper pulls together comprehensive, four-disc, historically significant compilations from all walks of life, painstakingly mining and packaging American musical history for thrifty completists. From Spike Jones to Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys to Illinois Jacquet, Proper releases their indulgent box sets for about same price as a single CD by your favorite underground dregs-of-culture archivists. Of course, it’s never an issue of quantity as much as an issue of quality, but with all-encompassing releases dedicated to artists (who more often than not have been relegated to an unjust status as irrelevant kitsch), Proper manages not only to preserve the past with a decided integrity but to ensure its value in the future.
Swing Tanzen Verboten! is not a proper Proper release, then – the British label’s M.O. largely focuses on the American jazz ken and Western Swing music. Swing Tanzen Verboten! is a overwhelming and often disconcerting statement on the intrinsic value of all jazz music, viewed through an international and political lens. Swing Tanzen Verboten! attempts to show the proliferation of swing music in Europe during World War II., emphasizing, ultimately, that, removed from artifice, music is outright propaganda.
Perhaps this isn’t entirely revelatory. In fact, a cursory peak at either contemporary independent music or contemporary pop music shows rigid ideologies abound even today. Making matters more applicable here, these polarized sides of our present musical zeitgeist are conveniently analogous to the hedonism and intended transgression of the jazz era. Nazi Germany found this undesirable, of course. This much could be derived from watching the imminently dreamy Christian Bale shake a tail-feather in the dismal “Swing Kids” – Nazis hate jazz. Jazz is the music of liberation and democracy made by American black and Jewish constituencies. No gray area here. Open-and-shut case, right?
Sept. 1, 1939. “Abhor verbot van Auslandersendern” effectively erased the rest of the world from German airwaves. Jewish and American influences were barred, but jazz itself was not quite outlawed yet. Disc one of the set focuses largely on Germany’s attempt at a culturally insular, ultimately unsuccessful jazz music. With very little exception, Aryan jazz by groups like Erhard Bauschke Und Sein Orchester or Willy Berking Und Seine Solisten sound like the Aryan jazz by Anglo-American pillagers like Harry James. Is anyone actually surprised that there is link between fascism and Lawrence Welk? Maybe it’s base to suggest that hot syncopation and exciting music are born out of ethnicity and minority cultures, but the creative scope of German Swing, Dance and Jazz Bands: 1937-1944 often comes across as bleakly self-satisfied and uninventive.
Let it be said that this does not necessarily make the music uninteresting. Quite the contrary, in fact; there is something quite ominous about opening the set with a track like “Nachtexpress Nach Warschau”, a train-like percussive rhythm propels the music with decadent, technologically-fetishistic nationalism, decades before Trans-Europe Express. While not much of this work is necessarily riveting jazz, there’s something certainly sly and forlorn, which, perhaps, is merely a bi-product of its inclusion in this particular historical progression (it becomes increasingly difficult to discern what is actually intrinsic in music over the course of these four discs). In contrast, the standout piece on the disc, entitled “Stomp” and performed by the Hot Club Frankfurt, is such a digression from the surrounding work, the very criminality of it seems to glisten. The issues present have already revealed themselves by this point – an American musical genre, with all of that American ideological baggage, viewed through a European cultural lens. The results run a wide range from the mere integration of an accordion to the revelations contained on the second disc, “Charlie and His Orchestra: Nazi Propaganda Swing”.
Oh True, were the friends were near me to cheer me, believe me they knew.
So far, we have the recognizable song written by Walter Donaldson, that pleasant screwball standard, instantly invoking an urbanite recollection of a bad Woody Allen films, some springtime love farce. Charlie continues, now conjuring Winston Churchill through a mocking impression, one of his standard propaganda methods:
Here is Winston Churchill’s latest tearjerker:
Yes, the Germans are driving me crazy
The Jews are the friends who are near me to cheer me, believe me they do
Yes, The Germans are driving me crazy
My last chance, I pray to get in this muddle: the USA
The Jews are the friends who are near me , they still cheer me, believe me they do
Yes, the Germans are driving me crazy
This song might even be considered tame alongside of “F.D.R. Jones”, which starts with the line “It’s a Hebrew Holiday everywhere / For the Jewish Family has a brand-new heir”. Or take the reworded version of “Makin’ Whoopee”, that espouses the ever-elegant couplet, “We throw our German names away / We are the kikes of the USA”. All of the honey-sweetness and nostalgia modern audiences might feel at the trill of a cornet and all of the subversive, youth-fueled adrenaline that jazz music embodied at the time is completely eradicated with a mere turn-of-phrase.
The idea that somehow those flat fifth blue notes, those reaching major 7ths, or those erratic rhythms somehow embody a form of freedom, somehow embody that “American artform” glorified by Ken Burns, that there is some sort of democratic justice in improvisation, that it somehow conveys a just society where people are tolerant and careful; all of this is just completely gone. Music is dangerously mutable, not a single formal element of music is exempt. This includes “experimental music”, which is just as much a genre as anything else, and a recent condemnation of America by John Tilbury confirms this point of view. To him, even AMM becomes a form of mere entertainment, not a liberator of oppressed masses as its champions might like to believe. To this end, Tilbury quotes W.G. Sebald, “Art is a way of laundering money”. Despite Tilbury’s detractors, Swing Tanzen Verboten! might be one of the most potent pillars in his argument.
There are three points worth address right now:
The first point and third points will be dealt with as the final two discs of the set are covered. The second point is a little more immediate, in regards to the above comment that “no music is exempt from mutable ideology”. Importantly, there is nothing necessarily preventing a performer from reciting Nazi propaganda in a given Cage piece, considering the sheer number of them that have no requirements in regards to instrumentation. Yet, there is a resultant ambiguity in avant-garde music, a group like Whitehouse can talk about sodomizing corpses of syphilitic prostitutes (or perhaps more important, sodomizing your syphilitic corpse) as much as they want, but in the end, it can become rather difficult to distinguish whether it is being condoned or merely reflecting the culture that permits it. Perhaps there is no difference. Either way, this becomes a digression into the nature of the avant-garde relatively quickly, so it might be best to continue discussing Swing Tanzen Verboten!, a compilation of music that often has a painfully explicit agenda.
Svend Asmussen and His Orchestra, opens the third disc, Swing In Occupied Europe: 1940-1943, with blustery winter vibraphones in their beautifully syncopated version of “Honeysuckle Rose”. The disc begins in Nazi Denmark, where the authorities were allegedly a little bit more lax in jazz regulations than elsewhere and accordingly, the quality of the music suffers less. In fact, various ethnicities and degrees of American influence managed to seep into the music of Denmark at the time, giving this disc less of the threat and estrangement of the first disc, but ultimately coming across as derivative – appearing, for all purposes, a compilation of good quality swing music from the era. The fact that Svend Asmussen could be exchanged with any number of American swing artists from the time, or the fact that Miss Valaida Og Matadorerne were influenced enough to name their cut, “Carry Me Back To Old Virginny”, suggests that due to the Occupation, Denmark’s own nationally identity was humbled and by necessity grabbed the closest cultural protestation in the form of jazz. The issue here, at first, is not Danish identity as much as rebellion. American swing and Danish, Belgian, and French derivations therefore, had completely antithetical ideologies to the concurrent use of swing in German propaganda.
Thus, the earlier point, regarding Properbox’s relatively optimistic view of the set is not totally unfounded, Swing In Occupied Europe starts with its ideals well in tact. Yet, the vice tightens very shortly, and soon recordings of bands were forced to exclude Jewish musicians and entertain at Nazi social functions. All English swing titles are made Dutch. Referring to one such band, the liner notes cheerfully chirp “The Ramblers continued to swing despite the departmental censorship”. Yes, those Nazis had a rollicking good time, jumping, jiving, and whaling to the dulcet tones of the Ramblers. Eventually, the Ramblers’ swinging irreverence had them laid up in a concentration camp, which they managed to escape. Netherlands officials, nonetheless, were unhappy with the Ramblers cooperation with Nazi parties, and after the war ended, their work was once again restricted, though for different reasons and in different ways. Finally, in 1946, the Netherlands decided the Ramblers paid their dues and gave them a weekly radio show for a little less than 20 years.
Disc Three continues with similar quandaries. Bands needed to make a living, Nazis wanted to get their message across, compromises were made, musicians stubbornly cling to their ideals, Nazis get slightly irked, war ends, country claims band made too many concessions to Nazi party. “Erst Van’t Hoff was regarded by many Dutch people, to have stood on the wrong side of the line during the war, although he made people forget the misery of Nazidom during that war with his excellent music”. If he was standing on the wrong side of the line, wasn’t he only making the Nazis forget about the misery of Nazidom? The musicians were well-paid for complying with the authorities, apparently. Who’s accountable in the end? Perhaps this ties back into the issue of the ideological ambiguities mentioned in correlation to avant-garde music above; there is a prevailing notion that perhaps Nazi regime-toting music does not share Nazi ideologies, but simply show musicians in a vastly compromised state of being.
For what the elaborate liner notes lack in analysis, they compensate for in history and anecdote. Each track is given context, which seems important because, strangely enough, a listener could potentially hear an entire disc and not be able to identify who were the Nazi sympathizers and who were the Dutch/Hawaiian guerilla rebels. Whereas disc one and Disc Four seem to be generally ideologically unified from beginning to end, Nazi-occupied but still somehow hopeful, Disc Three seems to be literally all over the map, illustrating the differences in Nazi restrictions in Norway, the Netherlands, and even Hungary.
Disc Four focuses on Belgium and France, once again returning to the notion that these were somehow the golden years of jazz music, even with the contradictory evidence of musician complicity in plain sight. Jazz thrived – it was permitted by Nazi rule, as long as the music could be contextualized alongside Nazi ideologies. All of the talk of jazz music as a rebellion seems short-sighted – can a musical form condoned and distributed exclusively by Nazis actually contain powerful anti-Nazi values? Simultaneous to the radio broadcasts of Nazi-condoned jazz, there was in fact, a rebellious movement spawned from American jazz interest; the usual all night parties and the lot. So, here we have, once again, the same music being used by the fascists and the “revolutionaries” at the exact same time, and of course, it’s perplexing.
Then the war ended. Swing became the empty gesture we now know it as, Bop and Free Jazz entered the equation, the Avant-Garde and rock music genres were created and enforced the successful reign of a Western democratic agenda. Perhaps Properbox is right for being optimistic, after all – the American view of jazz is the view of jazz taken by our experts and historians, our international cultural notion of jazz was completely unchanged by the Nazi appropriation of it. Swing Tanzen Verboten! does perhaps display the prevalence of America’s jazz ideologies over the German use, but more importantly, it shows the absolute fragility of musical meaning. It’s a lesson not to be taken lightly.
One last point. It might be fair to assess that, over time, these recordings have taken an aesthetic value. By allowing a historical distance, Swing Tanzen Verboten! becomes somewhat removed from Nazism, and becomes a cultural relic that ultimately reinforces Western values. American and British audiences are now able to enjoy and fetishize this hateful music because its agenda ultimately failed. Audiences can derive a certain pleasure from this music that goes beyond simple historical philosophizing. This is, without a doubt, jazz music, and an audience not knowing the context of some of these recordings could easily mistake this work and view it in light of our own Western views. Maybe this simply reinforces a subjective view of music – that the music, as stated above has no intrinsic ideologies, but rather than being malleable to any given agendas, the ideologies that appear are ultimately those of the audience. Of course, the audience doesn’t just develop views and understandings, uninfluenced by the world at large. Swing Tanzen Verboten! may not answer any of the above questions, but perhaps it will prompt audiences to think about the origin of their understanding of culture.
By Matt Wellins