Thursday, June 7, 2012

Big Band Music: USA, USSR and Hitler's Germany -- Count Basie, Alexander Tsfasman and Otto Stenzel

"The big band is a type of musical ensemble associated with jazz, a style of music which became popular during the Swing Era from the early 1930s until the late 1950s. Big Bands evolved with the times and continues to today. A big band typically consists of approximately 12 to 25 musicians and contains saxophones, trumpets, trombones, vibraphone, singers (or vocalists), and a rhythm section. The terms jazz band, jazz ensemble, stage band, jazz orchestra, society band and dance band may be used to describe a specific type of big band."--Wikipedia entry 2011

Here's the first composition, the oddly titled "Dance of the Gremlins" featuring the Count Basie  Orchestra from 1941.  This is an excellent clip for showing how a great band--which also included Buck Clayton and "Sweets" Edison--cam together in a "hot" number. 


Count Basie (piano), Buck Clayton (trumpet), Ed Lewis(trumpet), Bobby Moore (trumpet), Earle Warren (alto sax), Herschel Evans(clarinet, tenor sax), Lester Young (tenor sax), Freddie Green (guitar), Walter Page (bass), Jo Jones (drums), 

George Hunt, Dan Minor (trombone); Jack Washington (baritone sax)



Arranged by Eddie Durham & Buster Smith. Composed by Count Basie

.  (from Ken Burns' PBS Jazz website:  

Swing music originated in the United States in the 1930's, but by the end of that decade it was all over the world, even in Stalin's Soviet Union!   Nazi Germany allowed some swing bands on the radio. As the Second World War dragged on, the music was discouraged as "animalistic" and by 1942 most foreign band music was true swing tunes were banned from  the radio and out of music clubs.   Kids and adults who still tried to listen to foreign broadcasts or play the music in underground clubs faced ostracism and in many cases jail and labor camps for being non-conformists. 

Again, from Wikipedia: At that time, only a relatively small number of people in Germany knew how jazz music sounded in America - at that time, swing - and that it was Jazz. With the pressing wartime effort from 1941–1943, the Nazis accidentally fostered the jazz craze by forcing bands from Nazi-occupied nations in Western Europe to perform, bringing hot swing. Eventually, the Nazi party realized that jazz could not be removed entirely from Germany (WFMU Staff). The Nazis even re-developed and newly produced some pieces, giving them new lyrics, in special studios. One example is the song "Black Bottom", which was presented as "Schwarzer Boden". For some Germans, the banned foreign stations with jazz programs were very popular.

"The Nazis on the one hand would jam transmissions from the Allies' stations, but on the other hand would also copy them. The band Charlie and His Orchestra is considered as a negative example, also called Mr. Goebbels Jazz Band. Several of Germany’s most talented swing musicians, such as saxophonist Lutz Templin and vocalist Karl “Charlie” Schwedler, were active in a Jazz band. Here the Nazis replaced the original texts with their own provocative propaganda texts that were pro-Nazi and anti-American/British. For example, the lyrics for “Little Sir Echo” has anti-American/British appeal with lyrics such as “German U-boats are making you sore, You’re always licked, not a victory came through…You’re nice, little fellow, but by now you should know that you can never win this war!” Goebbels’ propaganda was broadcast over pirated short-wave frequencies into America, Britain, and Canada in order to spread fear and weaken the morale of Germany’s enemies (WFMU Staff).

"The situation intensified in 1942 with the entry of the United States in the war. For diplomats of foreign embassies and Wehrmacht members, a couple of jazz clubs continued to remain open in Berlin. In addition, individual, illegitimate venues and private parties still played jazz. In 1943 jazz record production was stopped.

The Swing-Jugend, or Swing Youth, was a movement among mainly youth from 14–20 years old who dressed, danced, and listened to jazz in defiance of the Nazi regime. The Nazi party acted against this movement by detaining several of the young leaders of the Swing Youth and sending them to concentration camps. However, the Swing Youth continued to resist the Nazi party by participating in prohibited swing and jazz activities (Neuhaus). Charlie and His Orchestra was moved in the still bombproof province.[7] Jazz was also incorporated into musical works such as operas and chamber music through “art-jazz,” which utilized jazz-inspired and ragtime-inspired syncopated rhythms and modes. Famous operas such as Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf! and Boris Blacher’s Concertante Music for Orchestra are examples of art-jazz (Dexter)."


Here's Otto Stenzel's band doing a German jazz hit "Musik, Musik".  The seems to be the same music that was used in the 1970's for the theme from "The Muppet Show".  

Here Alexander Tsfasman (1906-1971) doing some Red Russian Swing. The tune is "Joseph, Joseph" from 1939. Tsfasman was a classical piano virtuoso and composer who also performed jazz on radio in Russia, one of the earliest broadcasts of same, reportedly in 1927. He didn't record any  jazz  records until 1937.  During the war he turned to patriotic music.  


  1. LOVE Big Band music!!! This is a fascinating blog, Doug. I never thought about Big Band as being an international kind of thing, but I really like knowing that. I guess when something is a winner it just spreads out, and the world sure needed that upbeat music then. Well, always, really -- I still use music to influence my mood. GRIN.

  2. great videos Doug.. Buck Clayton (trumpet) looks like a younger A Sharpton..Noticed the huge Woolworth Co sign in the background brings back many memories they were big in this country in the 60's.

  3. Yes, I enjoy the upbeat tone of the music, Christy, as did millions "back in the day" and our present time.

    It's interesting to see how Swing Jazz, like Rock and Roll, became truly international.

  4. I hadn't noticed the Sharpton/Clayton connection, but you're right Mike! As I recall, The Reverand Al was a manager for the great James Brown so who knows?---there might be a family connection there.

    Yes, I gather Nazi Germany had Coca-Cola, too. The Ford Motor Company, General Motors, IBM, and Standard Oil of New Jersey all involved in some way in retooling or supplying factories and refineries for Hitler's war machine in the 30's and early 40's or, in the case of IBM, in running information machones for the concentration camps. A depressing aspect of those times I'm afraid and something for another blog.

    I remember Woolworth quite well. The city of Medford near where I live still has a retrofitted building with the old red and gold Woolworth's logo right downtown, not unlike the one we see here in 1939 Berlin.

    But it is amazing to see how the culture of jazz had an impact in all corners of the world.

  5. I came to jazz, big bands, blues etc. late I'm afraid. All those wasted years eh?!

    Great music is always great no matter who hijacks it for other uses. I think Goebbels rather missed the point with trying to make it fit their 'message'.

  6. One interesting conclusion here Doug seems to be that Jazz was the anthem for proto- globalism and the development of transnational corporate capitalism. The very people who are being lynched in Mississippi are the cultural ambassadors of the emerging American empire, whether they know it or not. Jesse Owens was a PSYOP, Hitler was nicer to him than his white neighbours in Oakville, Alabama would have been. At least he shared the same stadium with him, which was an advance on the situation back home.

    Jazz is a form of double exploitation, but as the first video shows it was also an ebony version of the American Dream, blowing your way out of the gutter, yeah cool!

    The propaganda value of Big Band Jazz has to be a doctoral thesis in itself Doug. Thanks for sharing these fascinating videos.....Woolworths in Berlin 1939...that really says it all think.

  7. It's an interesting point, AA. The popularity of jazz coincided with the end of World War I, and the cultural emergence of America in Europe.

    Jesse Owens had a very tough time when he came back to the United States as did millions of African-Americans. The stain of Jim Crow and other more subtle forms of segregation are an American social malady.

    Hitler already had his chosen scapegoats, so it was no big deal not to denounce a black athlete as the African-American population in Germany in 1936 was too small for a "Night of Broken Glass". There was some upset in the Fatherland two years later when Max Schmeling was knocked out in the first round of a a boxing match in Yankee Stadium by heavyweight champion Joe Louis.

    Ironically, it was Schmeling who became a Coca-Cola distributor in Germany after the war ended, and offered financial assistance to Joe Louis who struggled for years to make ends meet in America after his boxing career ended.

    Yeah, Woolworths in Berlin. There's another one to add to list of shame.

  8. Yes, I'm in the same boat Jim.

    I suppose it's a testament to the power of a musical revolution that was jazz when even a twisted nut-job like Goebbels had to accommodate for its popularity.

  9. Doug you certainly rendered some areas within history that are far beyond me. Now here much of this I never knew at all. Again very thought provoking to say the least.

  10. I'm amazed with the link with the Woolworth Company - as from what I read some time ago is that Woolworth started in Watertown, New York. There is a story of a young man whom was working for another small store and he decided to open his own concept which came to be Woolworth's. Now this is captivating (aside of the good jazz) as within Canada there was Woolworth and Woolco - both were from the Woolworth Co., which I had negotiated many leases with.

    Now I am pondering on where were the origins of this retail giant.