until 1945
Jazz in Germany

The forerunners of jazz reached Germany back in the time of the Empire. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, who performed at German royal courts and concert halls in 1877/78, elicited fascination and admiration with their Negro spirituals. 

In the following years instrumental ensembles, banjo virtuosi, show groups and tap dancers came to Germany. The syncopated rhythms of ragtime and the friskiness of the cakewalks caused amazement and facilitated the early encounters with the Afro-American culture, which were harshly interrupted by the outbreak of World War One in 1914.

The Golden Twenties

It was not until the start of the 1920s that ensembles playing jazz-style music came to Germany. Jazz fever seized Berlin, one of Europe’s culture and pleasure capitals. Initially the interest was focused on the exotic aspect of jazz, as embodied by Josephine Baker and the Revue Negré. But authentic US-American jazz bands made guest performances in Germany in the 1920s as well, with bands such as Sam Wooding’s Chocolate Kiddies.

Eric Borchard Aggravatin' Papa (Preview: www.youtube.com)

German musicians were taking tentative steps to move towards the new musical style, initially by imitating it. Typical jazz instruments, such as saxophone and percussion, were still the easiest to adopt. At first the German musicians found the tone formation peculiar to jazz significantly more difficult, as well as phrasing and especially jazz improvisation. Clarinettist and saxophonist Eric Borchard was considered one of Germany’s jazz pioneers who was successful in this step.

In 1926 a wave of „symphonic jazz” began with Paul Whiteman’s performance in Berlin, which admittedly was further removed from the Afro-American originals again. At the same time people began to take jazz seriously as an art form. The first German „Jazz Book” by Alfred Baresel was published back in 1926. In 1928 Bernhard Sekles, director of the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt am Main, started up a jazz class. Ernst Krenek’s jazz opera entitled Johnny spielt auf became a box-office success in 1927.

Rudolf Nelson Berlin 1929, Screenplay (Preview: www.youtube.com)

Even composers of concert music, such as Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill began to be interested in the means of expression found in jazz. But even at this time the Nazis entered the equation, and they reviled anything associated with jazz because following their ideology it was declared to be „un-German”.

Jazz under the swastika

In the years after the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933, there was an exodus and persecution of Jewish musicians, together with a propaganda campaign against „nigger music” and the order not to play any jazz music on the radio. The swinging, free attitude in jazz contradicted the Nazi ideal of synchronising society to a march step by order. Although there was no categorical ban on jazz, jazz musicians were exposed to harassment and persecution. Nevertheless there were some remarkable jazz bands such as Kurt Hohenberger’s group, which included excellent soloists like Walter Dobschinski and Fritz Schulz-Reichel. During this time the musicians became involved in a game of cat and mouse with their „controllers”, in which for example jazz titles like the Tiger Rag were renamed Schwarzer Panther by the musicians.

Young people who wanted to distance themselves from National Socialist organisations such as the Hitler Youth formed groups that dressed demonstratively differently, following US-American fashion and championing the cause of jazz. These so-called „Swing-Heinis” were persecuted by the Gestapo. In the Frankfurt Hot-Club, musicians like Carlo Bohländer and Emil Mangelsdorff joined forces, playing jazz illegally and preserving the spirit of this music even in the dark times of National Socialism. The infamous Nazi propaganda productions included performances by the Ghetto Swingers, who were allowed to – or had to – play jazz-inspired music in the „showcase” concentration camp Theresienstadt.

The band Charlie and his Orchestra, formed by order of Joseph Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda, falls more into the „Oddly enough” category. They recorded titles in a jazz style with anti-Allied Forces lyrics in English for radio broadcasts aimed at the West. The German Dance and Entertainment Orchestra, which was founded in 1942, accommodated a need for swing music that could not be completely suppressed and played a „neutralised” form of jazz music. It was not until the „Third Reich" was broken up after the end of World War Two that a new chapter of hope began in the history of German jazz.