PRAGUE (Oct. 1)
The Nazis called it “Judeo-Negroid” music and banned it from German radio.
Joseph Goebbels once described it as “music in which rhythm is indicated primarily by the ugly sounds of whining instruments.”
But the Nazis’ attempts to limit the popularity of jazz and swing music were to prove fruitless — thanks, in no small measure, to the determination of Jewish jazz exponents like Fritz Weiss.
The contribution of Weiss to the Czech jazz scene and beyond resurfaced recently with the release of a unique set of jazz recordings arranged by Weiss during the early years of World War II.
The compact disk, called “In Defiance of Fate,” features 26 compositions arranged by Weiss for the Czech-based Emil Ludvik Orchestra between 1939 and 1941.
The CD was released by Prague’s Jewish Museum as part of its ongoing efforts to track down Jewish artists from a wide range of disciplines.
“Weiss was an exceptional musical personality, the one and only real jazz authority at that time,” said Emil Ludvik, 86, the orchestra leader and one of the only two surviving members of the original 12-member group.
The rare recordings featuring Weiss were found by a Czech record collector, Gabriel Gossel, who realized that the Jewish Museum might be interested in them.
“The Emil Ludvik Orchestra wanted to play jazz like Benny Goodman, and really at that time they had no competition — they were No. 1 among true jazz lovers,” Gossel said.
“The CD is a collector’s item. It contains unique archive recordings,” said Leo Pavlat, director of the Jewish Museum.
Pavlat believes the recordings have a special atmosphere because the original soundtrack was recorded in occupied Czech and Moravian lands, where everyone who played jazz was persecuted.
The Nazis took extreme measures when they detected even the faintest of Jewish links. Ludvik recalled being sent to prison for playing “My Star Will Tell Me,” which Nazi officials considered a Jewish anthem.
“It was nonsense, of course, but I spent six months in prison for it anyway,” he said.
French jazz critic Mark Zwerin, who wrote a book on the wartime jazz scene called “Swing Under the Nazis,” told JTA that while Hitler considered jazz decadent, many people saw the music as a metaphor for freedom.
“German musicians told me that anyone who liked jazz could not be a Nazi,” he said. “That’s a stretch, but basically true.”
Ironically, the Emil Ludvik Orchestra was formed partly as a result of anti-Semitism. In a notorious 1939 case, a German saxophonist walked out of a Czech orchestra called Swing Rhythm because he didn’t want to play with Jews.
His departure, along with the departure of a second German who left because his pro-Nazi family forbade him to play with Czechs, led Ludvik to form his own swing band.
For jazz exponents such as Ludvik, the death of Weiss — who also was a gifted saxophonist — was a great loss to the Czech jazz scene. According to Zwerin, some musicians considered Weiss as good as American contemporaries such as the Jewish-born Artie Shaw.
For Pavlat, the CD is as much about Weiss the man as about his music.
“Weiss was a man who tried to live a normal life under absolutely abnormal circumstances — he just refused to acknowledge them,” Pavlat said.