Berlin – Sounds of an Era 1920-1950

By Marko Paysan
 (Ear Books, hardback, English and German text, plus three CDs)

Reviewed by John Watson

berlin-book“In Germany the band’s job is to provide the entertainment through their music, but in London the bands are pushed into a corner, made secondary to over-boosted and often overpaid floor shows, and generally made to feel just about as important as the drinking water placed on the dining tables.”

The indignant comment came from the UK’s premier dance band leader, Henry Hall, for Hall and his musicians revelled in the respect they were accorded when appearing in Berlin in the build-up to World War Two.

At the time, Berlin had perhaps the most vibrant night life outside the USA, and the quote from Hall, in an interview with the UK magazine Rhythm, appeared under the headline ‘I Played In Nazi Germany’.

The American singer Josephine Baker was also impressed by her experiences performing in Berlin: “The city had a jewel-like sparkle, especially at night, that didn’t exist in Paris. The vast cafes reminded me of ocean liners powered by the rhythms of their orchestras. There was music everywhere.”

Both these quotations appear in this immaculately researched and beautifully produced 348-page hardback coffee-table book by Paysan, a Berliner himself and distinguished writer on jazz, film music and popular culture. It is extensively illustrated by images of the clubs, cafes, theatres and landmarks of the city, including posters and adverts dating back to 1920.

One of the page spreads from this book

One of the page spreads from this book

Some of the images are poignant, such as a blinded First World War veteran busking in the street; most images illustrate the vibrance of Berlin nightlife, and feature distinguished Berlin dance bands of the time, such as the Oscar Joost Orchestra, and visiting foreign bands including Henry Hall’s. The dark years of the Nazi era are covered in a chapter headed “Crisis, transfiguration and downfall”.

The three CDs are excellently remastered from the original recordings and comprehensively cover the three decades described by the book, with the emphasis on dance bands strongly infuenced by American jazz, and with many lyrics sung in English as well as in German. The liner notes within the book are extensive and substantially detailed. Hall’s orchestra is featured on several tracks, as is the UK band of Jack Hylton.

Paysan has produced a very valuable document in this admirable work, which is priced by the publisher at $60.

ISBN: 978-3-943573-17-6

Categories: Book review

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