The Swiss Times - Swiss News in English

When jazz was still pop culture in Switzerland

On 328 pages, the Bernese author Samuel Mumenthaler traces the time when jazz was still pop culture in Switzerland. The book "Hot! Jazz als frühe Popkultur" sheds light on how the musical style got Switzerland dancing for around 40 years.

"Today, jazz is definitely no longer pop - but you can find traces of it in hip-hop and other contemporary music styles," says Samuel Mumenthaler in an interview with the Keystone-SDA news agency. Things were very different around 100 years ago. Jazz came to Switzerland after the First World War, initially to the health resorts. "As a tourist destination, Switzerland had to give its guests what they wanted," said Mumenthaler. Jazz became the dance and entertainment music of the moment. The bands switched to classical music, for example, which was less in demand.

At the same time, technology made the distribution of music much easier. Radios found their way into Swiss homes and, over time, records became more affordable. Suddenly, music was a part of life. Musicians were no longer needed on site. "Technological progress was important for the spread of jazz," says Mumenthaler. The new music spilled over from the health resorts into the cities. Jazz was in demand in the new clubs.

Jazz spills into the cities

"In the health resorts, the scene was international; in the cities, it was more students who paid homage to jazz," says Mumenthaler. Against this backdrop, a youth movement that defined itself through music emerged for the first time in Switzerland. It was precisely in the wake of swing, a very danceable variety of jazz, that youth culture continued to develop until it reached its peak in the 1940s. "I was fascinated by the passion of the fans: How they lived the music and fashion - and virtually adapted the American way of life," explains Mumenthaler.

In the early years, music was heavily influenced by foreign countries, as Mumenthaler writes in his book. The bands played from sheet music and sometimes struggled to understand the new music. Many things were new, such as the fact that drums were practically compulsory. In the book, Mumenthaler describes how a formation led by Ernest Berner built a drum kit in 1923: "[...] a strange construction made from an oversized regimental bass drum, a Basel drum as a 'snare' substitute, a prototype hi-hat operated with the foot and all kinds of cinellas as well as brass and rattle utensils."

The bands are getting smaller

Mumenthaler worked on the book project for around five years. Many of the artists - as the author says, it was a male-dominated scene - are forgotten today. Musicians such as the Bernese Teddy Stauffer and Hazy Osterwald were included in the book. In the context of the Second World War and the spiritual defense of the country, dialect hits developed out of jazz. During the war, musical influence from abroad was limited. After the war, jazz became even more than before the "soundtrack of globalization", as Mumenthaler puts it.

The research for the book was not easy for Mumenthaler. Most of the contemporary witnesses have passed away. Some of the magazines about the early scene were not archived at all and have been forgotten. Mumenthaler's research took him all the way to the USA. The pop culture chronicler found several issues of "Jazz", a Bernese music magazine, at the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies in New York. The magazine was published from 1932 to 1939 and could no longer be found in Switzerland.

Rock'n'roll replaces jazz

"I think it's important to describe history from the perspective of the time when it was still present," says Mumenthaler. The author also found French magazines that took a look at Switzerland. Towards the end of the 1950s, things had slowly but surely "jazzed up" among the young people. Rock'n'roll arrived - and became the new rage. Stars like the musician Elvis Presley inspired young people.

Today, jazz is in a good position: "Jazz is no longer the echo of our time, but it has developed steadily as a musical style and is established in Switzerland - also thanks to the many festivals," says Mumenthaler. And for around 40 years, jazz, swing and all other related styles have made Switzerland dance.


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