Jazz in Germany 1919 – 1945
(Many thanks to Jill Benz for translation.)

The Weimarer era

Due to the first world war and the economic blockades it brought about, Jazz music only started to become known in Germany around the year 1919. The end of the war meant the end of the imposed restrictions, which lead to a “dance rage” . The people’s desire for enjoyment encouraged Jazz music.

Between the years 1919 and 1923 Jazz spread quickly throughout the country. Because of the widely spread rumours that the word Jazz meant Jazz music, which many orchestras understood as noise (and noise in their opinion was represented by drums, until then recognised as the most important Jazz instrument; hence - meaning of Jazz = Drums) a Jazz band was expected to perform in a way similar to that known in America as ”nut Jazz“ with clowning, high spirits and unusual instruments like cow bells.

Placard advertising a Musical Première from 1925

Between 1924 and 1928 Jazz reached its peak in Germany. There was an increasing opinion that the Jazz music of the earlier years was a step in the wrong direction and that the new Jazz sound was a  sort of “taming” of the old wild Jazz and should be considered as something distinctly separate from the loud hullabaloo and din which had previously been recognised as Jazz. One prime example of this new Jazz was the “Symphonic Jazz” played by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. The “ Jazz-boom” up until the year 1928 was so big,  that apart from the Jazz music there was even a so-called Jazz fashion.
The economic depression which set in towards the end of the 1920’s led to a world-wide depression for Jazz music.


Jazz music, with its high spirits, fun and originality, was viewed of as democratic. Moreover with its ”non-Aryan” roots Jazz was considered a product of the American lifestyle and was therefore frowned upon by the Nazi’s who found the Jazz music degenerating. Until 1935 Jazz music was, in general, left to its own means i.e. undisturbed (Goebels motto: convince and persuade via anti-Jazz-propaganda rather than prohibit). To a certain extent, in order to satisfy the tastes of the majority of listeners, Jazz was even played over the German radio networks in between popular dance numbers. In 1935 a law was passed banning Jazz from being played over the radio, but this couldn’t be implemented. Besides, the Nazi definition of Jazz music was so unclear that it was virtually impossible to try to classify it. 

The ”Swing era” of the mid 30’s through to the end of the 40’s originated from America. Swing music was played as set arrangements in a big band. This had the effect of limiting improvisation, which also meant that the Afro-American influence was less apparent. 

The style of musicians such as Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey was even tolerated by the Nazi’s  for a short time as good dance music and was considered to be a cultivated replacement of the old wild Jazz. To satisfy the public’s tastes, Swing music was often played in many German movies. Even Swing numbers originating from America were played openly.
The peak of the Swing-wave in Germany was in 1936, when Swing music was played openly by international (and German) guest musicians at the Olympic games in Berlin.
In 1937 the German government tightened its formerly lax policy in the field of music. Controls were carried out in order to try to prevent the playing of such “unwelcome” music.  As the musical criteria for the definition of Jazz was still unclear (fun-loving dance music = Jazz?) criteria such as the race of the musicians etc. were predominantly used to decide if the music was Jazz or not. Non-Aryan musicians, composers, songwriters and singers were arrested – but the Jazz music itself was left untouched. Therefore up until the beginning of the second world war the Nazi’s regime against Jazz and Swing music was not really successful. 
(clickable image)
Two pages from the catalogue linked.

Backpage of  BRUNSWICK Swingmusic catalogue from 1936,
("Swingmusic in Adolf-Hitler-Street." ! )
A favourite trick to try and get around the rules against Jazz music was to ”Germanise” the English song title e.g. ”Tiger Rag” became ”Schwarzer Panther” (Black panther),  the song ”Joseph! Joseph” (a song with Jewish origins) became ”Sie will nicht Blumen und nicht Schokolade” (She wants neither flowers nor chocolate)
Listen to:
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Sie will nicht Blumen
und nicht Schokolade
Listen to:
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Joseph !  Joseph !


The Second World-War

The start of the war changed the situation. Listening to foreign radio stations (often playing Swing music) was strictly forbidden. As many of the musicians were called up for military service bands were forced to split up.

(NS-Propaganda, early 40s)

"A dagger into the neck of listeners of foreign radio stations! Pessimists to the pillory!"
Listen to "Tran" and "Helle":
Download im RealPlayer-Format
NS-Propaganda against listening 
to foreign radio stations
(in German)
Under these circumstances it is astounding that Swing music not only existed during wartime Germany but actually between 1941 and 1943 reached a new peak, a so-called ”Swing Revival”. Following the victories in western Europe, the Nazis concentrated their energy on the successful war situation and neglected the controls set in the entertainment and cultural sectors. 
Foreign bands from the occupied countries, which were often called upon to entertain the German forces, brought ”hot” Swing music to Germany, which the German bands imitated. Many jazzy numbers were smuggled in amongst other records. In particular the German youth were wildly enthusiastic about Swing music.

The arresting of Swing-crazy youths, that had begun in 1940 couldn’t put a stop to the Swing revival. Besides, the needs of the soldiers, who wanted to relax at home listening to enjoyable music during their periods of leave, took priority. Now and again regional or local regulations were tightened and enforced. In 1941 there was a regulation which almost actually prohibited Jazz. This was supposed to have the effect of reducing the hot, Swing orientated music – either the originals or copies. However, as was also the case before the war, this had virtually no effect.

In the year 1944 the war experienced a turning point. This led to the closing of many bars and music halls. Hence, the requirements necessary to play Jazz were becoming  difficult to obtain. However, the fact that Jazz-prohibition and anti-Jazz propaganda continued, proves that Jazz did exist right through to the end of the war.  
"The rat-catcher from Neuyork"
A German article about Benny Goodman, 1944
(1 page: 235 KB)

(clickable image)
The Nazi’s used Jazz for their own means over the radio at the war front in the so-called “radio-war”. For example during 1939 “Charlie and his Orchestra” was founded. The repetoir was made up of popular English and American songs which sounded very close to the original versions but with “new” lyrics full of sarcasm or rude insinuations concerning the enemy. Often the texts contained anti-Churchill, anti-Roosevelt, anti-Stalin or anti-Jew phrases or  misleading comments regarding the state of war.

Listen to:
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Slumming on Park Avenue

....... Words from "Slumming on Park Avenue" Charlie and 
his Orchestra, March 1941 

Let's go slumming, take me slumming,
Let's go slumming on Park Avenue.
Let us hide behind a pair of fancy glasses
and make faces when a member of the classes passes. 
Let's go smelling where they're dwelling, 
sniffing everything the way they do.
Let us go to it, let's do it
why can't we do it too.
Let's go slumming, nose-thumbing on Park Avenue.

Here is the latest song of the British airmen:
Let's go bombing, oh, let's go bombing,
just like good old British airmen do.
Let us bomb the Frenchmen who were
once our allies!
England fights for liberty, we make them realize,
from the skies.
Let's go shelling where they're dwelling,
shelling Nanette, Fifi and Lulu.
Let us go to it, let's do it, let's sink
their food-ships too.
Let's go bombing, it's becoming quite the thing to do.