For years now the Internet has been rife with statements, rumours, supposed “facts”, and half-truths about what the German Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei’s (Nazi party’s) view on the saxophone was. The majority of things I’ve read indicate that the saxophone was banned in Nazi Germany, yet the Swastika-engraved saxophones produced in Germany, by German saxophone manufacturers, for German military bands would suggest that at least some form of saxophone playing was allowed and/or tolerated.
Zer vill be no sax playing here… Unless it does not sving
A couple of weeks ago I happened across an article in the October 7, 1933 edition of The Milwaukee Journal, which would indicate that the Nazi party was OK with the saxophone.
OK, so someone got a key element of the story wrong. Adolphe Sax was not German, but in fact Belgian. Nonetheless, this article made me very curious, and I began to do some research to see if I could find something that explained this article in The Milwaukee Journal.
Rather than relying on any Internet sources, I went to a couple of books I have on the history of the saxophone. The first is a title most readers are likely familiar with: The Devil’s Horn, by Michael Segell. Although Segall mentioned the saxophone’s history in 1930s-40s Germany, unfortunately he offered nothing that could explain this 1933 article.
The second book I consulted is titled The Saxophone, and was written by former professional saxophone player, turned Professor of Music at City University of London, Stephen Cottrell. Success!
Cottrell has written quite a lot about Nazi/saxophone relations. Furthermore, being an academic, Cottrell has so many end notes in his book that I could be chasing them down for months to come.
In a nutshell Cottrell explains that:
- Germany became intolerant of jazz after the Nazi party came to power in 1933, because correctly or not, jazz became associated with black musicians.
- By extension therefore, the instrument that symbolized jazz—the saxophone—was also not tolerated anymore.
- Many German sax players stopped playing altogether, and some even sold their horns.
- It wasn’t uncommon for Nazi storm troopers to knock the mouthpieces out of the mouths of sax players playing at dances, and for some SS branches to ban the the use of the saxophone altogether.
- In 1933 German saxophone manufacturers were already starting to feel the economic effects of the Nazi party’s anti-saxophonism. Saxophone sales were slumping, so manufacturers applied to the new government for help.
- And there in lies the rub: This is where government ideology and the economic well-being of companies didn’t coincide, so the Nazi party had to figure out a compromise.
German saxophones get a reprieve
- In September 1933 the following press release was circulated:
‘Rescuing the Honour of the Saxophone’
As a result of the petition of May 10, 1933, The Economics Ministry has been in contact with the Reich Administration in order to avoid a boycott of the saxophone, which could result from the ban on so-called Negro music. The Reichs Ministry for Education and Propaganda answered that the saxophone bears no responsibility for Negro music. It is an invention of Adolf Sax, born November 6, 1814, and is mainly used in military music […]. As with all other instruments, one can play good music with the saxophone. A ban on Negro music is no obstacle to continued use of the saxophone. A pertinent newspaper notice to this effect will be released.
Source: The Saxophone, Stephen Cottrell p. 324
It is worth noting how the press release spelled “Adolph”, this was not a typo. It was quite deliberate.
It should also be noted that the above quote was originally in German, and was translated into English as part of a 2004 dissertation about the saxophone in Germany.
The “pertinent newspaper notice” mentioned in the above quote from September 1933, must be what the October 7, 1933, Milwaukee Journal article is based on. It would be interesting to see if I could find the original German press release. I have not yet tried to check any German newspaper archives.
Given my interest in vintage German saxophones, I find this era of their existence quite fascinating. It would be easy to slap a simple, they were banned—as was swing/jazz music—label on that period of saxophones in Germany. On the other hand, that vintage G.H. Hüller, C.A. Wunderlich, et al. saxophone that you have in your closet, or that you play everyday, might just have had a very interesting past.