In Munich, 1937, Adolf Hitler unveiled the Nazi’s ‘Degenerate Art Exhibition’ with a speech declaring a merciless war on the degradation of traditional German culture. While the exhibition itself focused its critique on surrealist artwork, Hitler’s speech evoked a general distaste for the widespread popularisation of modernist, avant-garde culture throughout the western world, naturally bringing Jazz music directly into the scope of assault.
Indeed, as a genre, there’s not a lot about Jazz that didn’t make old Adolf’s tidy little moustache tremble with disapproval.
Jazz initially erupted in Europe during the 1920s, as the continent, and France in particular, became a refuge for African-Americans fleeing the violent racial antagonisms within American society, bringing with them the fruits of the blooming American Jazz movement. Grounded in African ethnicity, Jazz was to the Nazis a direct affront to what they considered the clear superiority of Eurocentric culture. Nazi desires for global Aryan purification made objections to Jazz almost inevitable, and the expulsion of many people of African ethnicity from the Nazi-state made its composition near impossible. The Nazi regime regarded any mode of culture not considered ‘racially pure’, as decadent and even infantile.
The untameable nature of Jazz music, steeped in ideals of non-conformity, raw sensuality and aggressive spontaneity, drew blanks in the eyes of a dictator wedded to traditional composition. Hitler’s personal preference resided in classical music of German origin, notably Richard Strauss and Wilhelm Wagner. For him, perfection of form was crucial; spontaneity was absurd. This nature of Jazz conflicted sharply with Nazi ideals of ruthless efficiency. Naturally, impulsivity poses a direct threat to the rigid hierarchical structure of a fascist organisation.
Nonetheless, during their occupation of France, the Nazis had no choice but to comply with the genre’s cultural prowess. By 1940, particularly in Paris, the influx of Jazz culture had taken on infectious qualities. Even the most conservative of Parisians were charmed by the ecstatic atmosphere of Jazz clubs. Wanting to maintain order and exploit France’s cultural capital, the Nazis instituted a policy of toleration towards the genre, allowing Jazz culture to thrive, and at times even made use of it as propaganda to enhance their popularity.
But the Nazis extortion of Jazz to improve their rapport with French society extended only as far as the overground. Submerged in the depths of French culture, hidden away down shadowy alcoves and candle-lit cellars, lingered a hotbed of Jazz-freaks and countercultural radicals, whose interpretation of Jazz culture materialised in a lifestyle which rejected everything the Nazis stood for.
During the German occupation of France, Jazz became a symbol synonymous with ideals of resistance to Nazism. Popular Jazz records actively inspired the rejection of Nazi rule, Django Reinhardt’s ‘Nuages’ becoming an anthem of the French Resistance. Jazz clubs were commonly used to harbour the organisational activities of the Resistance, driven underground by relentless Gestapo investigation. In Paris, The Hot Club operated as a base for the diffusion of intelligence throughout various networks of resistance within France, and also supplemented collaboration with English troops. Jacques Bureau, the Club’s co-founder, eventually became a prominent actor in the Resistance itself, involved in the guerrilla operations of the Marquis.