Fantasia for Ensemble: Reflections on Tomas Böhm’s novel, “The Vienna Jazz Trio” (Pitchstone Publishing, 2010)


vienna jazz trio_boehm_coverThe novel under review unfolds as an elderly Austrian Jew, Nathan Menzel, narrates the memories of his early adulthood in the Vienna, London, and New York of the 1930’s and 40’s to a young music journalist.  In my commentary, I wish to highlight some of the ways in which the book, which was translated from the original Swedish in 2010, addresses questions about assimilation and identity.  Above all, I wish to interrogate the idea of jazz music’s utopian potential that the narrative seems to imply.

The rabbi presiding at  Nathan’s wedding  is gladdened by the presence there of so many Jewish men and women who, according to the rabbi, “have forgotten that they are Jews.”[1]  Nathan could justly be counted among these cultural or religious amnesiacs.  Of his parents, the narrator tells us that, in 1933, “they were actually much more Austrian than anything else…they were Jews, too, but that felt like a bit of cultural colour from the past” (100).  More central to the identity of Nathan and his various friends and family, is their commitment to socialism and to the arts.  One of the novel’s trajectories is the fate of assimilation in the face of a National Socialist ideology that forcibly reminds families like the Menzels of their Jewishness.  For them, Vienna in particular represents elegance and culture, and some in their community do not recognize the growing anti-Semitic violence in their city as anything more than an aberration from this ideal image until it is too late.  If Nathan is more Austrian than Jewish in his childhood and early adulthood (he is born in 1900), by the time he returns to Vienna in search of the remains of his family in 1945, he has undergone a transformation.  Having escaped to England in 1938, thanks to the ministrations of Ernest Jones (translator, biographer, and disciple of Freud, whose emigration he also facilitated, and who, in the novel, is Nathan’s erstwhile analyst), he regards himself in May 1945 as a “Jew from Austria.  Not an Austrian” (180).

But what could Jewishness mean for Nathan at this point in the book?  Some markers of difference: a name, some physical characteristics about which he is self-conscious, a vague connection to a cloudy cultural past.  Not a religious faith, to be sure.  The murder of his wife and others close to him has confirmed him in his atheism.  More than anything else, strangely enough, jazz music seems to become what mediates, by way of a curious mythology, Nathan’s Jewishness to himself.  When Gerhard Rosenblum, perhaps the most important influence on Nathan’s life, and a complicated one, introduces Nathan to jazz, he points out the parallels between the history of Africans in America and that of Jews in Europe.  Both are histories of racism, violent persecution, and migration, and of a creativity that thrives despite oppressive conditions.  The Great Migration of African-Americans from the Jim Crow south to cities like Chicago and Kansas City brought a form of music that developed in Louisiana to a comparatively less racist region of the country.  Gerhard emphasizes the extensive involvement of Jewish musicians in the development of jazz that coincided with this mass movement of former slaves, their children, and grandchildren.  Beyond this sociological fact, there are the purely musical resonances between Klezmer music and some strands of traditional jazz.  Nathan and Gerhard admire the Klezmer band performing at the wedding mentioned above, only to discover that Benny Goodman, the jazz clarinetist, is in fact related to these Galician musicians.  In Chicago, Goodman developed his signature sound under the tutelage of some of the great African-American traditional jazz clarinetists from the south, such as Johnny Dodds.  Nathan’s Jewishness will eventually come to mirror that of Benny Goodman, of a Klezmer sensibility that takes on a new life in a different form on the big band stage, and of an attitude of social openness and solidarity.

For Gerhard, the involvement of Jewish musicians in the world of jazz is far from accidental: it attests to the underground links and sympathies between two communities that have suffered discrimination to the point that migration would be necessary.  He likens the movement of African-Americans north to the movement of European Jews west, from eastern regions such as Galicia to quarters like Leopoldstadt in Vienna (e.g., 25, 53).  Throughout the book, jazz constitutes an obsession for him, jazz lore as much as the music itself, and he hopes to help the art form take root in Austria.  In Nathan, Gerhard finds an eager convert.  Dissatisfied with his conservative conservatory education in classical piano, in the tradition of the “old masters,” Nathan experiences the possibilities of improvising in the manner of the American jazz musicians of the day as a kind of personal liberation.  Together with writing what will become a very popular anti-Nazi column for the newspaper of Social Democrats (SPÖ), Arbeiterzeitung, in becoming a jazz pianist Nathan begins to discover means for resisting a variety of Viennese cultural and political constraints.

But Vienna in 1930 is not ready for jazz, as is evidenced by the scandalized reaction of the audience when the group that Nathan forms with Gerhard and their friend Peter Gross (the eponymous “Vienna Jazz Trio”) makes a surprise performance at a Jubilee conservatory recital at the Musikverein.  Exacerbating what is, to the anti-Semites in attendance, the scandal of the Jewish musician performing in the temple of Viennese musical culture, is the scandal of the Jewish performer playing “primitive Negro music” (42) in such an august concert space.  In one and the same stroke, it would seem, both the hope of a future for assimilation and the hope for Austrian jazz are disappointed. Gerhard’s initial analogy between the situation of Austrian Jews and the situation of African Americans breaks down, for Vienna can no longer serve as the site of tolerance and culture, and the trio members must move west, first to England and later to New York City.

The late author of this novel was a Swedish psychoanalyst, the son of Austrian Jews who also emigrated in 1938.  He was known, both within the psychoanalytic community and within a broader reading public, for his work on the desire for revenge, and that scholarly interest surfaces toward the end of the novel, when Nathan and his brother have the opportunity to confront, by different means, in California, the men who killed Nathan’s wife.   Böhm’s familiarity with psychoanalysis also seems to have influenced the construction of the narrative’s milieu: Nathan was once an analysand of Freud, while Gerhard was in analysis with Wilhelm Reich, whose madness they later witness at Orgonon in Maine.  But the passages descriptive of analytic sessions are notably flat in comparison with the author’s sparkling accounts of the various musical performances (Böhm was, like Nathan, an amateur jazz pianist).  Such accounts become more frequent as the band moves westward, there to brush shoulders with many of the jazz world’s biggest names: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, and above all, Coleman Hawkins, who helps the group and its individual members rise to a small measure of fame in that world.

As the narrative moves in this direction, it becomes clear that jazz is, for the author, a kind of utopia, just as it is a fantasy for his protagonist, Nathan, during his Vienna days: “he daydreamed to escape the fear [of the Nazi threat]. Jazz was like a big daydream about musicians on the other side of the globe, oppressed black people, the descendants of slaves and oppressed workers” (41).  Jazz is utopian in two primary respects: firstly, jazz improvisation invites a spontaneity and freedom of expression, a casting-off of inhibitions that strict adherence to tradition reinforces; secondly, the collaborative form of the music itself, taken together with the social solidarity between members of persecuted groups, shapes an idea of community based on openness and respect.  The American (and Swedish) jazz musicians that the Viennese musicians encounter on their path away from Austria are consistently friendly, helpful, and open, supportive of them and of their efforts.  Many of them tend to drink to excess, but they are never shown intoxicated, or out of control, or angry about anything, and for the most part, Böhm depicts them as figures of pure goodness, as gods among men, both musically and morally.  They are the counterpoint to the Austrian monsters of persecution at whose hands Nathan and Gerhard’s wives perished.  The result is an inspiring, humanistic picture of life among other human beings, a reprieve from life under threat in the Austria of the late 1930’s, but like many utopias the portrayal of this community depends upon an absence of realism, an absence, here, of all tension, of any artistic disagreements or personal differences.  An absence, too, of any traces of this disparity in historical experiences that Cynthia Ozick pithily formulated decades ago: “America felt simultaneously as Jewish Eden and black inferno.”[2]  The originality of Böhm’s utopia is to make the “Jewish Eden” mediated by African-American culture alone, but this mediation comes at the cost of any real exchange or meaningful interaction between the refugees from Austria and the descendants of African slaves.

–Joseph Ballan

[1] The Vienna Jazz Trio, trans. Rod Bradbury (Charlottesville, VA: Pitchstone Publishing, 2010 [2000]), p. 72.  All subsequent citations appear parenthetically in text.

[2] “Literary Blacks and Jews,” Art and Ardor: Essays (New York: Knopf, 1983), p. 95.


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