Jazz expresses a yearning for freedom that survives the worst oppression. In his essay “Red Music,” the Czech novelist Josef Skvorecky wrote about an urge that even the most brutal tyranny cannot fully extinguish. Skvorecky grew up under Nazi occupation in World War Two. He was a budding tenor saxophonist in a dance band with other youngsters. They were infected by the “forceful vitality,” the “explosive creative energy” of jazz. He and his young friends did not regard themselves as protesters,
…but of course, when the lives of individuals and communities are controlled by powers that themselves remain uncontrolled–slavers, czars, fuhrers, first secretaries, marshals, generals and generalissimons, ideologists of dictatorships at either end of the spectrum–then creative energy becomes a protest.
Jazz was a sharp thorn in the sides of the power-hungry men, from Hitler to Brezhnev, who successively ruled in my native land.
“Red Music” prefaces a volume with two short Skvorecky novels, Emoke and The Bass Saxophone. The latter is the story of a boy whose life is ruled equally by the Nazis and his fascination with jazz. He dreams of the music and of figures who to him and his friends are demigods, among them Louis Armstrong and the bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini. He discovers a bass saxophone, plays it, then hears it played in a solo so powerful that he arrives at an epiphany. It is a simple story told with complexity and beauty. The Bass Saxophone is about what Skvorecky calls “the desperate scream of youth” that, as I wrote years ago in a review of the book, “is always inside us when we have been touched with the indelible truth of art.” You will find an excerpt from The Bass Saxophone on Skvorecky’s web site, but I urge you to read the entire novel. My review of it is included in Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music and Some of its Makers.
Also in Jazz Matters is a story told by the Polish writer Leopold Tyrmand, who, like Skvorecky, was a captive of both Naziism and Communism. A forced laborer in Germany, Tyrmand chanced upon a Nazi soldier who was also a jazz fan. At the risk of dire consequences to both of them if they were caught, they rowed a boat to the middle of a river and spent an afternoon taking turns at the oars, listening to forbidden Benny Goodman records on a windup phonograph.
I thought of the Skvorecky and Tyrmand stories when I read Nate Chinen’s New York Times article about Tomasz Stanko, the Polish trumpeter who was captured–and freed–by jazz when he first heard it half a century ago.
“The message was freedom,” he said one afternoon last week in a Midtown Manhattan hotel room. “For me, as a Polish who was living in Communist country,” he continued in his slightly broken English, “jazz was synonym of Western culture, of freedom, of this different style of life.”
To read the entire interview, go here. Stanko’s new recording is Lontano (ECM). He is one of dozens of Eastern European musicians who, since the collapse of Communism, have joined the top ranks of jazz musicians in the world. He, George Mraz, Emil Viklický, Robert Balzar, František Uhlíř, Adam Makowicz, the late Aladar Pege, Laco Tropp and many others kept the music alive underground during years of subjugation and proved that in art, talent and the human spirit trump race and nationality.