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Eddie Rosner Revival : The First Authentic Ghost Band In Russia

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 7 March 2002 - Born Adolph and also known as Adi, Eddy and the "White Louis Armstrong," Eddie Rosner was acclaimed first in Berlin and then in Warsaw before being chased out by the Nazis. "It didn't help being a Jew playing Negro music," he said: "Even if your name was Adolph." He fled to the USSR, where he became a star, a convict, and eventually a deserter. An Eddie Rosner revival is underway.

A memorial concert on December 14th at Moscow's prestigious Tchaikowsky Hall was described (on the telephone from the Russian capital) by its producer Alexey Batashev as a, "glittering event. The legendary Eddie Rosner Jazz Orchestra triumphantly played his famous hits of '30s and '40s. All the Rosner legacy was scattered and exterminated. His name was forbidden twice in Soviet Union. Even now, it is still concealed, slurred over, veiled, hushed-up. No scores nowhere could be found. We had them transcribed from old 78s. This is first authentic ghost-band in Russia, like Glenn Miller and Count Basie."

Entrepreneur, historian, broadcast media host and founder of the Moscow Jazz Club, Batashev started the Rosner revival in the early '90s when he dedicated a festival in Kazakhstan to the trumpeter's wife, who had been exiled there under Stalin. It was followed by tributes in Moscow, and on Radio Free Europe, and last year Pierre-Henri Salfati's documentary film, "A Jazzman From The Gulag," won awards on the festival circuit. Rosner was born in Berlin in 1910 and was a teenaged classical trumpet virtuoso before joining the successful German hot-jazz band Weintraub's Syncopators in 1930. His rare talent was quickly rewarded. When the Nazis took power, he was touring Western Europe with his own band. After his application for a Belgian residence permit was turned down, he moved to Krakow and then Warsaw. Between 1933-1939 his 13-piece Polish swing band, described in Salfati's documentary as "wildly popular," was held over for lengthy engagements in nightclubs like Gold and Peterburgski. They concertized in Monte Carlo, Benelux and Scandinavia, and shared a bill with Maurice Chevalier at the ABC Theater in Paris. He opened his own club Chez Adi in Lodz.

Rosner hired the best players and arrangers available. It was a swinging band and he was taken seriously as an improviser. Physically, he resembled a Continental version of Xavier Cugat and wore a matinee-idol pencil moustache like his hero Harry James. He corresponded at length with Gene Krupa. It was said that he learned to speak English like a New York taxi driver. American musicians he had met invited him over but he thought his future lay in Europe. Touring Italy in 1934, his band crossed Louis Armstrong's, and there was a trumpet "cutting contest." (Armstrong won.) Afterwards they exchanged publicity photos dedicated, in turn, to the "White Louis Armstrong" and the "Black Eddie Rosner."

When the Germans occupied Poland, he fled once more. He and his young Polish wife, singer Ruth Kaminska, escaped first to Soviet-occupied Byalistock and then Lvov. The orchestra he formed this time was heard and admired by Pantelomon Panomorenko, First Secretary of the Belarusyian Communist Party, a jazz fan. In his excellent book Red Hot - The Fate of Jazz In The Soviet Union, S. Frederick Starr explains what happened next: "Arriving with his bodyguards at Rosner's dressing room after a performance in Minsk, [Panomorenko] proposed that the newly arrived band be named the State Jazz Orchestra of the Belarusyian Republic."

The trumpeter was named "Honored Artist" of that Republic (now Belarus). After his band gave a command performance in what appeared to be an empty theater, Rosner's manager received a message that Stalin, who had been in the balcony, liked it. During World War II, "Stalin's band" (led by a German Jew, remember) toured the Soviet Union from Armenia to Siberia in their own railroad sleeping car to play for the armed forces and party apparatchiks. From time to time they rode flatbed trucks and tanks to the front lines. Rosner earned as much as 100,000 rubles a year (an average worker earned about 2,000.) The Rosners were given the use of a four-room apartment furnished with Afghan carpets and a grand piano opposite the Kremlin.

According to Frederick Starr: "It is doubtful that any jazz musician on earth has ever been recompensed more generously within his society than Eddie Rosner in the Soviet Union during wartime." His band played standards like "On The Sentimental Side" and "Midnight in Harlem." Two men in a camel-costume would cross the stage during Juan Tizol's "Caravan." Rosner was a survivor in more ways than one.

Then the wind changed and it all disappeared. After the war, he was arrested for peddling decadent, depraved capitalist music and sent to Siberia. The camp commander, a fan ever since hearing an exceptional Rosner concert in Omsk, allowed him to form an inmate band. Rosner recouped some of his veteran sidemen and taught other prisoners how to play jazz. Sometimes they made their own instruments. His new orchestra was on the road performing for guards and officials at camps throughout the Gulag until he was freed in 1954, after Stalin died.

In Moscow, he built a 64 piece ensemble which became one of the most popular variety acts in the USSR. But the joy had gone out of it, one setback followed another. He was increasingly unhappy, bitter and frustrated. His name dropped into a second Soviet memory-hole when he decided to return home to Berlin, where he died poor and forgotten in 1976.

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. Zwerin is currently writing a book called The Parisian Jazz Chronicles : An Improvisational Memoir, for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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