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Places, Spaces and Changing FacesEuropean Immigrants
European Immigrants, The impact of America's melting pot Newly arrived immigrants at Ellis Island
Other Changing Faces
European Immigrants

By Dan Morgenstern, Director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University

Audio Feature Professor Gerald Early
On the appeal of jazz to European immigrants
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)


Jazz is the most democratic of music, holding the individual and the collective in delicate balance. Small wonder, then, that it appealed from the start to many of those who had come to America in search of freedom and a safe harbor from persecution and oppression, and to their offspring, who were taught to remember the past. As no less a master than Thelonious Monk — a man of few but well chosen words — once put it: "Jazz and freedom go hand in hand." From that perspective, it makes sense to remind ourselves that what we routinely refer to as "white" musicians are, more often than not, hyphenated Americans, descendants from a panoply of "minorities."

Though the concept of America as a melting pot seems to have gone out of academic fashion in these days of ethnic assertiveness, it fits jazz like a glove. Ken Burns' description of the gestation of jazz as "gumbo," that flavorful New Orleans mixture of all kinds of ingredients, is apt indeed. That great port city was, by the end of the l9th century, a veritable microcosm of ethnic diversity. The inhabitants of New Orleans had come from every corner of the globe. French, Hispanic, Caribbean, Italian, Austro-German, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and diverse Latin American currents merged with the African traditions retained by the recently emancipated blacks and the Creole ("free people of color," self-styled) in the rich musical life of a city where every occasion, civic or social, called for a band or a song.

In the bands of Jack "Papa" Laine (sometimes called "the father of white jazz"), first and second generation Irishmen, Jews, Italians (many of Sicilian stock) and Germans sat or marched side by side. Italian-born trumpeter Frank Guarente was l7 when he arrived in the U.S., and 2l when he settled in New Orleans in l9l4, where he befriended and swapped lessons with the great King Oliver. By the start of the next decade, he'd established himself as one of New York's leading dance-band musicians. By then, Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band (with young Louis Armstrong on board) had gone to Chicago and become magnets for young white musicians — among them Irishmen Eddie Condon and Muggsy Spanier; Scots Dave Tough and Jimmy McPartland, and Jews Bud Freeman and Milton Mesirow (the latter soon to become Mezz Mezzrow). Gene Krupa, like Tough, would become one of the great drummers of the Swing Era. He came from a Polish family who'd hoped he would become a priest — a wish shared by the parents of Dennis Patrick Joseph Terrence O'Sullivan for their son, who instead, as just plain Joe Sullivan, developed one of the strongest left hands ever to touch a piano. He shared that special gift for jazz with his fellow Celt Jess Stacy. Technically less gifted, but with a feeling for the blues matched by few pianists of any color, Art Hodes was brought to America by his Russian-Jewish parents as a babe in arms. At Hull House, where the children of poor immigrants could get free music lessons, he first encountered a younger boy of similar ancestry (though born in the U.S.) named Benjamin David Goodman. Goodman was already a professional musician when, at l7, his father was killed in a traffic accident. For years to come, young Benny was the chief support of his mother and seven siblings. His main influences on the clarinet were all from New Orleans: the Creole Jimmy Noone, the African-American Johnny Dodds, and the Italian-American Leon Roppolo. But Frank Teschemacher, born in Kansas City and of German ancestry, also made of big impression on the future king of swing and clarinet. In those roles, his closest rival was Artie Shaw, just a year younger and born in New York as Arthur Jacob Arshawsky to Russian and Austrian-Jewish parents.

Most of these players came into full view in the l930s, but among the instrumental stars of the pre-swing years were two boyhood friends from Philadelphia, both sons of Italian immigrants, violinist Joe Venuti and guitarist Eddie Lang (born Salvatore Massaro). They often found themselves in studio and working bands side by side with two gifted brothers from an Irish coal miner's family in Pennsylvania, reedman Jimmy and brassman Tommy Dorsey, both to become famous swingband leaders. The flow of immigrants to the U.S. subsided as the l920s moved along (though drummer Buzzy Drootin and his clarinetist brother Al, born in Russia, managed to get in as late as l925), and the majority of musicians associated with the first generation of modern jazz were the offspring of native-born parents. A notable exception: the great trombonist Kai Winding was born in Denmark and came to the U.S. in l934 at age l2. The influx of refugees from Nazi persecution, while of great significance to American art and science, did not have much of a jazz impact, though the co-founders of Blue Note Records, Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, came to us courtesy of Adolf Hitler.

Post-World War II immigration brought to these shores two significant British-born pianists, George Shearing and Marian McPartland. The brilliant Swedish clarinetist Stan Hasselgard was tragically killed in a car crash not long after making a not inconsiderable impression, but his fellow countryman, drummer Bertil Dahlander, was luckier — as Bert Dale, he has divided his long career between the U.S. and Sweden. That country also brought us trumpeter Rolf Ericson (with many big bands). From Austria came Joe Zawinul, and two fine guitarists, Atilla Zoller and Gabor Szabor, managed to get out of Communist Hungary. The brilliant Polish pianist Adam Makowicz has made his home in New York since l977. Czechoslovakia gave us the splendid bassists George Mraz and Miroslav Vitous and the keyboard wizard Jan Hammer. The Frenchman Jean-Luc Ponty brought something new to the violin.

The list grows longer, inevitably, as jazz becomes more and more of an international language. The number of players who've come to the U.S. to study and then test the professional waters during the past few decades is legion, but only the toughest have made the homeland of jazz their permanent base. The native soil, as we have tried to show, has long since been fertilized with seeds from afar, all to the benefit of constant growth. And Monk's wise words still ring true.