- The Jazz Republic: Music, Race, and American Culture in Weimar Germany by Jonathan O. Wipplinger
The impact of jazz and American culture in Weimar Germany has been studied elsewhere but not as convincingly as in Jonathan O. Wipplinger's new book, which sets a high goal, namely "to reorient current understanding of Jazz in Germany as formed by intercultural, and indeed, transnational exchange to provide a new sense of this culture that [...] was once so thoroughly invested in and enthralled by Jazz" (15).
Not simple influence analysis but a dialectal understanding of cultural exchange is the objective of the book, with an emphasis on Weimar culture as a complex of "modernism, modernity, and debates over changing cultural, gender, and racial norms" (14). What makes this approach compelling is the author's intent to avoid describing "a stable notion of Jazz against which German knowledge might be judged" (14); instead, he seeks to "provide sufficient space for [End Page 404] moments of volatility and unpredictability, as well as dialogue between white Americans, African Americans, other members of the African Diaspora, Europeans, and Weimar Germans" (14, my emphasis).
Judged by these goals, the book is a complete success. It is well structured, and each chapter leads the reader into various aspects of Weimar culture grounded in a thorough understanding of the period, its writers, and its cultural artifacts. What is striking is how skilfully the author develops this transcultural dialogue around the figures of Sam Wooding, Paul Whiteman, Theodor W. Adorno, Langston Hughes, and representatives of Weimar Germany's various literary movements such as Dada and Neue Sachlichkeit.
The reception of the American musicians Wooding and Whiteman is juxtaposed to that of the poet Hughes. Wooding, an African American jazz musician and a pioneer in introducing jazz to German audiences in 1925 with the touring show Chocolate Kiddies, is presented as an iconic figure of the African American jazz performer who elicits a variety of responses from Weimar contemporaries. One in particular was Alfred Lion, whose experience of this startling new American idiom led him ultimately, once the Nazis had forced him into exile, to become a significant force in the production of jazz music in the United States as a co-founder of Blue Note Records, perhaps the most important source of jazz in the years after the Second World War.
The book is full of such surprising and informative anecdotes. Whiteman, the white American who sought to transform jazz into an art form by creating the jazz symphony, had a significant impact not just on popular music in Weimar but also, as the author demonstrates quite effectively, on the often ignored novels of writers such as Rene Schickele, Hans Janowitz, and Gustav Renker. Wipplinger explains that the attraction of symphonic jazz to these writers was its promise of unifying tradition with modernity, certainly a source of conflict in Weimar. The author is careful to examine both positive and negative responses to the new American idiom, and it is in that context that his careful analysis of Adorno's reception of jazz deserves special note. While Adorno rejected jazz, Wipplinger discerns the influence of the idiom on Adorno's unfinished opera, Der Schatz des Indianer Joe: Singspiel nach Mark Twain. Here the interplay of race and American culture embodies the influence that the author perceives in jazz in the period of Weimar's dissolution and the mounting anti-American and anti-modernist forces represented by fascism.
Particularly noteworthy is the author's treatment of race and its impact in Weimar Germany. French colonial troops occupying the Rhineland generated a firestorm of controversy on the right and the left, for which the term Schwarze Schmach was a rallying cry. But, as the author shows, this crisis had little or no effect on the appearance of black performers from the African diaspora on the stage or on the screen. Here Wipplinger incorporates some of the interesting research on the African...