Blog post

Black Royalty in Europe: ‘If Hitler had been against jazz, jazz had to be good’

Embracing jazz as an expression of freedom

black and white photo of Lalo Schifrin, Leo Right, Art Tailor, Dizzy Gillespie and Chuck Lemckin playing at a concert in Berlin
Isabel Crespo (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

When jazz was banned in Nazi Germany, losing one of the interwar European epicenters, it found refuge in France and UK, amplifying the culture of jazz clubs. Figures like Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins forged their names during this period in the European scene.

Benny Carter playing the saxophone

In the 1930s, both artists and many other American musicians touring in Europe recorded in France with the famous Django Reinhardt, the Romain-French guitarist born in Belgium and leader of the Quintette du Hot Club de France.

With the arrival of the Second World War and to boost the morale of the troops, a golden era for jazz big bands was shaped by jazz legends like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and the fabulous Cotton Club musician Cab Calloway. With the allied victory and American soldiers again settled in Europe, a second wave consolidated the introduction of the genre.

The eclosion of a new political and cultural paradigm as a breaking point with the decadence of war promoted a favourable atmosphere for Black musicians to expand their careers across the Atlantic. A young Miles Davis came to Europe for the first time after the Second World War to play in the first International Jazz Festival of France. He became in time Knight of the Legion of Honour, stated in his autobiography:

It changed the way I looked at things forever ... I loved being in Paris and loved the way I was treated. Paris was where I understood that all white people were not the same; that some weren't prejudiced.

In countries like Germany, a growing net of federal radio stations and jazz clubs became multipliers in the dissemination of the genre and lifestyle. The need for youngsters to disassociate from a recent traumatic past, made them embrace jazz as an expression of freedom standing against fascism and the loss of moral compass by their parent's generation.

As the German historian Berndt Ostendorf says, ‘if Hitler had been against jazz, it had to be good’. For some jazz lovers now entering the Cold War, this style connected them with civil rights activism and to some elite, with a subversive and existentialist attitude aligned with the philosophical questioning of the period.

the Sunset Club in London's Carnaby Street, 1951. Black and white image of a white woman and a man of colour dancing.

Meanwhile, a new generation of amazingly talented black musicians were developing a new expression of jazz: the bebop. This new jazz form, with faster tempos, complex syncopation and intricate melodies was played by small combos of musicians such as quartets and trios. The music was meant for listening rather than dancing, resulting in smaller clubs. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke and Thelonious Monk, among many others became heroes, opening a new chapter in jazz history and the European scene.

black and white photo of Lalo Schifrin, Leo Right, Art Tailor, Dizzy Gillespie and Chuck Lemckin playing at a concert in Berlin

But what happened in the meantime with the Black women artist? Find out during Women's History Month in our next blog on Black vocalists in Europe.

Disclaimer. The narrative about the origins of Jazz in Europe oversimplifies the process by describing a very linear description of the events. With these stories we don’t underestimate the constant Black influence in arts and culture in Europe over centuries or the diverse national and unique stories. Jazz didn’t develop in a vacuum in Europe. The Black American jazz waves helped to reconnect with folk and national music traditions where this influence was already present and by rediscovering elements like improvisation, an aspect removed from European music canons.