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  • A People's Music: Jazz in East Germany, 1945–1990 by Helma Kaldewey
  • Sven Kube
Helma Kaldewey, A People's Music: Jazz in East Germany, 1945–1990. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 336 pp. $100.00.

The leaders of the Soviet bloc were no fans of Western pop music. To their mind, musical innovations from the cultural grassroots of capitalist democracies threatened core values of socialist civilization. As popular genres and rising subcultures still found their way into bloc societies as a result of public demand, state authorities sternly disapproved of U.S. trends throughout the Cold War era: Rock-and-roll inspired delinquency, disco promoted hedonism, and, worst of all, punk called for disrespect of authority. One Western form, however, had the bloc's cultural guardians scratching their heads collectively and revising their rhetoric repeatedly. Jazz originated from the world's capitalist superpower, but it was intimately connected to African Americans' emancipation from the shackles of exploitation. Unlike any other Western popular style, the soundtrack or the Progressive Era in the United States caused confusion and dissent among socialist elites. Helma Kaldewey has crafted a comprehensive study of how the German Democratic Republic (GDR) learned to stop worrying and love the genre. A People's Music: Jazz in East Germany, 1945–1990 captures the fascinating, complex, and at times delightfully absurd features of Cold War tension in the sphere of popular music.

An accessible presentation of original research, the book traces the gradual integration of jazz into East Germany's musical life over the span of seven decades. Detailing the strong reactions that jazz yielded, first in the Weimar Republic and then in the Third Reich, the opening section explains how the genre served as a canvas for projections of modernity and propriety as the United States gradually rose to the status of a world power. Subsequent chapters illuminate the discursive dilemmas that GDR state architects faced when they weighed the pros and cons of including jazz in the musical canon of their "new socialist national culture" (p. 232). In one of the work's highlights, Kaldewey argues that Communists recognized the genre's revolutionary character and used jazz for political agitation even before the U.S. government sought to integrate it into efforts of cultural reconstruction and pro-Western diplomacy. The book's narrative reveals how the Soviet occupiers' initially tolerant attitudes gave way to the isolationist aspirations of first-generation GDR leaders, who in the 1950s remained preoccupied with the "micromanaging of youth culture" (p. 91). Presenting the GDR as the last safe haven for refined German culture vis-à-vis the West German "hit colony" (p. 182) across the border, this new elite denounced jazz as the dissonant soundtrack of U.S. depravity. Yet when the rocking guitar sounds of baby [End Page 258] boom youth culture swept across the Atlantic, jazz did not sound so bad after all to the ears of East Berlin functionaries. In a fashion both insightful and entertaining, Kaldewey documents how East German jazz debates grew as vibrant and polyphonic as the music itself. To not further antagonize young citizens with drastic isolationist measures in the aftermath of the Berlin Wall, progressive forces within the political establishment engaged in rhetorical acrobatics to find for jazz a niche in socialist music culture. The result of those efforts was a loosely organized classification system of acceptability that distinguished between the genuine music of black freedom fighters and the corrupted derivatives of the white capitalist entertainment industry. Shaped by aesthetic preferences and ideological arguments that remained remarkably fluid, these cultural categories represented the GDR's somewhat jazzy approach to naturalizing the foreign genre.

As jazz increasingly shed its controversial aura in the latter Cold War decades, the narrative's arc of suspense somewhat abates in the book's final chapters. Still, Kaldewey discusses the music's significance from interesting angles; for instance, by illuminating bilateral jazz exchange against the backdrop of warming relations between the two German states in the 1970s. Expanding on the discursive analysis in the book's first half, Kaldewey shows how later-generation cultural officials embraced aspects of communal creation and collective experimentation in free jazz. The closing...


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pp. 258-259
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