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Book Review : Jazz Buffs Swing Under the Swastika

January 16, 1987|ELAINE KENDALL

La Tristesse de Saint Louis by Mike Zwerin (Beech Tree: $16.95)

Once jazz critic for the Village Voice and a trombonist with some of the all-time jazz greats, Zwerin now lives in Paris, contributing to the International Herald and pursuing varied interests. "La Tristesse de Saint Louise" expresses what happens when you translate "St. Louis Blues" literally into French, a dodge forced upon European jazzmen when the Nazis outlawed such music as the decadent invention of inferior races. "Honeysuckle Rose" became "La Rose de Chevrefeuille," "Sweet Sue" was transformed into "Ma Chere Suzanne," and the bands played on, though no one could have been fooled for long. The letter of the law was satisfied and the French were cheered by the music they'd enjoyed in happier times.

Fascinated by the idea that jazz and swing not only survived in wartime Europe but became a form of anti-Nazi protest, Zwerin spent two years researching his subject and interviewing the now elderly performers of the era. "Jazz," he says, "was daily catharsis, a purifying release from tension. It's principal element, swing, was symbolic, pertinent and physical. Jazz was packed with drama, it was political dynamite, aesthetically ecological, created with religious fervor, and it was popular; a rare conjunction. Please note," he adds, "that I do not include Germany itself in this assessment; only the countries it occupied."

The resulting memoir is a free-wheeling collection of anecdote and conversation, assembled to support Zwerin's opinion that the war years were a Golden Age of Jazz. Unstructured as a jam session, the book features vignettes of performers and promoters, with the most detailed profile of the great Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt.

Three-Week Jaunt

Obviously aware there wasn't quite enough material here for even a short and highly specialized book, Zwerin has included the account of a trip he made in 1984 to Africa under the auspices of the United States Information Service, a three-week jaunt confirming his ideas about the therapeutic values of jazz in times of crisis. Though the visit included several countries, South Africa--"an extraordinarily violent society"--overwhelmed him with its resemblances to Nazi Germany. "You know how I stay sane here?" a black jazzman asked him. "Music. I stay sane by screaming into a saxophone." The intensity of Zwerin's "Sad Afrika" impressions lead him some distance from his specific subject into a solemn historical and political riff meant to buttress his thesis that jazz has uses and applications beyond expression or diversion, though he can provide little in the way of absolute proof.

There are various instances in which jazz is credited with life-saving properties; examples of jazz-loving members of the German occupying army so entranced by a musician's skill that they crossed his name off the deportation lists and even pulled him off a train bound for the camp. The fact that such heart-warming occurrences were pitifully rare in no way detracts from the historical significance Zwerin finds in them. Among his discoveries is the existence of a jazz band ghoulishly called the Ghetto Swingers, organized to play in Theresienstadt to contradict rumors of slave labor and gas ovens. A propaganda film was made by the Germans to allay these growing fears, showing concerts, sports and vaudeville shows. As soon as the movie was complete, the Swingers were loaded into a train for Auschwitz, where they were again given a temporary reprieve to play for the commandants. A few members of this tiny group managed to escape the ultimate train to Dachau; their good luck one of the examples Zwerin has uncovered.

Dangerous Social Element

A tangential chapter deals with the French equivalent of zoot suiters, called Zazous after Cab Callaway's scat songs. Regarded as a dangerous social element, the Zazous inspired a full-scale study of "Swing and Morals" published by a self-styled philosopher in 1943, a murky and curious document from which Zwerin quotes extensively, even including a facsimile of a chart drawn by the author to demonstrate how swing leads directly to a weakening of reasoning power and decline of the scientific spirit, after causing an assortment of others social ills on the way.

Though there are arresting nuggets of information in this grab bag; references to German officers not only winking at the existence of illegal cellar jazz clubs but even taking a turn at the piano or picking up a horn themselves, the effect of jazz on the course of modern European history seems overstated. In comparison to Nat Hentoff, who writes as eloquently and thoughtfully about political subjects as about music, Zwerin's judgments on larger issues seem simplistic. "La Tristesse de Saint Louis" is really no more than a private diary, padded with reproductions of club programs and snapshots of performers. While the notion of jazz as "a force liberating the spirit of a conquered Europe" is heartening, wishing doesn't make it so.

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