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How Jazz Saved Nicolas Dor's Life

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 23 October 2000 - One evening during the Autumn of 1941, Nicolas Dor was listening to Lester Young records in a bar in Liege. It was owned by three sisters, who also ran the bordello upstairs. One of them whispered in Dor's ear: "Those two German officers over there want to talk to you."

Dor did not want to talk to them. "I don't speak German," he said.

"They speak English," she replied, pleadingly.

He was a regular. She was a friend. Neither of them wanted trouble. The madame introduced them: "This is the drummer I told you about."

Dor was leading a combo modeled after John Kirby, his idol. They played benefits for Belgian prisoners of war - "Every Tub" by Count Basie, "920 Special" and pieces like that. Radio Brussels's program from 7-9 a.m., which had an enormous audience of people on their way to work, featured a jazz band. Jazz musicians played in clubs all night until the curfew ended at 6 a.m., after which they went to hang out at the radio station. And there were plenty of places to play during lunch. It has been said that World War II was the golden age of Belgian jazz.

"We understand you have some Jimmie Lunceford records," one of the Germans said, trying a bit too hard to be friendly. "We'd like to listen to them sometimes. We're trumpet players." They said they had worked with Jack Hylton, a famous English bandleader influenced by Paul Whiteman, before the war.

Though they might be brothers under the uniforms, the connotation was unmistakable. It was an order one way or another. And who could be sure they were what they said they were? Dor gave them his address reluctantly.

Three days later he was dining with his parents when the doorbell rang. His mother went to the window and exclaimed: "German officers!"

Dor peeked through the curtain. It's all right," he reassured her: "They are friends of mine." He suspected that his mother suspected him of collaborating, until, over a cup of coffee, one of the officers said to her: "If you have any trouble about your son being sent to Germany, call me." Impressed laborers were leaving every day. He wrote down his phone number for her.

Dor and the Germans went to his room and listened to "Americano nigger kike jungle music" for hours.


The quote is from Joseph Goebbels, who had banned jazz along with fox trots and the tango. Although repulsed by the "terrible squawk" of jazz, he soon realized that swing between the political harangues held listeners. And eventually there were some German swing bands. The extent of the ban and the definition of the music had both been vague anyway. Nobody has ever really succeeded in defining jazz, which is one reason I love it so much.

Until just before the Battle of the Bulge, the Stan Branders big band played music by American Jewish and black composers over Radio Brussels without hiding the names. "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise' by Sigmund Romberg," Branders would announce. Or "J'ai Du Rhythme' by George Gershwin." "Duke's Idea' by Charlie Barnet." If this music was indeed illegal, nobody seemed to be enforcing the law.

So it was not clear whether Dor and the Germans were breaking a law. He looked carefully up and down the street before showing them out.

Two months later he received the order to report for a physical examination. He called the German, who came, took notes, and said: "Go, but tell them you already received the same order."

"This is the second time I've had to come here with a piece of paper like this," Dor told the clerk, who signaled to his supervising officer. They scratched their heads checking the file. The clerk pulled out a document: "You never received a copy of this?"

Dor tried to remain calm. It was an official exemption, slipped into the file by a German trumpet player, citing a non-existing tubercular condition. "No," he said. "Never."

Annoyed by a breakdown in Aryan efficiency, the supervisor stamped it and Dor spent the rest of the war playing John Kirby tunes.

Forty years later, a producer for Belgian French-language television, he smiled in the bright Broadcasting House canteen and said: "So you see? Jazz saved my life."


This was a second chapter from Mike Zwerin's Swing under the Nazis: Jazz as a metaphor for freedom, published in soft-cover on 1 October 2000 by Cooper Square Press in New York and available from Amazon.com, BN.com and quality booksellers everywhere.


Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.

Back to Chapter 1 of Swing under the Nazis: Jazz as a metaphor for freedom

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