How Jazz Served as a Beacon of Hope During the Darkest Days of WWII

How Jazz Served as a Beacon of Hope During the Darkest Days of WWII

The Age of Jazz began in the early 1920s, but the musical genre’s greatest contribution in history may well be the crucial role it played in World War II. Around the same time the United States entered the war, jazz and swing were dominating the airwaves, film, and, of course, live performance in the country. In Europe, which had already spent two years battling the Nazi regime, jazz was a symbol of everything that Adolf Hitler hated and, as a result, it was much loved.

Hitler himself was purported to despise the genre as fremdländisch,  or “alien music.” All such music was destined, the Nazis insisted, for eradication. Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, called the music “the art of the subhuman,” and the regime used many other pejorative titles for it as well. As a result, the entire genre came to represent freedom, democracy, and, ultimately, liberation by way of American intervention, by the end of the war.

In response, the Nazis banned the use of the word “jazz” and all American musical performances in Paris. When this failed to stem the tide of tunes crossing the ocean, Goebbels ultimately assembled a swing band to rewrite popular songs with anti-Semitic lyrics and play those on the radio. Not surprisingly, these versions were not particularly popular, nor did Goebbels’ production of a propaganda film in which concentration camp prisoners played in a swing band do anything to enhance the Nazi cause. “The Ghetto Swingers” film “actors” ended their lives tragically in Auschwitz.

As the atrocious attempts to subvert the genre became increasingly ludicrous and nauseating, even German youth became enamored with jazz. The Swingjugend, or “swing kids,” held secret meetings to play jazz records and listen to Allied radio signals. Across Europe, for American troops and those suffering under the Nazi Regime alike, jazz was a source of morale and hope for the future.

Jazz trumpeters, already popular since the 1930s, played a particularly important role during this time period thanks to their ability to play rousing melodies and their presence in the military already. Although the saxophone eventually replaced the trumpet as the dominant instrument in jazz, the trumpet remained popular, particularly overseas. Jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie clearly recalls this era of jazz and the importance of the jazz trumpet during this period in an interview in which he observed that jazz must be considered “serious” music in contradiction to what the interviewer clearly believed. Gillespie said, “Men have died for this music…. You can’t get more serious than that.”

Interestingly, New York Times contributor John Wilson suggested in a 1983 jazz retrospective that one possible reason the saxophone overtook the trumpet in jazz performance  in the 1940s could be the untimely deaths of many of the most famous trumpeters of the era. “Creative trumpet players [such] as Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Booker Little, and Lee Morgan” all died early and, Wilson wrote, their deaths might have heralded the trend to literally mute the trumpet during jazz performances. He noted hopefully, however, that “a new generation of trumpet influences” might emerge in the coming decade, and today’s jazz bands often prominently feature trumpeters in their compositions and performances. No matter the era, however, the notes of the jazz trumpet will always, now as then, ring clear as a symbol of hope, creativity, and individualism wherever jazz is played.