Even the Nazis Liked to Swing

by Shawn Spitzer on April 23, 2015

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Jazz is an enjoyable art form that allows for people from all backgrounds to come together and leave their worries at the door. Nazis aren’t the first people we think of when we think about people that in their free time relax with jazz. During WWII Nazis tried to keep jazz out of peoples’ ears, but eventually had to embrace the genre to try to stay relevant.

To explore why jazz endured in Germany during this time we have to go back before WWII and look at the Hoch Conservatory and a man by the name of Dietrich Schulz Kohn who was listening in on lectures by Mátyás Seiber. These were the first jazz courses in Germany, which made them revolutionary in their own right. Kohn had experience with music and jazz from a young age and even got to see Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong perform in England. Before the war was in full swing he opened the first jazz club in Konigsberg, was a jazz editor for Telefunken, and had done work with German record labels.

As the war broke out Kohn joined the Air Force and rose to the rank of a Lieutenant. He had grown up in a Nazi home, but disagreed with the position on jazz. Kohn felt that he had the opportunity to enjoy jazz as a youth so it should not be affected by this war. Kohn went so far as to say that he felt that jazz would strengthen the third Reich.1 When asked later about his statements on the topic he said he didn’t remember saying such a thing but also did not deny it; however, firsthand accounts confirm that he did in fact say these things. General consensus from Nazis in German about jazz, however was that it would only survive if they lost the war. Kohn disregarded this by attending jazz clubs in Germany and even appeared in a famous photo with Django Reinhardt. Kohn wrote a newsletter about the jazz happening in the Nazi controlled cities.

Was he just naïve? German cultural critics like Adorno saw jazz as such a bad thing, representing conformity and predictable structure rather than freedom. Adorno felt like jazz shows were very scripted and not actually improvisational as Americans advertised it. Jazz was the American and allies’ form of entertainment and enjoyment. It was a way to relax, take your mind off of the war, and to integrate cultures. Hitler felt that this was threatening to the control on his people; therefore the Nazis shut it down for a time but eventually changed their minds and allowed it again. They realized they would lose more and more support if they continued to hold jazz hostage.

After the war Kohn, Dr Jazz, who had saved thousands of records, became a journalist and radio host. In 1948 he began work on jazz broadcasts in Cologne and didn’t stop until 1992.2 He used the platform to help Germany heal, by using the popularity of jazz in America as a beacon of freedom for this country in its postwar state.3 Clearly, Schulz Kohn is one of the more interesting figures in German jazz history. Stanley Kubrick was even reportedly interested in making a movie about Dr Jazz; the man who was in love with hot jazz.

Bibliography

  1. Mike Zwerin, Swing Under the Nazis: Jazz as a Metaphor for Freedom (Roman & Littlefield Publishing), 31-34
  2. Bernd Hoffmann, Die Mitteilungen, in Wolfram Knauer, Jazz in Germany (Jazz Institute Darmstadt)
  3. Heinz Protzer, A jazz institution: Dietrich Schulz-Köhn, 329-347

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kevin Forté May 1, 2015 at 1:50 pm

This is a really interesting read. The many immediate historical associations that we are all aware of (rightfully) overshadow many other facets of Nazism, and it’s interesting to take a step back and view the Nazis more objectively as a political party. The fact that they had to lift a banning on jazz because of just how much that would’ve hurt them politically really details the importance of jazz worldwide.

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Emma Anderson April 30, 2015 at 9:30 pm

Before this class, I hadn’t really ever thought about Nazi Germans enjoying something like jazz. It’s really cool that he collected records and somewhat preserved jazz in Nazi Germany. I also think it’s really cool that he saw it as a healing technique. A lot of people who like jazz view it in that manner. Good article! (It made me think about the movie “Swing Kids.” I suggest checking it out if you’re into this topic. )

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