Thursday, February 09, 2006

Jazz Saves World, Writers Miss Story

Recently, I read books about jazz during the Cold War and WWII. While I’m fascinated by these subjects, in both cases the authors’ voices undermined their respective works.

Most frustrating was Penny Von Eschen’s Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Harvard University Press). Jazz played a vital role undermining Communism through Voice of America broadcasts and State Department sponsored tours. Rather than write what could have been a fascinating account of jazz history, Von Eschen preferred to write a didactic, revisionist critique of U.S. Cold War policy, which seems almost totally blind to the historical horrors of Soviet repression.

When relating an incident in the Russian port city of Sochi, in which members of the Benny Goodman band feared for the safety of the leader of the local jazz society, Von Eschen shows none of the outrage which permeates most of her book. The story is conveyed almost as an amusing anecdote. When the Soviet Army invades Prague, to Von Eschen it is simply an expression of the Kremlin’s “conservatism,” and hardly worth mentioning. When the CIA takes action against the Communist-aligned Lumumba in the Congo, her outrage is palpable.

The real problem with Satchmo Blows Up the World, is not the ideology of the author, but rather the constant editorializing which hopelessly disrupts the book’s narrative flow. She frequently repeats her political points, even in mid-paragraph, showing little interest in the music she writes about. It is merely a convenient club to bash U.S. foreign policy. Her subjects deserved better.

Mike Zwerin is certainly more respectful of his subject, National Socialism's repression of swing, in La Tristesse de Sainte Louis: Jazz Under the Nazis. Yet he also allows his authorial voice to interrupt the narrative flow as well. Zwerin relates many important historical events, like the story of the Ghetto Swingers, a Jewish jazz band which was formed by the Nazis, as a propaganda effort, to play in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during a Red Cross inspection tour. However, he constantly interrupts himself, to tell the reader how difficult this book has been to write, and how many kilos he has lost as result.

Zwerin is a respected jazz writer and musician in his own right, so I’m inclined to cut him more slack than Von Eschen. I still would have preferred that his editor had cut these interludes, from what is otherwise a serious work of nonfiction. What strikes me about Zwerin’s book, is how blog-like it is, even though it was written well before the advent of blogs.

On-line the author’s voice is paramount. I’m certainly trying to offer a distinctive one myself. When I get my sea legs, I’ll open up feedback. Frankly, I’ve often been underwhelmed by blog feedback in the past. Much of it seems to fall in either the “Amen, brother,” or “you ignorant tool” categories. But this blog is an odd hybrid (I hope), so the feedback should be distinct too. For now, please e-mail me your feedback directly, if you’re inclined, and I’ll post when appropriate. Also, please spread the word about what we’re spinning here. Looking ahead, I’ll be posting items on jazz’s role in fighting Communism and National Socialism in the near future. I earnestly believe jazz has not gotten its proper due in both regards. Spin on.