in the garden

 

Aug 2004 Journal

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Jazz under the Nazis

How did the legendary gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt survive the Nazi occupation of France when tens of thousands of his compatriots were murdered in Auschwitz? The musicologist and dedicated jazz aficionado Ruth Hazeldine (née Goldstein) recounted to Club '43 the story of Django and his long collaboration with the urbane and long-lived French jazz violinist Stephane Grapelli. She played pre-war recordings illuminating the unique sound and intense rhythms of the three guitars, double bass and violin of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France.

Jazz was brought to Europe by Negro musicians serving with US army bands in World War I. Nazi Party ideology was in direct conflict with the popularity of jazz; playing and listening were banned in Germany in 1935, as were Jewish jazz musicians the following year. The Germans attempted a compromise with 'German swing', but stuck to their ban on Negro and Jewish jazz, though clandestine recordings were made at great personal risk.

Born in Belgium in 1910, Django Reinhardt moved with his family of gypsy musicians to France after World War I, and learned to play banjo, violin and guitar. With his immense talent he possessed a uniquely recognisable style, despite his loss in 1928 of the use of two fingers on his left hand in a caravan fire.

In London the Quintet were a sensation, but with the outbreak of war Stephane decided to stay. Django chose to return home, although, as a gypsy, he was in great peril in France.

In Paris Django carried on playing in clubs and bars. A German SA officer, Dietrich Schultz Koehn, a passionate follower of jazz and Berlin jazz clubs, acted as his protector (the testimony of French jazz enthusiasts helped Koehn to avoid post-war retribution and he continued to promote and play jazz). But by 1943 the atmosphere in Paris looked threatening, so Django and his family, having failed to obtain entry into Switzerland, went into hiding and continued composing, using a clarinet as a substitute for the violin. In Paris teenagers calling themselves Les Zazous were less fortunate in defying the Nazis.

At the war's end, Django and Stephane held an emotional reunion in London. Django was still popular in France, but musical styles were changing and he continued his smoking, drinking and easy-going gypsy lifestyle, which probably hastened his tragically untimely death in 1953, loyal to his own people and his unique musical talent to the end.
Ronald Channing

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