Cornelius Partsch. New England Review. Volume 23, Issue 4. Fall 2002.
The rhythm of the world shifted by an eighth-but what an eighth it was. ~ Friedrich Hollaender
“For a moment the slave revolt wins” is jazz writer David Meltzer’s riff on the countercultural, emancipatory explosiveness of jazz performance. Transposed to post-WWI Germany, Meltzer’s phrase might well read: “For a moment America wins—again.” The Weimar Republic, Germany’s first experience with democracy, constituted an extended moment of cultural transition and of national uncertainty. For a variety of reasons, many Germans at the time were fascinated with all things American and especially with jazz, but, as in the United States, the German account of jazz was largely a series of grace notes to the score of the European musico-cultural heritage and its ideological foundations. Like many other forms of popular culture at the time, jazz became the subject and the object of a very public debate about art, modernity, race, youth, and morality. The polyphonous and syncopic signifier Jazz—or Jatz, or Jass, as many Germans say to this day—was mythologized, colonized, demonized, glorified, harmonized, neutralized, and normalized in sprawling articulations of extramusical concerns and of socio-cultural criticism. Jazz could be either destructive or redemptive, degenerate or transformative, pathological or liberating. The analysis of this highly contested discursive web reveals that those who have assumed the authority to speak about jazz are, in one way or another, engaged in the project of appropriating or controlling in writing the experience of musical performance. As Meltzer’s dictum implies, performance marks the mythological moment and is resilient to history. It is immediate, fleeting, unfinished, and offers its participants the opportunity to construct meanings which are equally momentary and extra-lingual. The production of the text you are now reading about music and about its attendant “jazzography” is informed by my own supposition that the fluidity of music and, particularly, the improvisations of jazz may serve to elucidate the continually shifting languages involved in negotiating cultural identity. From among the manifold ways of experiencing and writing about jazz in the Weimar Republic, I will attempt to outline two particular strands, prevalent in the mid-1920s, which emphasize a social function for art as defined by deliberately anti-traditional, modern projects, one based on transparency, the other on ambiguity.
Facing high inflation and the prospect of further food shortages, the Stresemann government decided in the fall of 1924 to implement a long overdue currency reform which de facto doubled the Reichsbank’s gold and currency reserves. The introduction of the new currency, the Rentenmark, had astonishing effects: goods reappeared in the stores, food became plentiful for the first time in months, and a semblance of normality returned to daily life. In the same months, passage of the Dawes Plan allowed for Germany’s war reparations payments to be reinjected into the German economy in the form of long-term American loans and, in the short term, made economic recovery and political stabilization possible. The country’s newly found prosperity was based on a program of massive industrial investment and rationalization on the American model of technological and economic expertise. The language employed to legitimize these measures, which seemed to calm overnight not only the political conflicts with the allies, but also the country’s smoldering class tensions, inscribed the primacy of industrial growth and consumer confidence as the basis for a process of social homogenization lauded as progressive. The term Wirtschaftsdemokratie (“Economic Democracy”) encapsulated the stabilizing coincidence of economic and political utility in a tractable center, while the terms “sobriety” and “objectivity” were reconceptualized more broadly to signify a utilitarian, amoral ethics of modern and up-to-date living, implying the tactical exploitation of the magical world of consumption, the rationalization of artistic production, and a centrist politics of republican stability. The application of the principle of market-driven rationalization to all areas of life catapulted the German entertainment industry into a period of staggering growth. In accordance with the sober laws of supply and demand, cultural production of all types became affordable to a vastly larger segment of the population and was consequently adjusted to the public’s tastes.
Berlin, the most industrialized and dynamic of German urban environments, reclaimed its position as a cosmopolitan center of European stature, and the public partook passionately of the amusing distractions that had been unavailable to many during the postwar years. Because of this pleasure-based “philosophy of the weekend” and a general receptivity for everything new and American, it was in Berlin that American capital found the most fertile ground for aggressive investments in the newly deregulated marketplace of literary, cinematic, and musical production. Lucrative offers awaited American jazz musicians who followed the exhortation of Irving Berlin’s song title “Send a Lot of Jazz Bands Over There” in ever larger numbers. In November 1924, the Ohio Lido Venice Band became the first American ensemble of international fame to perform in Berlin. Every year, the city welcomed 1.5 million foreign visitors who patronized its abundant supply of cafes, hotel bars, dance clubs, concert halls, cinemas, theaters, variety shows, cabarets, and revue palaces. The revues, in particular, were tailored to international audiences and offered a most consumable form of fast-paced and multifarious entertainment: “an unrelenting barrage of pleasures; it crackles and pops without interruption.” The music played in the revues attested to a general Americanization of popular entertainment. Former staples such as waltzes, polkas, mazurkas, folk songs, and military marches gave way increasingly to the fox trot and to jazz rhythms. Theodor Lucke noted that ragtime was the “musical tie” that connected the numbers and that “a revue without syncopation seems almost unthinkable to us today.” The revues of James Klein, who managed the Komische Oper, a large theater in Berlin’s traditional entertainment district, featured exotic sets and extravagant costumes and seduced its patrons with a strong dose of sex appeal. Titles such as The World Undressed (1923), Berlin Topless (1926), and Bare Yourself (1928) provided effective advertisement for Klein’s neatly packaged, semi-nude show. In the Eldorado, the Pyramid, and the Alexanderpalast, previously marginal gay, lesbian, and transvestite subcultures stepped into the limelight, taking their place on the tourist routes through the city. Christopher Isherwood remarked on the marketing of the “abnormal”: “Wasn’t Berlin’s famous ‘decadence’ largely a commercial ‘line’ which the Berliners had instinctively developed in their competition with Paris? Paris had long since cornered the straight girl-market, so what was left for Berlin to offer its visitors but a masquerade of perversions?”
In the context of these market-driven socio-cultural transformations and the spread of American mass products, a vehement debate took place about the pros and cons of the so-called “Americanization” of Germany. Buzz words such as tempo, trust, skyscraper, film, Indianer, jazzband, and boxing reverberated in the press and on the radio. The new interest in America contributed to the creation of an American niche in publishing. During these years, American literature, notably Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, travel reports and guides, photographic journeys through the New World, as well as a number of critical readings of “Americanism” all sold very well. To an eclectic group of young modern artists who were striving to find a place for art in the democratic present and who were therefore bent on breaking with traditional European notions of art, America took on an exemplary function. Seeking to overcome conventional hierarchies, the new avant-garde called for the eradication of boundaries between highbrow and popular art, suggesting, in the words of the former Expressionist Arnolt Bronnen, that art comprised everything “from the boxing bout to the jazz band.” These proponents of the “New Objectivity” in the arts imagined “America” as a pragmatic, homogeneous, and unabashedly materialist nation and, in stark contrast to Europe’s political, institutional, and cultural hierarchies, as an agent of civility and democracy. Embracing rationalized American-style mass culture as a desired historical stage of radical depersonalization and disenchantment, this new generation celebrated an incongruous array of American achievements and heroes, ranging from skyscrapers, jazz, and Hollywood films to Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, Jack Dempsey, and Charlie Chaplin.
The paradigm of “objectivity” was deployed to excise from consciousness the memory of the political and economic trauma of the post-war period, with its violent, anti-democratic paroxysms. Since that time and the perceived bankruptcy of Expressionist inwardness and idealism, all emotions and utopian fantasies had become suspect, and the avant-garde subject armed itself against the troubling past by settling on the transparent, immediate surface, and by focusing on the fast-paced object-world of the information age. Elias Canetti ascribes a psychological inevitability to this turn to sobriety: “Things floated like corpses in the chaos, and human beings became things. This was known as Neue Sachlichkeit [… ] Little else could be possible after the long and drawn-out shrieks of Expressionism.” For the New Objectivists, the dissolution of individuality was manifest in the social atomization and urbanization of their environment. Since life in the modern city required rapid, machine-like intake of myriad sensory stimuli, its adequate artistic representation demanded a sober gaze, a photographic memory, and the transformation of the artist into a kind of simulcaster. Egon Erwin Kisch’s prototype of the “racing reporter” registers the time’s panoramic and polyphonous simultaneity with gusto and is unfettered by old-fashioned aesthetic considerations: “Nothing is more amazing than the simple truth, nothing is more exotic than our environment, nothing is more imaginative than objectivity.” Franz Roh defines the new style in painting as “miniature-like, cool to cold,” the technique characterized by “thinly applied color, smooth, smoothed, like polished metal.” These reconfigurations of the creative individual exalt the engineer as a key figure and as an example of cool rationality and dynamic progressiveness. His detached expertise is mapped onto the process of artistic production and onto the socio-political arena, where the solution of social conflicts as well as the exploitation of nature in the name of progress can be achieved through dry business acumen. Trustful of the purity of the mechanical production apparatus, these texts of euphoric Americanism raise the engineer to the status of leader and educator of the nation. Bertolt Brecht hears the promise of an objective “greatness” in those “jazz bands in which engineers make music,” allowing the phrase to resonate with the multiple meanings of machen (to make). Upon landing in Le Bourget airport in the summer of 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the revered symbol of technological accomplishment and entrepreneurial ambition, in Germany as elsewhere in Europe.
In the objective imagination, both the immensely popular Tiller Girls and jazz occupy a privileged position, and they are inscribed as mechanized processes and precise executions of a rhythmic blueprint. The art critic Hermann von Wedderkop defines his age as “quantitative,” seeking “the aesthetic neither in expression nor in form but in matter and in matter permeated with rhythm.” Wedderkop isolates the primary, physical properties of sound and of movement, conceptualizing a transparency whose only articulable content is itself. The comments of Fritz Giese, who published a comparative study of “American and European rhythm and life” in 1925, demonstrate how the description of jazz’s sound activates associations with technology. He admires the artistic capacity of jazz to make audible the quintessentially modern experiences of “being run over by a car, of electrical shock [ … ] of a locomotive’s horn, and of sharpening a razor.” Even a commercially motivated text, a dance hall advertisement, shows its hipness by appealing to the public’s appreciation for bare and unsentimental rhythm: “The rhythmic energy of the jazzband has taken us ever further away from the personal and from individual experience. The victory of the jazzband is striking proof of the irrevocable mechanization of our age.” The emphasis on rhythm in these and many other texts serves to figure time itself as an abstracted, free-floating materiality. Time is experienced as a negation of itself, as it has become depersonalized and therefore unmeasurable. Wedderkop locates a paradoxical timeliness in the eternal– present of the culture industry: “Whether a good jazz piece has lasting value or whether it is immediately replaced by an even better one does not matter, but our time is in it, [… ] in its beginning and endlessness, in its relentless rhythmic stomp.” These depictions of jazz intersect with the language of capitalist production. The jazz performance is written literally as a composition or assemblage of exchangeable acoustical material, which becomes referential only through the evident function it serves and its disembodied rhythmicality. While the jazzography of the New Objectivists registers a certain drive in the music, the jazz described in these texts appears closer to what we call techno, a partially computer-generated music that is defined by a ratio of beats over time, than to the swinging quality of the “hot” jazz that was indeed performed in many places. The sounds of jazz are an immediate expression of the transience and abstraction of modern experience, making audible the very same rationalization that determines and molds the movements of the masses in capitalist society. Although jazz is thus stripped of all vestiges of essentialist mythology, particularly as regards artistic intuition and spontaneous improvisation, some texts indicate that the narrowing of the language used to account for jazz impoverishes the musical experience; such texts seek to locate, beneath the material surface, elements of the uncanny and incalculable, all that seems “magical in the wild brilliance of its rhythm.”
For many contemporary observers, the processed production of jazz sound finds its visual equivalent in the Tiller Girls who, as “movement machines” (Giese), appear to roll straight from the assembly fine onto the stage and are often associated with Fordist and Taylorist efficiency. In this context, they represent eo ipso the absence of a traditional conception of time, as the assembly line collapses and exponentially increases quantities of time. Moreover, by repeating a series of standardized bodily operations, they replicate the production process inside the factory, where the speed of the chain determines the speed of the workers’ movements. Siegfried Kracauer, who believed that one could know one’s time best by analyzing its surface expressions, observes of the Tiller Girls in an essay on the revues: “They are manufactured by Ford, thousands are made daily in his factories [ . . . ] construction errors are impossible, the movements occur in rhythm.” George Grosz drew a kick-line in a moment of such rapid spatial and temporal simultaneity that it can no longer be perceived by the human eye. In quasi-filmic timelapse, each figure looks grotesque, with multiple and exchangeable legs which seem to be disconnected from the motionless torsi. In contrast to communal, ritual conceptions of dance, Grosz’s snapshot foregrounds the unerotic and alienated character of modern mass entertainment. Along these same lines, the objective intellectual Brecht sees the girls’ appearance as a plurale tantum and as a chain of neverending reproducibility, the very mark of modernity and progress, and he provocatively praises capitalist uniformity and reification: “I believe the surface has a great future [ … ] I am glad that the dancers in the variety shows are all dressed alike. It pleases me that there are many of them and that they can be replaced at any time.”
No other medium appeared to be more appropriate for representing the experience of modern, urban rhythm than film. Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin, Symphony of the Big City (1927) explores and dissolves the temporal and spatial texture of the city through explicitly filmic means, as a non-narrative, purely visual cross-section. Ruttmann’s camera roams, seeking to mark a contrapuntal relationship between human beings and machines, and it operates with a consistent sense of detachment. The fourth “movement,” the presto-segment of the film’s overall symphonic structure, documents various forms of entertainment in a neon-lit Berlin night. A jazzband, the Novelty Club Orchestra, can be seen in action in an elegant dining club. After briefly displaying the entire ensemble, the film passes over the brass instruments at breakneck speed, repeating two sets of four whirlwind close-ups. The visual staccato of this sequence does more to demonstrate the cinematic medium’s breathtaking avant-gardism than it serves to investigate or to contextualize the object at hand. The film further visualizes the machine-like character of jazz (sound) by filling these frames entirely with the instruments, thus separating sound from musician. Soon thereafter, the camera glides into the dark bell of a trumpet, followed by a fade-in to a shot of the dancing crowd, in effect drawing the viewer into a pleasurable identification with the spectacle of jazz music. In the most technical of all media, jazz appears as a vibrant rhythm machine and as a fleeting visual echo of the tempo and superficiality of modern urban life and entertainment.
Among the New Objectivity adaptations of jazz, the Bauhaus occupies a special place. It was perhaps the only cultural institution where a negotiation of the modes of interaction between jazz and German artistic culture took place over a number of years. Various members of the Bauhaus connected themselves with jazz as a vehicle for colliding the popular with high art. The younger generation especially embraced jazz for its innovative technique, its functional role for the masses, and its identification with a socially underprivileged group. A number of highly stylized photographs display the Bauhaus student jazzband as a swinging and energetic avant-garde ensemble. The musicians wear comical outfits, with straw hats and striped shirts, evoking both a circus ambience and some of the “American” numbers that could regularly be seen in the revues of the day. The images resonate with racial identities through the accentuation of sharp contrasts between black and white or, in one case, by superimposing a Bauhaus drummer onto a gramophone and a blues record. These photographs insist upon their reflected, polished constructedness and locate in the interplay between technology and performative energy a social function for art. A student jazzband existed at the Bauhaus between 1923 and 1933. The multi-talented students jazzed not only as a diversion from their demanding studies, but also as a way to earn money for tuition. As Hans Stuckenschmidt reports, they played into the early morning hours at a school function in August 1923, while the costumed master teachers and their guests danced to the jazz rhythms in “a kind of constructivist, youthful agitation.” The Bauhaus band became so well known that it was invited to play in Berlin and a number of other cities. A Berlin reviewer comments on one such gig: “I am not worried about those five young fellows [ … I It is the best jazz band I have ever heard roaring away at it, musical to their very fingertips. Never has the `Banana Shimmy’ been played better [ … ] To a Berlin eye the whole affair seems surprisingly dignified.” The verve of their improvisations can be seen on an exhibition catalog which features a low-angle shot of the saxophonist and Bauhaus student Xanti Schawinsky as a larger-than-life jazz bohemian and enthusiast. The photograph underscores the significance of jazz as the provocative statement of youthful exuberance and irreverence.
The proponents of New Objectivity heard echoes of their views on jazz and on American mass entertainment in the work of the American bandleader Paul Whiteman. In the United States, Whiteman had been spectacularly successful for a number of years and sold well over a million records. The breakthrough event of his career, a performance that has achieved legendary status, was, by all indications, the concert presented in February 1924 in New York’s Aeolian Hall. Among other notables, Fritz Kreisler and Igor Stravinsky were in attendance to hear the world premiere of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, played by the composer himself and at that time widely regarded as a first attempt at a serious use of the jazz idiom. Whiteman offered an attractive blend of jazz, popular songs, and some perennial selections from the classical repertoire-a syncretic strategy which came to be known as “symphonic jazz.” He was a shrewd businessman, who lucratively packaged jazz for middle-class consumption by moving it from its smoky, coarse, Storyville point of origin into the respectability of the concert hall. Whiteman employed only white musicians and claimed that jazz was invented by whites. In his book Jazz, he contrived to discuss the history of jazz without mentioning African-Americans at all, which has made him an outcast in the eyes of many jazz historians and fans. When Whiteman brought his “cultivated” variant of jazz to the continent in June 1926, he was personally welcomed by Franz Lehar in Vienna and by Fritz Kreisler in Berlin, where he earned a mixed reaction from the critics but a great deal of attention from the media. German music publishers printed special editions of his hit songs, and the Berliner Zeitung hired an airplane and invited the band to see the city from above.
Whiteman’s concerts thrilled German audiences with a bit of American outrageousness, suggesting that America’s burgeoning popular arts were getting the better of old-style European high art. More importantly, these performances fascinated and impressed with their display of musicianship, with their precision, and with the refinement and originality of their instrumental arrangements. Whiteman, who was a classically trained violist, let the string section play a dominant role in his jazz symphony orchestra. German critics generally discussed Whiteman’s orchestra as a well-tuned engine, led by a supreme technician: “Yes, the technical ability is brilliant. It shines just as brightly as the changing spotlights on the brass instruments.”z7 By contrast, Jack Hylton, a British rival of Whiteman’s, fared less well: “The accompaniment could be from an ocean liner. The pistons work. Yes, it pistons. It hacks and shakes. The New Objectivity version of the good old oompahpah [ … ] Whiteman is delicate– Hylton loves the sousaphone.” By using a yard-long baton, Whiteman, the self-designated “King of Jazz,” ostentatiously underscored his traditional conductorial authority and embodied a stark contrast to the presumed “democratic” multivocality of the jazz band. The artist George Grosz, himself an avid jazz enthusiast, drew Whiteman for the Illustrated Journal. He shows the conductor’s dominant position and creates a controlled and business-like performative space devoid of movement. The saxophone, the only visible instrument, is all that really marks the scene as a depiction of jazz. Seeing Whiteman’s success, many German bands hastened to emulate the American by expanding their ensembles and by copying novel instrumental techniques such as the trumpet growl and the slaptongue for reed instruments. Among those bands that tried to make music outside of the “symphonic” mainstream were the Weintraub Syncopators. But for his part, pianist Friedrich Hollaender, also a wellknown composer for the cabaret, had nothing but contempt for Whiteman’s sanitized jazz: “When I hear Whiteman play Rhapsody in Blue, I feel like throwing my trumpet in the trash. But five smart boys resist The Weintraub Syncopators.”
For many observers, the pleasure of attending a Whiteman concert lay not only in the orchestra’s technical brilliance and the sheer energy of the performance, but also in the playful levity of Whiteman’s offerings, which were received as a welcome alternative to the weighty, canonical repertoire recycled ad infinitum in most of the country’s concert and opera venues. In contrast to the sober reportage of technical features and the subsumption of the performative under the aspect of the mechanical, these texts open up a space for alternative significations. Marked by performative indeterminacy and an ostensible socio-cultural otherness, jazz is regularly mobilized as a vehicle of parodic critique, entering into a reflexive dialogue with a variety of musical traditions, genres, and practices-and even with itself. In spite of the audience’s approval, one music critic records a sense of disquietude deriving from what he takes to be the scornful deconstruction of melody and cohesion in Whiteman’s jazz: “With a single parodic tone, the brass instruments laugh at all the violins’ and bass’ efforts to chime in with even the shadow of a melody.” On assignment for Die Weltbuhne, Hans Reimann, in contrast, deems Whiteman’s play with the musical material-dressing and undressing it, as it were-intelligent and modern in its subtle and probing distancing techniques: “Sometimes he assumes that the melody is known, simply leaves it out, and delivers only the gaps.” Whiteman was notorious for such humorous desecrations and for his jazzy versions of the classical repertoire, a technique he called “ragging the classics.” Ann Douglas has shown that parody of high European art was one of the foundational modes of expression and rituals of assertion of the American popular arts. Whiteman’s first record, cut in 1920, featured parodies of Puccini’s Tosca and Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, possibly to show up the venerated tenor Enrico Caruso. Whiteman intended these musical jokes, which consisted primarily of rhythmic and instrumental modification, as concessions to his audiences and he speculated that they would react with a certain smugness when they recognized the classical source of the parody. His popular success proved him right, but, as in the United States, conservative critics in Germany reacted with outrage and vehemently defended their classics against this American parvenu. In their view, any crossover between art music and jazz sounded an attack on sacred cultural values. In the complex dynamics of parody, however, the original does not necessarily lose power, but may, as the object of adoration, be affirmed. Linda Hutcheon has explored this double-edged, paradoxical effect, noting that the transgression associated with parody is always ultimately “authorized.” Indeed in the case of Whiteman, one might well point to a conservative and normative function of parody, given his use of the classical base to legitimate jazz and, by extension, his own role as the domesticator of jazz.
The technical reproducibility of music, made possible by continual improvements in recording and playback technology, and the resultant dissemination of music of all kinds to all social strata, created the conditions for a new field of discourse about music. Writing about popular music and about the electronic media leapt from the occasional article in academic or professional journals to the arts pages of some major newspapers-as for example in the case of Theodor W. Adorno’s essays in Die Frankfurter Zeitung-and to well-known cultural publications such as Die Weltbuhne. Such writing constituted an entirely new segment of public debate about music, particularly through the new genre of the record review. The critics assumed not only the now familiar role of mediator between product and consumer, but they also took popular music as an indicator of larger cultural and political trends and shifts. The career of the cabaret writer Hans Reimann, who penned numerous record and concert reviews and discographies for Die Weltbuhne, may serve to illuminate the formation and function of interpretive work of this kind. His productivity in this area demonstrates a deep commitment to the democratizing potential of mass culture and to recognizing popular music as a suitable vehicle of social and cultural analysis. Reimann welcomes Whiteman’s parodic transgressions and links them to recent German history: “Electrola 605 revealed Edvard Grieg’s philistinism, and he was the Kaiser’s favorite.” Reimann takes a jab at the nationalist guardians of culture when he declares the jazzed Liszt, courtesy of Whiteman, more romantic than the original: “It is not a rape. Not a jazzing. Not a foxing. It is the most lovely and dreamy Love-Dream one can imagine. Intoxicating.” The passage embraces parody as a mode of interaction which has come into its own, supplanting the old with a more genuine and paradoxically original art work. By implication here, Reimann also takes issue with the vocabulary of conservative critics who tended to decry jazz through the use of the prefix ver (“Verjazzung”), indicating a misdirection or a distortion.
The anger of traditionalists reached fever pitch when Whiteman endeavored to subject the eternal melodies of Richard Wagner to a jazzing, and they conveniently overlooked that Wagner had actually long been the target of parodists and caricaturists. With decidedly oedipal undertones, the proponents of jazz saw in this situation an overdue levity and a renunciation of outdated idolatry. The art critic Alfred Flechtheim remembers hearing a jazz band that rendered “all that Siegmund-droning and all that Siegfried-noise laughable and shameful.” Kurt Tucholsky, reviewing a Columbia record, finds “O you my sweet evening star,” the jazz version of the famous aria from Tannhauser ( ‘O du mein holder Abendstern”) up-to-date and funny. The recording presents Wagner “in the only manner in which it can still be played, namely as jazz [… ] gone are the Saxon’s pathos and the medieval clamor which posed as the pride of a race (one of the causes of the war) [… ] it should have sounded like this from the start; the parody shows the work of the great Saxon in the right light, here is its true form, and the original was just parody [ … ] it is the self-confidence of a new, transparent era, unyielding scorn of the old ideals.” Much of this commentary relates to a contemporary debate about the “crisis” of opera and art music. As a result of competition from the phonograph, the radio, film, and other entertainment forms, the traditional arts were, by the mid-92os, desperately struggling for their market share. The expanded marketplace empowered the consumers, who were now asked to make independent and informed choices among a variety of abundant and accessible entertainment products. Some jazz bands brazenly tapped into this apparent transfer of cultural capital as a selling point and engaged in comparative advertising. A publicity shot of Eric Borchard’s band shows conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler’s head displayed on the drum. The caption offers a striking improvisation on Matthew 19:24 (“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God”), altering it to read: “Sooner would a camel fit through the eye of a needle than Furtwangler play jazzband.”
Hans Janowitz, a former colleague of Reimann’s, wrote satirical songs and poems for the cabaret in the early 19 2os, most notably for Trude Hesterberg’s Wild Stage in Berlin. Known today primarily to film historians as the co-scriptor, with Carl Meyer, of Robert Wiene’s classic silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Janowitz also wrote a number of pacifist essays after the war. Since its publication in 1927, Janowitz’s sole novel, entitled Jazz, has been consigned to obscurity and only recently been reissued in Germany. From contemporary critics, the novel garnered rave reviews for its originality and its topicality. Among a number of similarly forgotten trendy jazz novels of the time, Jazz stands out as a hybrid, parodic narrative and as a rare attempt at an extended, literary use of jazz as a cultural phenomenon, as a trope for writing, and as a formal device. The opening chapter showcases much of the improvisational “jazz” texture that marks the novel as a whole and reveals the work’s persistent concern with the representation of time. The text begins by taking its readers on a quick spin through time, sketching a cross-sectional montage of the world of the mid-1920s and its “historical dissonances” as observed by a “historian” looking back from the year 1999. Although the narrative is thus framed as one characterized by academic detachment and authority, this dizzying prologue proceeds as an aberrant pontification, a mugging of historiographical discourse. Over three pages, the passage lists a variety of defining markers of the age, ranging from flappers, short skirts, bobbed hair, sexual liberation, and high divorce rates to radio, war veterans, Count Zeppelin’s airships, America, democracy, and communism: “It was the time of turbulent contrasts, it was the time of wild childishness, shadows only of the tragic upheavals to come, it was the time of wild enthusiasm for wild pranks, for wild violations of order.” Shifting suddenly into chronological sequencing, the text depicts recent history in musical terms. After the “pale fiddler,” who “had walked the trenches of the multilateral fratricide trust” for four years, came “his brother, the fool, the man of the syncope, the violin of death was replaced by the saxophone of life.” At the point at which it has rendered the world “thoroughly jazzy,” the text filly articulates the purpose of “jazz” for itself, deploying it as the polysemous metaphor for tempo, simultaneity, cacophony, and modernity.
The noisy opening of Jazz attains a further level of resonance, because it enacts the first of several parodic engagements, here in the form of a conspicuous dialogue with A Tale of Two Cities. Charles Dickens’s sprawling historical novel features one of the most famous openings in the history of literature: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” While duplicating the Dickensian semantics, Janowitz’s version achieves its comic effect through a change in content, by focusing more on objects than ideals, as well as a change in tone, which is rather less grandiose, and in length. In the midst of “ragging” the English classic, Jazz inserts a phrase that proclaims its own revolutionary aspirations, a quotation straight from the anti-art bravado of a Dada manifesto: “Radical rejuvenation of the world through total nonsense!” The narrator finally dispenses with the base text of the parody by calling into question the very duality that provides its epistemological foundation and by revealing the conventions of realism as inadequate for the expression of contemporary experience: “Was it a good time when this happened? Was it a bad time? It’s no good making such claims.” As a carnivalizing narrative, Janowitz’s novel riotously embraces fragmentation, polyphony, and decanonization, reverberating-in Mikhail Bakhtin’s terms-with “the joyful relativity of all structure and order.”
The novel’s plot centers around the career of Lord Punch’s Jazz-Band-Boys, a group of drifters who accidentally meet after a failed audition. The five musicians are the former shoe salesman Siegi Winter; Lord Punch-dance fanatic, violinist turned saxophonist, and womanizer; an unemployed clown; the Neapolitan street balladeer Tino; and the seaman Tobby, who can no longer practice his profession, because he suffers from chronic seasickness. The biographies of these musicians suggest an unusual rhythm, as Janowitz, who reveals himself as the narrator, asserts: “You know, Jazz-Band-Boys have all at one time or another been sailors who always become seasick [ … ] that’s what I want to emphasize: the path that leads to the profession of Jazz-Band-Boy is based on a syncopic structure.” Based on chance connections between events, the text unfolds a kind of morbid opera buffa plot full of confusion, deception, intrigue, and murder. The jazz commences with Lord Punch, who has a brief amorous encounter with an English lady in a train compartment-a scene accompanied by the sounds of a “ravishing train-track foxtrot.” The Lord and his band reside in a Parisian boardinghouse across the hall from a group of dancing girls, referred to as “five pairs of legs.” After blackmailing a famous impresario into engaging them, the band performs in the Chateau d’Or, a well-known dance club. With the help of a clever marketing campaign, the group successfully launches an international career, turning from Jazz-Band-Boys into Jazz-Symphonists.
In the nightclub setting, jazz plays a central role, stirring the emotions and the plot itself. Although the entire ensemble of characters-including the lady’s scheming husband, his psychiatrist, a homicidal Russian painter known to the secret police as the “dice-man,” and his accomplice, a sinister, opium-addicted Hungarian animateur–convenes predictably at the club at the end of the story, the narrator denies the reader the satisfaction of an ending, refusing to serve up either a thrilling climax, “as befits a dime novel,” or a “banal operetta finale.” Instead, he dispenses tersely with most of his characters. Lord Henry continues his career as a jazz symphonist, now happily married: “And what becomes of a dancer, when the time of sweet girlhood has passed? [ … ] If you want to know what becomes of a seventeen-year-old, then you can find out in Maupassant’s outstanding novel A Life.” He then opts to focus on one of many possible threads, shifting the text into the generic framework of the detective story. The reader learns that several of the women narrowly escaped death at the hands of the “dice-man,” before a dancer named Such-A-Thing finally became his victim, and that he was ultimately brought to justice. Instead of high-minded “autumnal reflections,” a further off-beat citation of the opening of A Tale of Two Cities, the novel concludes with a more mundane “postlude” about the human condition, revealing “that all human beings are prone to using up the capital instead of living off the interest. This fundamental error in creation is to blame for our inability to offer anything new on this point even to the reader of a jazz novel.”
The narrator emphasizes repeatedly that the text constitutes a stylistic and a formal translation of jazz, warning readers that they ought to prepare themselves for a “wild” tale. The project of finding a literary equivalent for the virtuoso multivocality of a jazz ensemble manifests itself as a self-reflexive and coquettish decentering of narrative authority, rhythm, and structure. From the privileged position of the omniscient chronicler, who is capable of describing “the full program” of a whole era, the narrator suddenly stumbles into states of total ignorance, self-doubt, perplexity, and speculation. He loses his thread, falls behind, attempts to catch up with himself, improvises, reformulates, betrays and explicates his unreliability, often adopting a jocular tone visa-vis the reader: “Another chapter, in which our tale has not progressed. But forgive me for disagreeing; the tale is progressing. Subliminally, mind you, it is clearly noticeable. On the surface, admittedly, I have not delivered.” At times, he slips back into the role of the realist narrator, when, for example, he professes to an obligation to introduce the reader to the nightclub “milieu.” In a text devoid of moral conflict and valuation, the narrator suddenly acts with stem decency and as the shining example of journalistic ethics, when he protects the reputation of a lady “against all innuendo” and swears to his own “impartiality.” Whenever a passage spontaneously breaks away from the plot line, eschewing linearity in favor of more elliptical movements, a reflection on “difference” follows: “I believe this book is subject to different rules, just as a jazz piece is subject to different rules from those that apply to a violin or piano sonata.” By elevating improvisation to a defining structural principle, the text inverts the classical hierarchy which ranks composition/text above improvisation/performance. Whereas unsuspecting readers may think that the narrator is losing control of his text, he is, in fact, merely letting the “instruments” in his band shape the text, attempting to duplicate the dialogic, call-and-response dynamics of jazz. Some segments are associated with specific instruments which occasionally hijack the text, taking it on unanticipated soloistic flights before rejoining the rest of the ensemble: “The jazz instrument is hard to control [ … ] in the framework of this story, I am completely at the mercy of my instruments.” The saxophone, in particular, functions here as a motif centrally involved in driving the plot, but also, with its characteristic “curve,” as a double for jazz writing: “Punch’s saxophone sweeps through the infernal scene” inside the Chateau d’Or, “sometimes blaring, sometimes grunting, like an invisible spoon wildly stirring the contents of the pot, turning everything upside down.”
Through its evocation of a jazz ambience and its explicit and extensive transfer of perceived formal jazz elements into narrative, Janowitz’s jazz novel may indeed be one of the earliest examples of jazz fiction. Within its discursive environment, the text identifies “jazz” as a signifier of American novelty and irreverence. It deploys the jazz trope as a model for writing and as a parodic instrument that performs a defamiliarizing dislocation of well-worn fictional conventions and resonates with a multitude of comic subversions and metafictional relations. Jazz unfurls its parodic engagements as an improvisation on the given. Formally, the principle of improvisation stands in direct opposition to both the large-scale symmetries of realist narration and those of formulaic, commercial fiction. Janowitz’s text delights instead in labyrinthine routes and haphazard, open formal patterns, laying bare its syncopic, digressionary tactics and educating the reader about its spontaneous shifts of context. The carnivalizing impulse of the novel’s heteroglossic, “ragout” texture constitutes a strategy that deliberately sets itself up to break norms that have become stale, implicitly historicizing prevailing traditions and their ideological underpinnings. As metafiction, the text explicitly establishes itself as a literary system incorporating the popular and non-literary. In particular, it exploits the discrepancies between high and low, colliding American-style popular art with the old-world canon and collapsing such genres as the novel and the sonata. These separate genres are identified as anachronistic and falsely harmonious, inadequate for capturing the dissonant, “democratic” din of jazz. In her extensive study of various conceptions of parodic writing, Margaret Rose has described parody “in general terms as the comic refunctioning of preformed linguistic and artistic material.”51 Janowitz’s Jazz can be read within such a postmodern interpretive framework. Revealing complex interactions between the comic and metafictional trajectories of parodic treatment, the double-codings in this work stress plurivocality and ambiguity over pure imitation or pure laughter. In an evocation of modernist supercession, the novel suggests that it, as parody, has jazzed the petrified originals so thoroughly that it has supplanted them and come into its own as a new, vibrant, and authentically modern form. At the same time, the text remains ambiguous about any claims to originality with a parodic reflection on its own creation, apologizing in the very last sentence for its “inability to offer anything new,” and indicating that the next performance will, once again, consist of unique recombinations.