Jazz was a rebellious diversion to the horrors of war.
Our Take: Jazz & World War II
Having just read Erik Larson’s “The Splendid and The Vile,” a brilliant account of Winston Churchill, London and the United Kingdom during the 12 months of German bombings during World War II, known worldwide as The Blitz, I can see how “jazz” came to be a significant escape for those caught in that most harrowing of experiences. Before going forward, I must remind our readers that literature, movies or plays about the United Kingdom, Churchill in particular, during World War II is a fetish of mine. That one tiny island country, led by a reluctant, if not accidental King, and an unlikely, if not oddly prepared Prime Minister battled, by itself, against the most odious war machine ever assembled at that time is stunning to me.
One of the premises of the book is that Churchill did not give Britons courage, but he taught them how to focus their courage and perfect the art of being fearless. What a perfect metaphor for jazz at that time. Larson’s book is filled with personal and intimate stories of various people important to Churchill. The diaries of his daughter Mary, personal secretary John Colville, cabinet member Lord Beaverbrook and confidante Frederick “The Prof” Lindemann were particularly poignant and insightful.
At odds with the dangers of the day, or perhaps because of them, each diary reflected the burning desire to maintain some level of normalcy in their lives. Despite nightly air raids, they went out to dinner, entertained friends and attended parties, particularly common among London’s debutantes and socialites. In this arena, the notes of Mary are most important. Wondering whether to marry a young soldier who was courting her, the 18-year-old was more interested in the parties and her late nights and early mornings at Café de Paris, the London nightclub frequented by socialites and performers. Cole Porter was a regular, as was Ken “Snakehips” Johnson, a young black dancer and bandleader whose “swing” band took up residency at the nightclub at the outset of World War II.
Mary wrote constantly of finding excuses to leave parties, dinners and socially prominent events to head over to Café de Paris to smoke, drink, dance and enjoy jazz. While there, they could hear the bombs, see the glow of incendiary devices (firebombs) and feel the ground moving. Mary would share how those dangers intensified the impact of the music and seemed to inspire the bands. At one point Mary related that the air raids were the most powerful aphrodisiac that she and her friends had ever felt. With death and destruction on the playlist every night, Snakehips did his best Count Basie act and brought music and dance to the otherwise “formal” elements of London.
On March 8, 1941, bombs bypassed the doorman and landed in the basement ballroom of Café de Paris, killing more than 30 people and wounding another 80. Snakehips was decapitated by the blast. Dead at 26. The merrymakers had thought that Café de Paris’ underground location made it a safe haven from the air raids, but the bombs were able to enter through a ventilation pipe and exploded right in front of the stage.
Mary and her friends continued to attend jazz shows, always late at night and always in clandestine locations. And, on the few occasions that she was up later than Winston, while staying with her father, she would shed his recordings of marches and battle themes in favor of jazz. At least in the mind of Larson, jazz was a rebellious diversion to the horrors of war. It was a self-expression far removed from the popular songs of the day and gave its followers a sense of individualism and identity that war erodes and eradicates.
Yes, following the theme of the book, jazz did not give the Britons courage, but it gave them a way to focus their courage and it provided them with the feeling of being fearless. Aren’t those the vital signs of every great jazz musician?
Our Take Out Take: Dispatch from London
Upon completing the Our Take above, I sent the note overseas to Keith McDowall in London for his opinion and consideration. Keith is a brilliant writer, jazz aficionado and historian. He and his beloved wife Brenda (a Baroness and member of the House of Lords until recently passing away) have sailed on The Jazz Cruise forever, including several sailings on the SS Norway, years before The Jazz Cruise was a full ship charter. Keith now sails with his daughters and is always a source of great fun and interesting stories.
Keith was 11 years old during The Blitz. For him, the story above was a chronicle of his life, not just a fascinating book to read. Though I may cajole him into adding to this story, Keith confirms the gist of what Larson wrote, but feels, quite properly, that the view of The Blitz solely from the vantage point of the family and friends of the Prime Minister may, in his words, be a “slightly romantic view of it all.” Nonetheless, Keith confirms that jazz, more likely “swing,” on the radio “brought just a little light to a very drab period in our lives.”
Keith and Brenda are treasures of The Jazz Cruise. I may pressure Keith to do a “Jazz & World War II” talk on The Jazz Cruise ’22. It would be brilliant!
Our Take is written by Michael Lazaroff, Executive Director of The Jazz Cruise, The Smooth Jazz Cruise and Blue Note at Sea. Feel free to express your views or pose questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Save The Date: Wednesday, February 24 Bria Skonberg & Jennifer Wharton LIVE!
Join us on Wednesday night for the next episode of Jazz Cruise Conversations LIVE, featuring two of The Jazz Cruise’s All-Stars and members of Anita’s Big Band.
Trumpeter/singer Bria Skonberg and bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton are talented horn players, incredibly smart, exceedingly clever and always impress with a wicked sense of humor, so we anticipate a fun talk about jazz, life and lots more.
Tune in on Wednesday, February 24, at 8pm ET! The free, live show, plus the previous dozen episodes of Jazz Cruise Conversations Live, are all available as videos on our YouTube channel or as podcasts on iTunes, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
New Album from Emmet Cohen!
The Jazz Cruise regular Emmet Cohen has just released his latest album, Future Stride, on Mack Avenue Records. The album features the pianist with his longtime trio of Russell Hall on bass and Kyle Poole on drums, along with special guests saxophonist Melissa Aldana and trumpeter Marquis Hill. This thoroughly modern recording brings the jazz of the 1920s to the 2020s.
“I find that all great art can be considered modern,” Cohen says about the inspiration for Future Stride. “Whenever you listen to Stravinsky or watch Stanley Kubrick, when you read Shakespeare or look at Picasso, it remains the most modern, genius art that you can find. It allows people in every time period to feel and experience the same emotions relevant to the period that they live in. For me, stride piano belongs in that category; the music of Art Tatum and Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith has implications that can affect people today in a very deep manner.”
Jazz Interludes, the fine video series produced by our friends at Vail Jazz, continues with two very special episodes featuring some favorites of The Jazz Cruise.
The powerful trio of Akiko Tsuruga (organ), Jeff Hamilton (drums) and Graham Dechter (guitar) present a concert of original tunes mixed with standards by jazz legends such as Ray Brown, Slide Hampton and John Coltrane.
In addition, Ann Hampton Callaway performs a show from her home featuring her unique vocal talent as she explores the music of the Great American Songbook.