SWING IN AMERICA AND GERMANY: LIFTING UP THE SPIRIT
Swing is freedom. With its lush melodies, its athletic, erotically charged dance, and its swank, seductive style, Swing was a release valve for young Americans in the late 1930s. For young Germans, though, facing the monotone viciousness of the Third Reich, Swing was a kind of salvation.
In 1933, Prohibition was repealed, and jazz jumped out of the gin-joints and into the light. America's middle class was emerging from the Depression, and its children were eager for a new hot sound to mirror their passions. In 1935, Benny Goodman gave them what they wanted, with the help of Fletcher Henderson.
Starting in the 1920's, Henderson led the first big band to gain fame by playing jazz, with such luminary sidemen as Louis Armstrong on trumpet and Coleman Hawkins on saxophone. While other big bands were playing dull, commercial versions of pop songs, Henderson's arrangements, like "Blue Skies" and "King Porter Stomp" gave a hard-edged, just-barely-in-control sound to the music. Henderson's music was real jazz. As George T. Simon writes in his book Big Bands, "Henderson would set off one section against another, rolling saxes vs. crisp brass, an approach quite different from the less rhythmic, more lethargic-sounding ensembles of most dance bands."
This new approach struck gold for Benny Goodman and his band on August 21, 1935 at Hollywood's Palomar Ballroom. Goodman's records had been making the play lists on radio stations throughout the country, but nothing could have prepared him for the reception he got that night. After the first standard tunes earned only lackluster applause, Goodman began playing some of Henderson's arrangements. The crowd went wild. Goodman's drummer Gene Krupa later recalled, "We weren't getting much reaction, so Benny, I guess, decided to hell with playing it safe and we started playing numbers like 'King Porter Stomp.' Well, from then on we were in!" Goodman himself later wrote, "The first big roar from the crowd was one of the sweetest sounds I ever heard in my life." Goodman's three-week stint at the ballroom became an eight-month engagement! Like a tiger out of its cage, Swing was loose upon the world.
"Swing" was originally used to describe a musician who, if he hit an especially hot groove, would "swing like hell" or "swing like a gate," but with Goodman's success, the word became a label for this exhilarating and exciting sound. For years, bandleaders like Henderson, Duke Ellington and William "Count" Basie had been creating jazz with big bands. The sound was influential, but discrimination against black bands limited the reach of their music. So while Time magazine called Goodman the "King of Swing," he was more like its ambassador, bringing Swing to a wider, and invariably younger, audience. As the New York Times wrote in 1939, "Swing is the voice of youth striving to be heard in this fast-moving world of ours. Swing is the tempo of our time. Swing is real. Swing is alive."
If young people were alive with Swing in America, in Germany they were holding on to it like a lifeline.
During the Weimar Republic of the 1920's, jazz was almost the German national music. Josephine Baker said of Berlin, "The vast cafes reminded me of ocean liners powered by the rhythms of their orchestras." Germans got their jazz fix through records, movies and touring bands. The American pianist Sam Wooding opened in Berlin in 1925 to such acclaim that he spent the next several years touring major German cities.
When the Nazis came to power, Swing, with its African-American origins, was considered the music of the enemy. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels began a slow crackdown on "degenerate" art, including all music that did not conform to the National Socialists' absurdly detailed and racist code. But Germany's love of jazz had been a long time coming, and, as the Nazis learned, the genie couldn't be put back in the bottle.
The port city of Hamburg, always open to outside influences, saw the greatest incursion of Swing. Rather than join the Hitler Jugend, or Hitler Youth, hundreds of teens boldly took Swing as their vocation and religion. They called themselves "Swing Boys" and "Swing Babies."
Their style was defiantly American: they favored the finest suits, shoes, trench coats, and felt hats. They would quiz each other on minutia from the latest contraband album, catch a Humphrey Bogart picture at the Metro, dance at Swing clubs until curfew. Their greeting was a whistled Swing tune. Although they denied any political overtones to their in-your-face style, Michael H. Kater in his book Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany writes, "It is clear that their ostentatiousness was meant as explicit challenge to a dictatorial regime that punished individualism and rewarded drab collectivism."
After Kristallnacht on November 10, 1938, the Swing youth were put under great scrutiny: they were put under surveillance, some were arrested. In 1939, Hamburg officially prohibited the "cacophony from the USA." When the Swings continued to flaunt their style, the Nazis took even stronger steps: according to Kater, between 1942 and 1944, 40 to 70 of the most prominent Swing youth were put into concentration camps. Tellingly, they were all classified as "political" prisoners. Many survived the camps with their love of the music intact.
The Swing youth included Germans, foreigners and Jews. They came together only in their love of the music. Kater describes the Swing youth as defiant examples: "there is evidence that this archetypal movement formed the backbone for opposition...It gave rise to hope for a new kind of German, one who would abhor Hitlerism and embrace humanity itself..."
In a world where body and soul were crushed, they found a sound and a style to lift the spirit up.