Friday, August 19, 2016

The Sadness of St. Louis ["La Tristesse de St. Louis"] by Michael Zwerin

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Very few of my business trips to Europe turned out as planned; there was always an inconsistency to them.

I suppose that since I was involved with trying to transfer risk on behalf of my clients to international insurance companies, there was always going to be an element of uncertainty in any of these transactions.

I mean when one of the executives you are dealing with has a sign on the wall behind his desk which states in large bold letters - WE DON’T ACCEPT RISK, WE ARE AN INSURANCE COMPANY! - you know that you are in for some tough negotiations and a lot of inconsistency between what you want for your client and what’s on offer by the insurance carrier [who, as an intermediary, is also your client, but that’s another story for another day].

But whether it was tea and scones in London, cafe au lait and a croissant in Paris, or an espresso and biscotti in Rome, one person that I could always count on joining me for breakfast and consistently bringing pleasure to my day was Mike Zwerin.

This was because Mike, who was based in Paris until his death in 2010, wrote a regular Jazz column for the International Herald Tribune, the English language newspaper that is available on a daily basis in most of the major cities of Europe.

And, Man, could Mike ever write.

For those not familiar with his work, Mike was an expatriate for quite a while having left for Europe in 1969.

Mike was a fine trombonist who became known when he was a member of the Maynard Ferguson band. A strange thing happened on the way to the job. His father died and Mike suddenly found himself the president of Dome Steel. I found it very hard to imagine Mike as the head of a steel company; so did he, and in fact he would stash his horn in his office in New York so that he could slip away to play gigs. Eventually he gave the position up, returned to playing full time, and became jazz critic of the Village Voice [1964-1969] and then its London correspondent [1969-71]. He moved to Paris and wrote regularly for the International Herald-Tribune for 21 years while also freelancing for various European magazines and continues playing.

Along the way, Mike authored an autobiography entitled Close Enough for Jazz that was published by Quartet Books in 1984. There's wonderful stuff in that book. It has a naked honesty that is very rare.

Over the years, Mike was also a frequent contributor to Gene Lees’ Jazzletter which is where the following piece appeared.

Gene used it as one example to support his premise that Jazz musicians, on average, are a highly articulate group. Here's how he explained that premise in the February 1985 edition of the Jazzletter from which the Zwerin article that is excerpted below is also drawn.

“Jazz musicians are often extremely well read. They perceive and think subtly and deeply, although they are often cautious — not shy — about whom they share their insights with. If they know you, they'll talk your ear off. I have already dealt, in one of the early issues of the Jazzletter, with a tendency of jazz musicians in the old days to let outsiders believe they were dumb, in both senses of the word. But this was an affectation, growing out of slavery in America — the camouflage of one's intelligence as a way of lying low. It was a bit of an act, that hey-baby-wha's-happ'nin' manner, which eventually developed into a sort of self-satirizing in-joke. Anyone deceived by it didn't know jazz musicians very well. While I have known a few musicians who fit the shy-inarticulate mould, they have been the exceptions. And even then, you never knew when they were merely taciturn, rather than inarticulate.”

The Sadness of St. Louis
by Michael Zwerin

On the Cote d'Azur in the autumn of 1940, Charles Delaunay, secretary general of the Hot Club of France, received a letter from a friend in Paris who told him that all of a sudden the city seemed to be overflowing with jazz fans. On his way north, Delaunay passed through Dijon. He saw posters announcing concerts by Fred Adison and Alix Combelle. Odd. Jazz had rarely left the capitol before the war. The hall was packed and bursting with joy and applause.

Delaunay organized a concert in the Salle Gaveau on December 19. The program included the stars of French jazz, including Django Reinhardt and his new quintet with Hubert Rostaing on clarinet replacing violinist Stephane Grappelli, who was in London. It sold out. But Delaunay was impressed with more than mere numbers. Before the war tout Paris in tuxedos and gowns had fallen asleep to Duke Ellington in a sold-out Salle Pleyel. Now the audience was young, alive, happy — you could feel a certain solidarity. Delaunay repeated the program a few nights later and it too sold out.

Delaunay had read Mein Kampf. He had no illusions about Hitler: "I knew that sooner or later the Nazis would ban jazz, which they did after the United States entered the war. They called it 'decadent Jewish Negroid Americano jungle music/
"I told the musicians, most of whom used to come regularly to listen to records and jam in the Hot Club offices on Rue Chaptal, ‘Go on playing the same songs, whatever you like. Just change the names.'"

So St. Louis Blues became La Tristesse de St. Louis, and Honeysuckle Rose became Le Rose de Chevrefeuille, and Sweet Sue Ma Chere Susanne. Delaunay emphasized in interviews and articles that jazz was now an international phenomenon, a mixture of European (French first), African, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon influences.

An aperitif named "swing" came on the market during the German occupation of France, not such a swinging time.

Etes-vous Swing? and Mon Heure de Swing were hit songs. The sartorial fad modeled after Cab Calloway's zoot suits was called swing, and the youngsters who wore it, les petits swings, came to be known as zazous after Calloway's scat-singing syllables — zazouzazou hey!

Zazou boys wore pegged pants with baggy knees. High-rolled collars covered their hair. Long checked jackets several sizes too large, dangling key chains, gloves, stick-pins in wide neckties, dark glasses, and Django Reinhardt mustaches were all the rage. The girls wore short skirts, baggy sweaters, pointed painted fingernails, necklaces around their waists, bright red lipstick. Both sexes smoked Luckies, frequented Le New York Bar, and cried, "Ca Swing!"

"Swing" became a password. To swing was really zazou. Singer Johnny Hess was crowned King of Swing — even more ersatz royalty than that other King of Swing. Les petits swings related to swing — the music — the way the hippies later related to hipsters. All image, little substance. Ersatz was king.

Zazous were considered decadent by Germans and French alike. They were also bringing a lot of heat down on the music whose name they had co-opted. "We tried to keep our distance from the zazous," recalls Delaunay. The Hot Club sponsored lectures, produced concerts, records and a magazine, Jazz Hot, throughout the Occupation, though with shortages of paper, ink and printing facilities and with so much political and social heat, the magazine dropped its title and appeared in shortened form on the back of concert programs. In 1941, Delaunay wrote, "The interpretation some give to swing is becoming dangerous for our music, their abuses risk leading to the banning of jazz itself."

Hoping to avoid repression, using propaganda for positive ends, he went on to criticize "a turbulent, uneducated youth which, under the pretext of being swing, thinks itself permitted the worst excesses."

Since the time of slavery in the United States, swing has been a metaphor for that disorderly robust state called freedom. And at no time was it more symbolic than under the Occupation.

The late Polish writer Leopold Tyrmand tells of the time in 1943 when he listened to a recording of Sidney Bechet's Really the Blues during a "clandestine jam session" in Frankfurt. The uniformed German soldier sitting next to him to him bragged, "It's my record."

"Why do you like this music?" Tyrmand asked him. "What does it make you think of?"

"Free people," the German answered. "Don't ask me why."

Delaunay's concert programs either left the word "jazz" out completely or qualified it as "Jazz Francais". He told the Germans that jazz had French roots in traditional New Orleans Creole airs and that, for example, Tiger Rag was based on Praline, a Nineteenth Century quadrille. The Germans wanted French collaboration and went out of their way to respect French culture.

At the end of the drole de guerre [in this instance, “phony war”] in 1940, the clean, lean, blue-eyed and clear-headed Germans had attracted French collaboration. Collaboration was not yet a dirty word. Collaboration implied realistic affirmative action.

In his book French and Germans, Germans and French, historian Richard Cobb explores its ambiguities: "There existed on both sides ties of friendship that had been created in the interwar years; and, finding themselves, almost overnight, in control of the complicated administration of a capital city — an event for which they had never planned . . . the Germans sought out in the first place those Frenchmen and Frenchwomen they already knew. A German railway engineer would seek out his opposite number, a German detective would have contacts in the police judiciare . . .

"One of the young (German) university graduates, who was all at once to find himself in charge of Paris publishing, had written a thesis on a French literary theme and had spent several years as a lecteur d'Allemand the University of Toulouse. He embarked on his new task with a sense of personal excitement, for it offered him a unique opportunity to come into close personal contact — sometimes daily — with all the leading figures of the Parisian literary scene. To see him merely as a censor, the obedient instrument of the Propaganda Staffel, would be to oversimplify a relationship that was much more personal and vital. He wanted to get to know as many novelists and poets as possible, and to publish as many of their works as he could. In both aims, he was extraordinarily successful; and at the end of an idyllic four-year stay in the French capital — a city he loved — he could look back to a publishers' list of enormous distinction and variety. His concern throughout had been... to see into print the works of a host of authors whom he admired and liked."

Jazz had something more than the other arts, a certain purity and honesty, that brought "enemies" together under conditions of mutual trust. Many Germans told me that anybody who liked jazz could never be a Nazi, which seems to be generally true. Dutch and Belgian musicians working in Germany during the war jammed with the young members of the Frankfurt Hot Club, formed in 1941. Nobody was accused of collaboration. One Dutch band sneaked the three dots and a dash V for Victory figure into their arrangements.

If you look a little closer, there are exceptions. Werner Molders, swing fan and Luftwaffe ace, switched on the BBC when crossing the Channel to catch a few minutes of Glenn Miller before bombing the antenna. (He later persuaded Hitler to add some swing to German radio.)

But the sound of freedom which the soldier next to Tyrmand heard somehow put jazz above the fray, neutralized it, changed the rules.

"I knew many German musicians who had been in Paris before the war," says the Guadeloupian trombonist Al Lirvat. "Now they were back as soldiers. We talked about music, we played together. I felt no racism coming from them. I never knew anybody who had any trouble for being black, no black person I knew went to a concentration camp. One cafe had a sign in the window, ‘No Jews or Niggers', but that was the French who did that. The French were much more racist against blacks than the Germans."

Lirvat worked in La Cigale in Montmartre. He says that the manager did not want to hire black musicians because he was afraid the Germans did not like gens de couleur. There had been a scene in Dijon. A French woman who refused to date a German officer was later seen with a black musician. Their band had been fired for it.

The leader, a Camerounais who spoke German, complained to the German authorities that the owner of the La Cigale was keeping French citizens from working because they were black. According to Lirvat, a German official who liked jazz issued a permit. "And I can tell you," Lirvat said, "that not only was there never a problem, but the Germans were happy to hear us. They applauded. We had a special authorization to play jazz. If it had been illegal, the authorities would have stopped German soldiers from coming there. We had good relations. We never talked politics. We talked about music and the weather."

They had special authorization?

"Yes. We knew we were playing music that was banned, but we had it in writing. The word ‘jazz' was written on our permit. That's all we played. The French owners were nervous but the place was always full of Germans. There were plenty of Germans who just liked good music. We didn't go out of our way to be friendly. You never knew when you'd fall on some racist nut, but that's not all that different from now."

Delaunay adds: "There were a lot of Germans who liked jazz. Don't forget that. The officials may have suspected what was going on, but they had more pressing worries. We used to have jam sessions in our clubhouse cellar on Rue Chaptal and one German officer often came to sit in on piano. He knew a lot of Fats Waller tunes. He couldn't do that in Germany."

Yes, you could — even in a concentration camp. The Ghetto Swingers were formed in Theresienstadt, an old fortress turned into a model camp to impress the Red Cross. The band's theme song was I Got Rhythm. In a 1960 Down Beat magazine, surviving Ghetto Swinger trumpeter Eric Vogel described their leader-clarinetist Fritz Weiss as "one of the best jazz musicians of prewar Europe. We had quite a good band. We played with swing and feeling, mostly in the style of Benny Goodman."

The Ghetto Swingers appeared in a Nazi documentary about "the good life" in Theresienstadt, but after the film crew and the Red Cross left, the band went on the road to Auschwitz.

Jazz musicians are outlaws if they are serious about what they are doing. There is no valid reason to play this music other than love — outlaw motivation in a money-oriented society. Gypsies, who generally refuse to abide by society's rules, are considered outlaws by regimented systems. A Gypsy jazz musician is a double outlaw. Survival is not easy. Django Reinhardt more than survived.

A relatively obscure culture hero before the war, he became a superstar overnight. People whistled his song Nuages in the street and his name was on the walls of Paris. He lived in sumptuous apartments, gambled in posh casinos, ate in the best restaurants. Bombs frightened him, however, and he lived near the Pigalle metro stop, the deepest in Paris, just in case.

"He was as well known as Maurice Chevalier," Delaunay says. "When he came to town for a concert, people knew that something was going to happen for a change." Even though he was a Gypsy — 500,000 of whom died in the camps — his fame protected him. There was increasing pressure for him to tour Germany, something he desperately wanted to avoid. He resisted by continually raising his price, but time ran out and he tried walking into Switzerland. He was caught. The police found his English Society of Composers membership card. This by itself could have been enough to have him convicted of espionage. The German officer began his interrogation with a smile, "Mon vieux Reinhardt, que fais-tu la?" [My old/dear Reinhardt, what are you doing here?], and freed him with a warning. Another German jazz fan.

Demand for swing music was so great that sidemen quickly became leaders, Saturday night amateurs full-time sidemen. The Americans had gone home, competition was light, and just about any European who could blow a chorus of the blues had all the jazz gigs he could handle.

About the time Swiss clarinetist Ernst Hollerhagen walked into the Schumann cafe, where he was working with Teddy Stauffer and his Teddies in Frankfurt, clicked his heels, raised an arm and greeted his friends with a "Heil Benny!", Luftwaffe Oberleutnant Dietrich Schulz-Koehn was marching along the railroad tracks near St. Nazaire with three other officers. Four American officers came towards them. Small-arms fire could be heard in the distance. The 1944 winter was cold. The men danced and blew on their hands. The day was grey, like on old print of a black-and-white war movie. This was a sideshow, and these men had minor roles.
The main theater had moved to the Fatherland.

A hundred thousand German soldiers were cut off and worn out here on the Brittany coast. The Allies were prepared to let them starve, but civilians were starving too and the Red Cross arranged evacuation negotiations along these tracks. They had been going on for an hour or two a day for two weeks now. The soldiers on the opposing sides got to know each other, took photographs of each other, and traded the prints.

An Afro-American officer who had been admiring Schultz-Koehn's Rolleiflex asked,

"How much do you want for that camera?" .

"It's not for sale." The lanky bespectacled German liked Americans, particularly Afro-Americans. He was more than pleasant about it, but he liked his camera too. But as a matter of fact, there was something he wanted. Schulz-Koehn pulled himself up straight and adjusted his leather coat. It was worth a try. "Do you have any Count Basie records?"

Toward the end of the war, Lulu of Montmartre ran a club called La Roulette featuring Django Reinhardt. Like a lot of clubs, she closed her doors at curfew time and ran a party until it lifted at dawn. English was spoken as well as French and German at Lulu's. Gestapo officers sat alongside British secret service agents, all of whom had their taste for swing in common.

His inaccessibility had made Django something of a legend in the United States, where the press had reported several rumors of his death. Right after the Liberation, he played at an army party. Considering America the big time, wanting badly to appear there, Django tried hard to please. He was, however, quite cool answering an official who asked how much he would want for an American tour.

"How much does Gary Cooper make?" he asked. "I want the same thing."

A Footnote

“Like everyone else with a love of jazz, and a certain fascination with its mythology, I had heard the story of the German officer looking for Count Basie records during negotiations. About 1960, fifteen years after the war, when I was editor of Down Beat, the German jazz impresario and writer Dietrich Schulz-Koehn came to Chicago, and it was my not unpleasant duty to be courteous to him.
Over lunch, I asked him if he had heard the story, and knew whether it was true. Yes, he assured me, it was true. I asked how he could be sure, and he said, "Because I was that officer."

Perhaps three weeks later I was in New York, this time having lunch with my friend Alan Morrison, who was the New York editor of Ebony magazine, a warm and pleasant man who was a great friend of jazz and who, I'm sorry to say, died some years ago. I said, "I had a strange experience recently." And I told him of asking Schulz-Koehn about the incident in Brittany.

Alan smiled softly and said, "Did he tell you who the American officer was?"

"No," I said.

"I was."

— Gene Lees

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