Before WWI, the music prevailing in German cabaret and other forms of revue had a definite Central European character. It derived from waltzers, polkas, mazurkas, folk songs and marches. Music coming from outside of Germany – not to mention outside of Europe – seldom reached the average theatre goer.
WWI change this. It brought to Europe foreigners from distant lands: from the African colonies (there were many African regiments in particular in the French army), Australia and from America (there were all-African American regiments in the American army). For many European, this opened a new window on a different world for the first time.
After WWI many African American artists who had joined the war effort chose to stay in Europe, or to return to Europe, as they found the European environment may be more welcoming than their homeland. They brought their music with them. Jazz came to the Old Continent.Germans loved #jazz from the beginning. It sounded like the music that could bring renovation and new life to their tired society and was generally well-accepted #Germany #Berlin #History #AtoZChallenge Click To Tweet
In America, jazz had prompted a revolution that didn’t involve just music, but the whole of society. It had changed the way people looked at themselves, their life, their expectations. It had give certain section of society (minorities, but also women) a new space, opening new roles and social places for them. It had changed how people thought do themselves and sometimes opened new possibility of connection.
The European experience was similar and different at the same time.
For many decades, Europeans had perceived their society as old and decadent. The long, peaceful XIX century have given a sense of void, or repetition, of stuffing. Exciting things seemed to happen elsewhere, being it geographical discoveries, explorations, even wars. In fact this sense of stillness and sameness plaid a role even in the breaking out of WWI.
But the destruction and death of the Great War, far from dissipating that sense of fading and impending end, made it stronger. Everywhere in Europe – and maybe nowhere as in Germany – people tried to find a way to fill the void, to find a meaning to life and when they didn’t find it, they at least tried to enjoy themselves in the uttermost way.
Jazz spoke this language. It spoke of unexpected and different things. It was a completely new kind of music that was easy to get involved in, dance to, and it invited to get lose in it and its rhythm.
Jazz was the music of African American people, and as it had happened in America, the new music and the exotic (imagined) origin mixed in the minds of listeners. It was never the music born from a very specific American experience, but the music of the Black Continent, of the jungle and the savage animals, or the great expanses of grass and the songs of unknown birds. Never mind that the people who actually played it never were to Africa and their ancestors might have been brought to America centuries before.
To European people African Americans were closer to nature than any other people. They spoke and understood a different, more authentic, more immediate, more uncomplicated language which was fresher, cleaner, and childlike. And they could help other people to rediscover that primeval, blessed state of mind and heart, to renew that lost connection.
Berliners welcomed jazz with open arms, the music and the dances that went with it. It came from America, the young nation of everything which was modern and had been created by African Americans, who came for Africa, the most primitive of continents. There could be nothing better.
Of course there was a lot of imagination in all of this. There was, first of all, a good dose of primitivism in the very idea of jazz, which was generally consider positive even when spoken about in recognisably paternalistic tones. America was considered the land of youth, not weighted down by all the history Europe had. And because it was young and dynamic, it was also – obviously – the land of modernity, where the future arrived first. Even if these ideas rarely met reality, they did create a lot of energy and enthusiasm, to the point that Europeans started doing their own version of jazz. While Americans debated whether jazz was even music, Germans created the first school of jazz.
But it wasn’t all good and positive. Not everyone were enthusiastic of the new music. Conservative defenders of European high culture were horrified by ‘negrification’ of German society, as they were by Americanization in general. Along with the Völkisch movement, these mostly right–wing associations called for a return to the roots, with an intention to eradicate any ‘foreign’ element, be this from America, Africa or the Jewish community. For this people, far from bringing revitalisation, jazz would bring degeneration of morals and a regression to animalistic instincts. The way people danced to this music, with wild transport and sensual movements, only served to prove that.
Peter Jelavich, Berlin Cabaret. Harvard University Press, Harvard, 1993
Eric D. Weitz, Weimar Germany. Promise and Tragedy. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2007
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Jazz was so popular in Europe and more accepted like the Great Josephine Baker who became a huge hit in Cabaret. She was quite the character and heroic given what she did during the War.
She was an uncommon woman, that’s for sure.
There have always been people who did not know how to have fun… The problem starts when they get power :/
The Multicolored Diary
Quite true. People who take themselves too seriously are alwasy dangerous.
Roland R Clarke
Another informative and entertaining post, Sarh – and I’m so glad that you had the great Josephine Baker in there. Coincidentally, the book I’m reading starts in France with an African-American and an Ethiopian after WWI, showing that the attitudes in Europe were more open than in the US.
Ooooh, interesting! What book is that?
Roland R Clarke
Elizabeth Wein’s Black Dove, White Raven is the one set in pre-WWII Ethiopia.