Music Beyond the Curtain

Music Beyond the Curtain

The roll of jazz in Eastern Europe through the decades


Joachim Kühn

Can a musical note be political (the call of a bugle, the blast of a shofar)? A collection of notes (a national anthem, the ‘Eroica’)? Can instrumental music connote political ideas? If a tune can celebrate a culture, can it dissent from it as well? And does political oppression stifle musical expression or add to its focus and intensity?
These thorny formalist questions cannot be avoided when we consider the place of jazz in Eastern Europe. In spite of a deep affection for the tradition, listeners and musicians from the Baltic to the Balkans spent jazz’s golden age, 1935 to 1965, pursuing their interest under the most oppressive political conditions. Both the Nazis and the Soviets forbade the playing of jazz. Goebbels called it ‘Judeo-Negroid’ music that was ‘insulting to the soul’. Stalin’s cultural czars deemed it ‘perverted’ and ‘degenerate’, ‘the music of cannibals.’ Specific instruments, including saxophones, were banned.

During this period, Poles or Czechs or Hungarians who were drawn to jazz for aesthetic reasons saw history turn their avocation into a political act. And political acts have political consequences. In the late 1940s, while Charlie Parker recorded his Savoy Sessions and Thelonious Monk laid down his first tunes for Blue Note Records, Eastern Europe entered a Soviet-imposed cultural deep-freeze that maimed expression in all the arts and would last for over forty years. Anyone familiar with the persecution of Prokoviev, Shostakovich and other Russian composers will not be surprised at the suppression of jazz in Eastern Europe, as thorough, widespread, and perilous as Nazi censorship. Ignoring this intrusion of the state into musical life altered lives profoundly – the Polish-Jewish trumpeter Eddie Rosner (‘the white Louis Armstrong’) was one of many thousands of Eastern Europeans punished for choosing to practise their art. He spent eight years in a Siberian prison camp.

In this context, when Rosner played ‘St Louis Blues’, for example, the tune would have assumed a highly charged political meaning, for him and his listeners, which affected the perception of the song’s aesthetic components – rhythm, melody, harmony – and which was very different from the effect that, say, Art Tatum’s playing of the same song would have had in Chicago at the same time. But unlike programme music, which attempts in the act of composition to represent specific scenes, images, or moods, jazz in totalitarian Eastern Europe had meaning imposed upon it by historical circumstance. Its political dimension was the result of external forces rather than artistic intent.

The distinction is important. The Czech writer and occasional tenor saxophonist Josef Škvorecký, who experienced first-hand the regimes of Hitler and Stalin, succinctly defined the effect of totalitarianism on music: ‘When the lives of individuals and communities are controlled by powers that themselves remain uncontrolled – slavers, czars, führers, first secretaries, marshals, generals and generalissimos, ideologists of dictatorships at either end of the spectrum – then creative energy becomes a protest.’

The protest turned the music into something more than an act of artistic expression: behind the Iron Curtain, jazz stood for freedom – to play as one wished, to speak as one ought, and to make a stand against repression. It was the musical equivalent of samizdat. ‘Russia is a country of jazz miracles,’ Russian jazz producer Leo Feigin said in the 1980s, ‘in the midst of the most cruel spiritual oppression.’ And this political significance was enhanced by the core feature of jazz, improvisation. As critic Mike Zwerin put it, ‘You cannot censor improvisation.’ A trumpet solo became, as it were, an intense merger of aesthetics and politics in real time.

Like all protest in Eastern Europe, jazz lived deep underground. Sheet music and recordings, as rare as private property, were bartered on the black market. Performances were arranged and presented with spy-like subterfuge. And of course, there was no jazz on the airwaves – at least not until 1955, when Willis Conover’s Voice of America Jazz Hour first aired. For decades thereafter, Conover’s nightly broadcast, which reached thirty million people worldwide, was the staple source of jazz for listeners from Vilnius to Vladivostok. It was music lesson, protest document, jazz celebration and window to the West, all in one.

But even though Conover made a point of keeping his show ‘free of politics’, it too was a political act. The Voice of America was a propaganda vehicle for the US federal government, with the stated aim of countering Soviet propaganda directed against American leaders and policies. That its jazz hour and other programmes may have been of artistic benefit to its listeners did not alter the context; the conditions of transmission and reception also politicised the music, no matter what was played.
Such politicisation was further dramatised by the defection of musicians to the West. Among the 80,000 refugees who came to the United States after the Soviet-quashed Hungarian Revolution in 1956 were many musicians, including guitarist Gábor Szabó. The failure of the Prague Spring in 1968 prompted another exodus, including bassist George Mraz and pianist Jan Hammer. And piano prodigy Joachim Kühn, who would go on to play with Ornette Coleman, defected from East Germany in 1966.

This emigration of talent made it even harder for Eastern European countries to sustain anything resembling a jazz scene. Poland, however, always something of an anomaly in the Eastern bloc (it was the only country allowed by the Soviets to have an active religious culture, for example), managed to cultivate a local tradition in the 1950s and 60s that was distinctive and innovative and allied to parallel achievements in film and poetry (Krzysztof Komeda was a key figure, a fine jazz pianist who also wrote scores for films by Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda). Polish jazz was much more than protest music – though buoyed by a sense of nationalism that thumbed its nose at the Soviets, its line of development was musical rather than political.

It is no accident that, twenty years after the fall of Communism, Poland has the most developed jazz scene in Eastern Europe. Building on the tradition of Komeda and others, the country continues to supply a steady stream of talent, both old-guard masters such as Tomasz Stanko, and new stars like the pianists Marcin Wasilewski and Pawel Kaczmarczyk.

When the Berlin Wall came down, twenty years ago this autumn, and Europe was transformed, Eastern European musicians finally achieved the freedom to play, to listen, to travel, to study and to associate freely with artists from all over the world. They were also free to explore strands of their heritage that nourish rather than narrow: folk traditions, ethnic forms, the blending of classical and jazz techniques. Hungarian pianist-composer Daniel Szabo, Czech vocalist Marta Topferova, and Bulgarian pianist Dimitar Bodurov are just a few examples of a new wave of musicians from the East, international in focus yet close to their national roots, who pursue their art unfettered by political interference.

So jazz is no longer the potent emblem of freedom and human expression it was during the Cold War. But that is a good thing, for musicians and for listeners. Music can dissent from a culture and remain powerful, but if it is to have long-term worth it is preferable to put the emphasis on the music rather than ideology.

It is noteworthy how, over the last two decades, the impulse towards the political in jazz has been revived by a new generation of African-American musicians, who have returned to the dissident themes of the Black Power movement of the sixties. This time round, however, the focus is wider. It is less about anger and more about awareness. Don Byron’s Tuskegee Experiments and David Murray’s Sacred Ground are careful musical responses to specific historical examples of state-sponsored racism. Programme music more than protest, their goal is primarily aesthetic, with history and political attitude used as raw material.

And here, perhaps, we arrive at an appropriate balance: music is better served by dissent when the response is distanced from the oppression; when the emphasis in composition is on aethestic excellence rather than lashing out; and when creative energy moves beyond protest and into the full engagment of its civilising powers. Wordsworth’s definition of poetry was ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’. Prior to 1989, Eastern European jazz had always been narrowly political. Since then it has been in transition. It will be interesting to see if, in these more tranquil times, its musicians respond to the emotional turmoil of their past with the maturity and vision required to create music that is meaningfully informed by their history.

Published on 1 June 2009

Kevin Stevens is is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on history, literature, and jazz.

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