Jazz from Socialist Realism to Postmodernism

by Yvetta Kajanová (Volume editor) Gertrud Pickhan (Volume editor) Rüdiger Ritter (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 310 Pages
Series: Jazz under State Socialism, Volume 5


In the 20th century, jazz was an important artistic form. Depending on the particular European country, jazz music carried different social, political and aesthetic meanings. It brought challenges in the areas of racial issues, the politics of the Cold War between East and West, and in the exploration of boundaries of artistic freedom. In socialist Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Poland, the situation began to change after 1956 and then 1968, when the ideologists shifted from the aesthetics of socialist realism to postmodernism. In Western countries such as France and Italy, jazz transformed from a modern to a postmodern period. This volume deals with the impact of these changes on the career development of jazz musicians – even beyond 1989 – in terms of various phenomena such as emigration, child prodigies, multiculturalism, multi-genre approaches, or female jazz musicians.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • I. The East and The West before 1989
  • Broadcasting Jazz into the Eastern Bloc – Cold War Weapon or Cultural Exchange? The Example of Willis Conover
  • Jazz in France 1917–1929: the Missing Object of the Reception
  • Valaida Snow: The First Multi-Instrumentalist between America and Europe
  • The Emergence of the Nordic Concept as a Precursor of Emancipation and Slovak-Scandinavian Relations (1950–1970)
  • Hungarian Free Jazz: Compositional and Improvisational Structures in the Music of György Szabados, as Exemplified in “The Wedding”
  • The Jazz Section and its Influence on the Development of Regional Cultures in Czechoslovakia before 1989: the Music Scene in Olomouc
  • Jazz Artists in the Former Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and Their Conflicts with the Socialist Ideology
  • The Different Careers of Slovak and Czech Jazz Musicians in the United States – Laco Déczi, Jan Hammer, Miroslav Vitouš, Jiří Mráz
  • Classical Music and Jazz as Inspirations for Modern Music Fusions
  • Who Best Knows What Jazz Is? The Legacy of L’ubomír Tamaškovič, a Unique Slovak Jazzman in Post-Modern Times
  • II. The East and The West after 1989
  • Toni Kitanovski and Cherkezi Orchestra – Global and Local Intercourse
  • Strategies of Domination or Ways of Differentiation from Rivals in the Jazz Field
  • The Changing Face of Slovak Jazz
  • Jazz Personalities after the Downfall of the Iron Curtain: Matúš Jakabčic and His Contribution to Slovak Jazz
  • Penetration of Jazz into Various Genres and Subcultures
  • Jazz: Made in Europe
  • Peter Breiner – A Slovak Musician
  • Jazz: Labour versus Opus

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Yvetta Kajanová


The Jazz from Socialist Realism to Postmodernism conference proceedings is the latest of a series of publications which focus on jazz research in the former socialist countries. After the previous insights into the worlds of Polish and German jazz, this volume brings more thorough studies of jazz development in the former Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. The individual contributions also compare the state of jazz in particular European countries during the second half of the 20th century. The authors point out the different conditions for the development of jazz in Italy, France, Scandinavia, and Central Europe (particularly in Hungary and Poland) as well as in Macedonia. Within the cultural politics of socialist countries, an overall shift from socialist realism to 1960s modernist aesthetics and to postmodernism in the 1970s and 1980s can be seen along with a gradual overturning of many misconceptions and attitudes. Although the ideological pressures on jazz artists loosened, censorship and intolerance refocussed on rock music, and thus on the area of jazz-rock and fusion genres within jazz. In music culture, as a result of the new Gorbachev philosophy, many Western elements were tolerated, but socialist leaders still held to the idea of “building socialist culture”, and neither censorship nor ideological doctrines ceased with the emergence of postmodernism. Most objections to jazz-rock, fusion and rock genres were directed towards the fact that, compared to classical music, they lacked artistic values and, hence, represented only a cheap form of Western entertainment. Not all jazzmen were able to embrace the new challenges of postmodern aesthetics, because powerful ideological dictates often affected their artistic and even physical abilities. However, several musicians managed to keep up with global aesthetic and stylistic trends and achieved outstanding careers not only in Western European countries but also in the USA.

At the same time when jazz in socialist countries was under idelogical fire, the jazz scenes in France, Italy and the USA had to face completely different problems, those of racial segregation and the social status of the jazzman. In Western Europe, jazz was regarded as an interesting exotic ← 9 | 10 → element while, at the same time, it was a seed for the spread of multiculturalism, a phenomenon which created tension particularly on the American scene. However, many jazz enthusiasts and scholars were convinced that jazz was of artistic value and, within various institutions, they began establishing museums with jazz music collections (for instance Smithsonian Jazz, an offshoot of the Smithsonian Institution at the National Museum of American History in Washington DC, est. 1991). The reception of jazz during socialist realism (1948–56) and later during the transitional period to modernist aesthetics (1957–68) and postmodernism was accompanied by mistrust, misunderstandings and prejudices. (In Western countries, postmodernism emerged after 1969; in some socialist countries, due to ideological barriers, the arrival of postmodernism was delayed.)1 Although between 1957 and 1968 the political and ideological persecutions by socialist realism changed into tacit toleration, jazz artists were still being challanged on new social and ideological fronts. However, this did not prevent the phenomena of feminism, child prodigies, alternative music and multiculturalism penetrating into jazz cultures in the former socialist countries. Regardless of the original polarisation of jazz into Western and Eastern, in the context of the overall commercialisation of culture after 1989, doubts appeared about whether jazz exists in its pure form.

1 Yvetta Kajanová, ‘Punk and New wave: Destruction or Doorway into Europe for the Former Socialist Countries’, in Paula Guerra & Tania Moreira (eds.) Keep it simple make it fast, vol. 2, Faculdade de Letras, Universidade do Porto, 2016, 99–106.

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I. The East and The West before 1989

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Rüdiger Ritter

Broadcasting Jazz into the Eastern Bloc – Cold War Weapon or Cultural Exchange? The Example of Willis Conover

Abstract: With his radio show “Music USA – Jazz Hour” at the Voice of America, since 1955 Willis Conover broadcast jazz via shortwave for more than 40 years. The paper analyses the reception of the broadcast in the Eastern Bloc countries and its triple function for the cultural politics of the USA, the Eastern Bloc countries, and the jazz scenes as well.

Main questions and ideas

Willis Conover and his Voice of America (VOA) broadcast Music USA – Jazz Hour remains one of the strongest myths in jazz history up to the present day.1 Starting in 1955, Conover provided a daily jazz programme which was listened to all over the world for more than four decades. For a whole generation of jazz lovers, Conover’s broadcasts were the main source of knowledge of this music as well as a window to the West and the United States.

The Conover myth tells the story of a man who destroyed socialism by constantly bombing the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc with jazz until Gorbachev finally gave in and introduced perestroika, causing the collapse of the system. At the same time, the myth stresses the idea that Conover’s broadcasts were totally “unpolitical” and that their only function was to promote jazz music and nothing more. Thus, this myth contains two narratives ← 13 | 14 → which exclude each other. However, this sharp contradiction does not seem to have caused any problems for the myth’s followers.

The Conover myth existed because of the Cold War. Examining the role of Conover, his broadcasting and listeners, we can detect general structures of cultural contact and the social and political meaning of music, especially jazz, in the framework of the Cold War situation.

My research led me to the replacement or correction of some standard ideas on the role of jazz and the anatomy of East-West cultural contacts.

Commonly, jazz history in Europe is described with concepts from the field of “Americanisation” and “American orientation”.2 Despite its structural connection with the United States, it makes more sense to use the two-sided reverse concept of cultural contact as a way to describe the social working of jazz. In fact, Conover’s promotion of Eastern Bloc jazz musicians is the best form of cultural transfer in the “other” direction.

One of the main elements of the concept of cultural transfer is the idea that the transferred cultural element undergoes a certain change when it is transferred from the sender to the receiver.3 This shift process also happened in the field of jazz contacts. My idea is to stress that jazz fulfilled its role, not despite of, but because of this specific shifting process. The consequence is that “jazz” meant something different in the United States than in the Eastern Bloc. In both cases, jazz is situated in a different cultural framework which defines the meanings of jazz. This has resulted in specific mutual misunderstandings, especially in the field of what constitutes freedom, black-and-white discourse and the Jewish element in jazz. During the Cold War, the basic situation of a battle between two antagonists drove both into parallel structures. Because they were forced to continue the Cold War, the behaviour of the antagonists became more and more similar, e.g. in the field of propaganda and cultural diplomacy as well as in the field of internal organisation. Jazz was used by both sides as a weapon against the other antagonist. In particular, the Soviet Union and socialist ← 14 | 15 → countries used their jazz to fight the United States and the West. The degree of instrumentalisation of jazz musicians themselves varied on both sides.4

It is far too simple to speak of “the West” and “the East” as two monolithic units. For the Eastern Bloc, there will be a distinction made between several countries, with a particular focus on the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Additionally, it is important to define the lines of conflict. Under the “great” political East-West (i.e. Soviet-American) conflict, there is a more culturally motivated hidden opposition between the United States and the Soviet Union as well as an opposition against Europe. American and Soviet propagandists competed in their fight to conquer the fortress of traditional European high culture. Both used jazz in this battle. Therefore, examining jazz contacts allows for the questioning of the common strict bipolar model often used as the main description for the Cold War era.

Recent research questions the common idea of the automatically “subversive” nature of jazz. The reception of Conover’s broadcasts poses the question of whether jazz and jazz listening had stabilising functions, and whether it was a kind of valve helping people to cope better with socialist reality. Detailed analyses of listeners’ behaviour may clarify this issue.

East Central Europe and the Soviet Union formed only one theatre of the Cold War. This war was a global conflict which also took place in Africa,5 Asia and South America. Conover and the American government focused on the European theatre, and reciprocal Eastern Bloc activities were focused on the United States. A comparison of Conover’s reactions to listeners’ mail from Africa and from various Eastern Bloc countries demonstrates that there was a clear hierarchy of importance. It is also the task of this paper to contribute to a history of cultural hierarchies. ← 15 | 16 →


In order to verify these postulates, I have chosen several approaches. Firstly, I intend to analyse the role Conover and his broadcast had for the Eastern Bloc listener. I will do this by presenting several typical examples of listening situations with the aim of coming to a typology of listeners.

Conover did not only broadcast; he also travelled to his listeners. His travel destinations are quite telling. Although his broadcasts were transmitted worldwide, Conover focused on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. He did not travel to any sub-Saharan African countries despite the fact that he had a large number of listeners from countries such as Nigeria and Mali. This fact already shows that his travels had a political function within American Cold War politics.6 The trips examined in the second part of this work are his first trips into the Eastern Bloc: his trip to Poland in 1959, his presence at the Jazzfestival in Tallinn (then in the Soviet Union, today in Estonia), and his trip to Leningrad (now St Petersburg, Russia). Other trips to Eastern Bloc countries not examined here include his trips to the Prague Jazz Days and Debrecen Jazz Days as well as various trips to Yugoslavia. His trips to Turkey and India also had the aim of having an effect on Eastern Bloc listeners. Since the opening of American and former Soviet Union archives, we have documents from both sides: from the American government, who sent Conover, and the Soviet government, who dealt with him. Additionally, in my research I gained access to sources from local jazz fans who met Conover as well as to his own description of these events in his unpublished autobiography.

Thirdly, I demonstrate in specific case studies the misunderstandings between “East” and “West”, describing them as a logical consequence of the different cultural contexts jazz was placed in, showing the limits and shifts of meaning of cultural transfer in general. It is important to stress that jazz fulfilled its role not despite these shifts in meaning, but because of them. Fourthly, the official policies on jazz and jazz broadcasting, and the history of Conover’s broadcasts and of the special broadcasts for some Eastern Bloc ← 16 | 17 → countries such as Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, are examples of the existence of many unexpected similarities in the propagandistic activity between “East” and “West”.

Preliminary findings – a listener’s typology

Generally speaking, in the Eastern Bloc we can distinguish between the following groups of listeners: young intellectuals (opposed to their parents and the establishment), dissidents (political opposition), professional musicians with classical education (musical and aesthetic discovery) and sons of nomenklatura members (especially in the Soviet Union). Listening to jazz was definitely not a lower-class phenomenon, and listeners were dispersed over all countries. The audience had a typically decentralised structure: beyond listeners in Moscow and Leningrad there were many listeners in towns such as Novosibirsk and Archangelsk. This was similar to other Eastern Bloc countries, where the main concentrations of listeners were not always in the capitals.

When Conover started his Music USA broadcasts in 1955,7 the post-Stalinist thaw was only just beginning. For Eastern Bloc inhabitants switching on the radio, listening to American jazz through this medium at that time was something extraordinary. Listeners’ recollections from that time show the great emotions which Conover’s broadcasts evoked. In these early times, three groups of Music USA listeners can be distinguished: firstly, there were professional musicians who had either been jazz musicians or had played classical music; secondly, there were members of the widespread youth culture movements in Eastern Bloc countries, such as stiliagi8 in the Soviet Union, bikiniarze9 in Poland, and potapky in Czechoslovakia;10 and ← 17 | 18 → thirdly, there were “ordinary” listeners attracted by anything promising to be new and oriented towards the future. In its first decade, the reception of Conover’s broadcasts was its peak. Listening to Conover was a widespread phenomenon which formed a decisive element in the cultural memory of a whole generation;11 it was a phenomenon not yet limited to a certain social group.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (September)
Cold War European Jazz Multiculturalism
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2016. 310 pp., 6 ill., 4 tables, 9 graphs

Biographical notes

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

Yvetta Kajanová is a Professor of Musicology at Comenius University in Bratislava (Slovakia). 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.


Title: Jazz from Socialist Realism to Postmodernism
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310 pages