Meanings of Jazz in State Socialism

by Gertrud Pickhan (Volume editor) Rüdiger Ritter (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 227 Pages
Series: Jazz under State Socialism, Volume 4


During the Cold War, jazz became a cultural weapon that was employed by both sides to advance their interests. This volume explores the history and roles of jazz in Poland, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Soviet Union, and the Baltic States by means of several case studies. The American administration attempted to destabilize the political systems of the Eastern Bloc countries, while the powers responsible for culture in the Eastern Bloc countries tried to curtail the US propaganda campaign. This resulted in distinct jazz traditions and jazz scenes, each governed by a distinct behavioural codex, as well as official responses in each of the Eastern Bloc countries.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Jazz in State Socialism – a Playground of Refusal?
  • 1956 – A turning point for the jazz scenes in the GDR and Poland
  • From ‘Jazz in Poland’ to ‘Polish Jazz’
  • Jazz Musicians in Post-War Poland
  • Individualists, Traditionalists, Revolutionaries, or Opportunists? The Political and Social Constellations of Jazz in Hungary during the 1950s-1960s
  • The Jazz Section: Disintegration through Jazz
  • Negotiated Spaces: Jazz in Moscow after the Thaw
  • Swing Club and the Meaning of Jazz in Estonia in the late 1940s
  • Authors’ CVs

Gertrud Pickhan / Rüdiger Ritter


Jazz has never been just music: from the beginning, it has been imbued with various additional meaning. It is thus unsurprising that the ideas and positions manifested in jazz have always evoked passionate responses, from supporters and opponents alike, whether they were the musicians creating the music or the people who wrote about it. Under discussion were not only questions of musical aesthetics and subjective judgement – such as whether a certain title or style was agreeable or not – but also broader issues, as jazz was associated with a certain lifestyle and habitus. It posed a challenge to the contemporary music scene; moreover, it questioned the moral values inherent to contemporary society. Soon disgust and rejection emerged, but even more so fascination and support. Jazz polarized society from its very beginning by nothing other than its mere existence.

From its earliest years, from the 1920s onwards, jazz occupied a prominent position in the newly emerged Soviet Union and prompted a broad spectrum of reactions, ranging from enthusiastic welcome to outright disgust and hateful rejection. Again, it was not only musical aesthetics that were scrutinized here, but rather how one wanted to define one’s ‘own’ music or articulate opposition to a music that was quintessentially regarded as a symbol of the USA. More to the point, jazz was seen to function as a flagship of the ‘other’, attempting to break into the consolidated cultural system of the Soviet Union. In other words, the topic discussed was really not so much the music itself, but the process of positioning the Soviet Union vis-à-vis its traditional ‘class enemy’ the United States, on the one hand, and ‘old’ Europe, on the other.

Jazz was predestined to evoke controversial statements. It was a music rich in meanings, a vast array of which both admirers and opponents liked to draw on. For admirers, jazz represented freedom; for opponents, it provoked in four principle ways:

First, from its inception, jazz was closely associated with sexuality and, as a consequence, rejected by the establishment. After the October Revolution, sexual liberties and experiments with alternative forms of living beyond the ← 7 | 8 → framework of the traditional family had briefly flourished. This, however, soon came to an end, coinciding with an increasingly rigid rejection of jazz. In later years, the prudishness prevalent in the Soviet Union led to a curious similarity between the criticism voiced by socialist critics and that expressed by the bourgeois establishment in Western Europe. In fact, it did not take long for the adherents of communism and those of national-conservative ideologies to meet, albeit totally unexpectedly, in a common rejection of jazz. Socialist critics even adopted the main arguments of their bourgeois counterparts, the best-known example being the invective enunciated by Maksim Gorkiĭ, who, in alignment with the bourgeois educated elite, described and rejected jazz as ‘pornography’: ‘Listening to this yelling for a few minutes, brings unavoidably to mind an orchestra full of sex-crazed madmen conducted by a stallion-like-man, waving a huge genital organ.’1

Second, musically ‘educated’ intellectuals and composers active in already established fields of music reacted sharply in the negative to jazz and proclaimed it to be ‘primitive’.2 But there were also many who supported this new kind of music. This shows an important detail of the effect jazz had on Europe: that its ‘alien’ nature provoked both vehement opposition and intense fascination and support, even beyond the narrow confines of the various jazz scenes. To this end, many artists in the new Soviet Union firmly committed themselves to jazz, last but not least to revolutionize artistic developments in Europe. Just to serve as the cultural heirs of the old Europe seemed to many to be a waste of the new socialist ideology. This was an idea that had already been considered by the elites of nineteenth-century Russia and Western Europe. Indeed, many Russian intellectuals felt obliged to adopt jazz as a new art form and to demonstrate Russian-Soviet predominance in this field.

In this context it should not be forgotten that as jazz came to Europe, it was combined with existing forms of dance and entertainment music. The ← 8 | 9 → result was a range of ingenious symbioses: in the Soviet Union, this led to the so-called Ėstrada; in Poland, jazz mingled with different forms of Jewish music; in Hungary, it mixed with Roma and Sinti music. So, in the era of the great swing orchestras, there were not only the well-known American band leaders like Jack Teagarden and Glenn Miller, but also a significant number of distinguished Europeans. For the countries under consideration in this volume, these included Jerzy Petersburski, Henryk Wars, Karel Vlach, Karel Krautgartner, Leonid Utësov, Aleksandr Tsfasman, and Eddy Rosner – amongst many others. Relying on their own musical traditions, they provided the starting point for the development of distinct jazz styles.

Third, in terms of its symbolic meaning, American jazz challenged the idea that ‘culture’ was something traditionally held by the European elite. Again, a hybrid form was the result. To understand the impact jazz had, it is important to consider how it was seen as an ‘American’ art form and a symbol of American dominance. In the Soviet Union in particular, the American origins of jazz became increasingly problematic. With the USA being perceived as the class enemy, this conflict became more intense with the consolidation of Soviet power, on the one hand, and the economic and geopolitical advancement of the USA, on the other. Jazz forced both powers to expand the traditional discussion about Russia vs. Europe into a discussion about Russia vs. America; the Soviet Union could no longer regard itself merely as the modern alternative to an old Europe, but had to accept that it also had a serious competitor, the USA. Symbolically, this competition was visible in many phenomena, but jazz presents a particularly interesting example.

Fourth, jazz, as an aesthetic phenomenon, amounted to a clear rejection of the dominant theoretical framework of socialist realism. Any idea postulating that music should be used for affirmative purposes, with specific content and effect on the masses, was alien to jazz, which, in essence, was predominantly instrumental and thus abstract in character. It therefore did not lend itself to communicating specific messages with an individualistic character. As a consequence, jazz was widely regarded a thorn in the flesh, especially so among the most ardent supporters of the Soviet system. How could it be that a music so uncommitted to the Marxist-Leninist cause and so far removed from one’s own artistic traditions and ideas could attract such interest, even among the proletariat? Could it be that the capitalist class enemy, America, had, after all, perhaps the better and more attractive way to modernity? ← 9 | 10 →

The Soviet Union could not solve any of these fundamental problems without contradiction, not in the first decades of the twentieth century, during the Second World War, nor in the Soviet Union and the other state socialist countries after the Second World War, when the confrontation between East and West reached its peak. In hindsight, it is easy to see the failures of the Soviet elite in relation to jazz and to understand why their efforts proved so futile. Much more interesting is to consider how they handled both possibilities and constraints when it came to the reception and later adaptation of jazz. The result of this contradiction was a constant manoeuvring of the regime between protection from, tolerance of, and ultimately proscription of jazz, something that looks like total arbitrariness at first glance. With closer examination, however, one finds an intriguing interaction of artistic positions, power interests, and geopolitical and cultural localisations at play.

The debate about jazz in Europe – both East and West –, and about jazz and state socialism in particular was already half a century old when it received a new impetus after the Second World War. As a result of this conflict, Stalin managed to exert his influence westwards as far as the River Elbe, forcing state socialist regimes upon all of Eastern and Central Europe. In terms of culture and, more to the point, music, it was thus the Soviet Union which henceforth defined policies in the area. But at the same time, countries like Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and others had already developed their own forms of jazz in the first decades of the twentieth century which were firmly in place when Soviet rule was imposed.

At the start of the Cold War, jazz became a cultural weapon that was employed by both sides to advance their respective interests, leading to a further intensification of an already intense debate. The American administration attempted to destabilize the political systems of the Eastern Bloc countries by using jazz as a vehicle to transport its ideas about freedom (here to be understood in the US interpretation of the term), while the powers responsible for culture in the Eastern Bloc countries tried to implement and propagate their own forms of jazz to curtail the US propaganda campaign.

There were considerable differences as to how jazz was dealt with within the socialist camp, so a simple East-West comparison, treating the two power zones as monolithic blocs, misses the point. In fact, Poland, not the Soviet Union, was the leading country in the Eastern Bloc with regard ← 10 | 11 → to jazz. Over time, the yearly Jazz Jamboree in Warsaw developed into a veritable window for Western music, not only for Polish musicians and listeners, but for people interested in jazz from across the Eastern Bloc. Furthermore, distinct jazz traditions, jazz scenes, each governed by a distinct behavioural codex, as well as official responses evolved in each of the Eastern Bloc countries. To describe jazz in the Eastern Bloc in generalized terms would therefore be simplistic and misleading; for this reason, this volume presents and considers the phenomenon by way of a series of case studies.

These explore the history and roles of jazz in Poland, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Soviet Union, and the Baltic States, demonstrating the different meanings that jazz came to carry during the Cold War and why attitudes were so polarized. With the exception of the texts by Heli Reimann on Estonia and Rüdiger Ritter on the Soviet Union, the respective contributions were all first presented as papers at an international conference entitled ‘The Meaning of Jazz under State Socialism’, held in Berlin on 11–12 June 2010. The conference brought to a close a three-year research project, ‘Widerständigkeit durch Kulturtransfer – Jazz im ‘Ostblock’’ [Cultural Transfer as Resistance – Jazz in the ‘Eastern Bloc’], conducted at the Free University of Berlin from 2007 to 2010. The project received generous financial support from the Volkswagen Foundation.

The volume, comprising a total of eight contributions, opens with a text by Rüdiger Ritter who sets out some of the fundamental paradigms that defined jazz during the Cold War. He convincingly shows that the development of jazz in the Eastern Bloc countries depended decisively on developments in world politics. At the same time, he emphasizes that the Cold War provided more than just a framework for the autonomous development of jazz: it determined that the most important stylistic developments in jazz materialized in the Eastern Bloc in the very ways they did. Ritter thus argues that the stylistic development of jazz did not occur independently, as part of some autonomous process, but as a combination of immanent and social-political factors. The West, and first of all the USA, invested substantial financial and logistic resources into the propagation of jazz in the opposite camp; vice versa, the Eastern Bloc countries attempted to do exactly the same.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (October)
Music, Radio Cold War Eastern Bloc
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 227 pp.

Biographical notes

Gertrud Pickhan (Volume editor) Rüdiger Ritter (Volume editor)

Gertrud Pickhan is a Professor of East Central European History at the Institute for East European Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. Rüdiger Ritter holds a PhD in History of East and East Central Europe and Musicology. They have conducted a research project at the Freie Universität Berlin on Jazz under State Socialism.


Title: Meanings of Jazz in State Socialism