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chapter 2 Sheets of Jazz Hans Janowitz Takes the Coltrane Duke Ellington’s grueling touring schedule was legendary, and he kept it up until the end. Among the many memorable concerts abroad was one he gave near the town of Menton in France on July 31, 1970. Menton is the last town before the French-Italian border, the two border posts being connected by the Saint Ludovic bridge. There, in this picturesque setting of the Mediterranean Alps, the Ellington orchestra’s performance caused the border to shut down completely for several hours. In the audience was also a correspondent for the Washington D.C. Afro-American, who cabled a gushing review to the home office back in the States: “A pity that Duke Ellington isn’t invited to perform on the Israeli-Jordan border, or along that Suez Canal, so that peace could be enhanced. Come to think of it, the same thing would be marvelous along the demilitarized zone between the two [Vietnams]. And it just might be possible [that] foreign armies would pack up and go home.”1 The fates of jazz and war have been inextricably intertwined ever since James Reese Europe’s regimental band and the rest of the famed Harlem Hell- fighters of the 369th made port in Brest on December 27, 1917, and were deployed to the battlefields of France.2 For many European avant-garde artists, jazz delivered both the excitement of discovering an entirely new sound that appeared to accompany perfectly “die wilden Jahre”—the wild years—of the decade ushered in by the armistice signed in a railway car parked in the woods Sheets of Jazz 59 outside of Compiègne. The wild new music for those wild years heralded the promise of a return to a more intensely felt humanness after the deadly mustard gas clouds of modern warfare at Ypres and elsewhere had wreaked havoc not just with human bodies but also penetrated in profound ways Western man’s sense of what it meant to be alive. For Europeans, the protojazz of the man bearing the continent’s name sounded like “skyscraper primitivism incarnate, its atavistic energy lubricating the machine age,” as Jed Rasula puts it.3 Many among Europe’s intelligentsia tended to hear a more futuristic undertone in this new music than their American counterparts, but just as many, if not more, heard exotic otherness. The brash, undomesticated sounds of jazz felt threatening, too. In 1927 Herman Hesse had his world-weary Harry Haller pause in front of a dance hall during one of his nocturnal walks. Assaulted by the rambunctious sounds of jazz, “hot and raw as the steam of raw flesh,” the Steppenwolf confesses, This kind of music, much as I detested it, had always had a secret charm for me. It was repugnant to me, and yet ten times preferable to all the academic music of the day. For me too, its raw and savage gaiety reached an underworld of instinct and breathed a simple honest sensuality. I stood for a moment on the scent, smelling this shrill and blood-raw music, sniffing the atmosphere of the hall angrily, and hankering after it a little too. One half of this music, the melody, was all pomade and sugar and sentimentality. The other half was savage, temperamental, and vigorous. Yet the two went artlessly well together and made a whole. It was the music of decline. There must have been such a music in Rome under the later emperors. Compared with Bach and Mozart and real music it was, naturally, a miserable affair, but so was all our art. [. . .] This music was at least sincere, unashamedly primitive and childishly happy. There was something of the Negro in it.4 The flâneur’s ambivalent reaction to this riotous new music permeating his phantasmagoria, wavering between repulsion and fascination, distills precisely the reception of jazz in the Weimar Republic. Jazz was the music of the Other: it was foreign and different, and it was raw, savage, primitive, sensual—and black. To be sure, the syncopated music resounding throughout Europe in the roaring 1920s was often not really the kind of jazz that we today would categorize as such; Cornelius Partsch, borrowing Adorno’s terminology, calls it a “metropolitan Gebrauchsmusik” and “degraded, second-rate jazz.”5 In Germany, Ernst Krenek’s hugely successful “jazz opera” Jonny spielt auf (Jonny Strikes Up) was the musical sensation of the decade, but its creator would later...


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