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Jazz and Totalitarianism, 2017, pp. 17 - 38
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The juxtaposition of the totalitarian nightmare with jazz might seem asymmetrical and even bathetic or tasteless. But in fact there are potentially very instructive junctions here. Jazz and totalitarianism were contemporaneous in their appearance as phenomena of modernity in Europe. As early as 1922, in an article published in the New York Times Book Review and Magazine, journalist Burnet Hershey reported that in his recent journey around the world he found the ‘zump-zump-zump and toodle-oodle-doo’ of jazz everywhere (Walser 1999: p. 26). This was only one year prior to the coining of the term ‘totalitarianism’. The dissemination of both in their tendencies towards globalisation was decisively benefited by the modern media of radio, sound recordings and film. Goebbels recognised the potential of all three in the attempt to mobilise the masses in the totalitarian enterprise. Totalitarianism has been identified as one of the ‘quintessential forces in twentieth century history’ (Geyer and Fitzpatrick 2009: p. 26), one of the keys to understanding the power dynamics of modernisation. Likewise, jazz was the quintessential musical embodiment of modernisation. In the circumstances of its emergence, its formal character, its modes of global dissemination, it is the ‘test-piece’ of music in the process of modernisation, the canary in the mineshaft of modernity. Studies of jazz in the Soviet Union and the Third Reich have already demonstrated that its cultural baggage (perceived as an ambiguous combination of the music of triumphant capitalism and/or of a community oppressed on racial grounds) placed it in a uniquely perplexing relationship for the two archetypal totalitarianisms of the century. Its receptions in its various diasporic destinations made it a litmus test of the impact of modernity, and in the case of Germany and the Soviet Union the encounter was a revelation of some of the deepest contradictions in the process of modernisation. The two phenomena share something else: a protean history. Before we can discuss the potential explanatory power of an enquiry into jazz and totalitarianism, it must be recognised that neither of those two terms can be taken as fixed and given. What each refers to is highly dynamic both diachronically and synchronically. The original meanings of both have undergone such radical transformations that we must first reflect on how they have been understood, and may be understood in the present volume.
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