Nein, Nyet, No: a brief history of jazz, rock & roll, race and repression

Mitch Mitchell takes a look at the music that made racists and rulers come out in hives.


Jazz was the first popular music to sweep the world. The first jazz record was made in 1916 and that opened the floodgates. And Germany caught the bug too. Fledgling German radio stations turned musicians like Louis Armstrong, Red Nichols and Paul Whiteman into household names.

Whiteman and his band went to Berlin in 1926 to an ecstatic reception. But not everyone was so keen. The antisemitic Freikorps joined forces with Hitler’s National Socialists to rail against the music.

It’s probably no surprise to anyone that Hitler himself disliked jazz – he hated modernism in all forms, be it art or architecture or music. As early as 1920 he had inserted into a party booklet a threat to outlaw such degenerate influences in Germany.

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But the Nazis realised that jazz was popular, and so, in order to diffuse criticism, they began to draw distinctions between what they termed “Nigger-Jew Jazz” and “German Jazz”.

Records by Armstrong, Duke Ellington and others were publicly smashed. Meanwhile German music critics were warning of “lustful dancing” by “negroes” and how the music undermined the “high moral values” of the Reich.

After 1937 American musicians were simply refused entry into Germany. These attitudes meant Germans generally missed the rise of the swing era. By the time war broke out, German jazz was a little more than an ersatz version of the American music of the 1920s.

Things weren’t much better in Stalin’s USSR. Jazz music was banned as an attempt by US imperialists to undermine Russian youth. Classical Russian composers were promoted instead.

This criticism hardened in the 1950s with the advent of rock & roll. But as in Nazi Germany, the authorities could not completely suppress a burgeoning underground scene. So party leaders, with much reluctance, began to allow limited rock & roll releases by Soviet artists.

Jungle rhythms and Communist plots

But rock & roll was also coming in for a bashing in the West. Racists railed against its “jungle rhythms” in the southern states of the US. Right wing activists dished out leaflets to parents at the school gates, warning them of the dangers of letting young people to listen to this noise.

Rock was a Communist plot, they declared, invented by the Russians as a means of turning American youth away from the church. The rhythms would induce a zombie-like state in them and, perhaps more troubling, it would encourage race mixing.

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Alan Freed was a disc jockey who popularised the phrase “rock and roll” to refer to the style of music music (it had originally been jive talk for sex). He made a point of playing original versions of songs by black artists, rather than the typically inferior white cover versions.

Freed found himself on the FBI’s watchlist for his pains – especially when he arranged live concerts where he insisted on mixed audiences and mixed acts. He was pilloried by the establishment and eventually accused of taking payments to plug records on air (which although dubious was not actually a crime). Freed died in 1965, ill, penniless and virtually friendless, despite having started the careers of many well known acts.

Bill Haley recorded the genre’s best known track, “Rock Around The Clock”. He refused to play any segregated venues and received many death threats as a result. This wasn’t mere gesture politics – Haley lost a lot of money over his stance.

A right royal rip-off

Racism and exploitation of black artists was rife across the US music industry. There are countless stories of artists being screwed over in royalty disputes. Ruth Brown, hugely popular in the 1950s, had to sue Atlantic records for money owed. Thankfully she eventually won her case.

I once had a long chat with Bo Diddley outside the Marquee Club in 1964. His view was that Elvis Presley was a racist because he declined to use his exalted position to help black artists and instead went along with the status quo. I later discovered that Bo had just concluded a phone conversation with label boss Phil Chess over royalties and was on a downer about the white controlled music business in the States.

Artists’ managers, agents and others would jostle get credited as composers in order to skim off royalties which, for radio and TV plays, could be quite substantial.

A classic example of this was Chuck Berry’s first record “Maybellene”. The composers were listed as Berry, Freed (the aforementioned DJ) and Russ Fratto – who was the landlord of the building where Chess records had their studio. That connection was the closest Fratto had ever come to making music.

Worse was the case of “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?”. Written by Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, the recording artists, it was published with a composer credit to “Levy”. This referred to Maurice Levy, the label owner, who had mob connections. Although he employed black artists on his labels (Gee and Roulette) he frequently disparaged them as “uneducated schmucks” and “schwartzers”.

When questioned he said this was a printer’s error which would be corrected. It never was. The song went on to sell a million and was covered many times. Diana Ross cut a version in the 1970s that sold vast numbers.

Lymon died in 1965 and other bandmates passed in the 1970s and 1980s. But surviving members plus relatives of those who had died sued Levy – and eventually won repayment of royalties in 1992. Levy was convicted of tax evasion and died in prison.

A thorn in the side of our rulers

Attitudes in Britain were slightly more benign. There was a patronising “this is a childish fad that will pass” attitude in some quarters, especially the BBC. Tory MPs made speeches about British youth being led astray. Schools too did their best to persuade pupils that rock & roll was noisy nonsense.

These lines were also heard in the US. Mitch Miller, who was A&R manager at Columbia, once described rock & roll as “a passing thing which will last about three months and then real music will return”. Frank Sinatra called it a cacophony for uneducated idiots.

But popular music continued to be a thorn in the side of repressive regimes. Víctor Jara, the Chilean folk singer sometimes known as “the Latin Dylan”, was murdered by the vile Pinochet regime. Mercedes Sosa, an Argentine singer, was arrested in 1978 – along with most of her audience. She survived but was exiled from the country.

I’ll close with her comment at, which I think sums things up nicely: “An artist isn’t political in the party political sense. They have a constituency which is their public. It is the poetry which matters most of all.”

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