Thursday, August 09, 2007

Searching for Eddie Rosner

Consider this post an open invitation to DVD companies: if you release Eddie Rosner: Jazzman from the Gulag, I will review it. Gulag a documentary from 1999, directed by Pierre-Henry Salfati, scored a rating of 8 out of 10 in Scott Yanow’s Jazz on Film. I have not seen it, but Rosner’s story in general should be better known.

Eddie (or Addy, born Adolf) Rosner was a highly regarded, legit German jazz musician and the son of a Polish Jew. After playing with his hero Louis Armstrong, the American jazz titan reportedly inscribed a photo to him: “To the white Louis Armstrong from the black Rosner.” Of course, 1930’s Germany was a difficult environment for a jazz musician, particularly one with Rosner’s family composition.

Rosner fled National Socialist persecution, first to his father’s native Poland, and then to the Soviet Union. At first he was embraced by Stalin, as a popular, morale boosting entertainer. Perhaps apocryphal, there is a story that during the war, Rosner’s band was summoned to play an apparently empty theater, except for “Uncle Joe,” concealed by the shadows in a balcony box. His appreciation of Rosner’s band would not last.

In 1949, Stalin launched a campaign against jazz, confiscating saxophones, and promulgating slogans like: “Today he plays jazz and tomorrow he betrays his country.” Rosner found himself in a Soviet Gulag, where he would remain for over a year after Stalin’s death.

Rosner’s story illustrates both the anti-Semitism and the antipathy towards jazz (and other forms of free expression) historically demonstrated by Communist authorities. Given recent trends in Russia, its release might be uncomfortably relevant (and those at last week’s Summer Stage reading would certainly benefit from screening it). Regardless, spending time with a fascinating life is always rewarding.