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The Palast Orchester performs 1920s German jazz music once banned by the Nazis


In the 1920s and 30s, jazz was taking off in the United States and much of Europe, including Germany. Classical composers even began to meld jazz styles into their music.


SIMON: But then the Nazis came to power in 1933. They banned jazz and swing as part of what they called degenerate culture, composed by Jews and Black musicians. For almost four decades now, the Palast Orchester in Germany has performed songs from what's often called Germany's Golden '20s.


MAX RAABE: (Singing in German).

SIMON: Max Raabe is a German jazz singer and leader of the Palast Orchester and joins us now from Germany. Thank you so much for being with us.

RAABE: Thank you for the invitation.

SIMON: What spoke to you about this music?

RAABE: When I was a child, my father had a record collection. And there was one gramophone record in this collection, and the song was - nobody was singing - the title was "I'm Crazy About Hilda." But the orchestra was so funny and so fast. And in a way, there was a melancholy background, the way the trumpet were playing and the saxophones, a special style. I was touched by the music.

SIMON: Let's listen to one of your selections here, if we could, "You're The Cream In My Coffee."


RAABE: (Singing) You're the cream in my coffee. You're the salt in my stew. You will always be my necessity. I'd be lost without you.

SIMON: Well, that's got zip (laughter).

RAABE: Yeah, yeah. It's a very fast interpretation. Maybe it's from a live concert. When we do it as an encore, we're crazy and fast. (Laughter).

SIMON: Yeah. You're currently on tour and will be coming to the U.S. in March. And you're going to be playing some Irving Berlin, some Cole Porter and German music of the '20s and '30s. What do you think there is about this music that that still has a hold on people really a hundred years after it came out?

RAABE: Yeah, it's strange, but, you know, if you play an instrumental phrase or a sentimental phrase, the people are touched. And if you sing a funny word or funny line, the people are laughing in the same time. It's still working. The music is timeless.


RAABE: Whenever we are in the United States, for nearly over 20 years now, we play the American songs, of course, but the way we played it, maybe a song like "Singing In The Rain," we played like the band was playing in 1929. By the way, when we came the first time to Los Angeles, it was by an invitation of the widow of Walter Jurmann. He was very successful in Berlin in the time of the Weimar Republic, wrote songs like "My Gorilla Has A Villa In The Zoo" or "You're Not The First One, Maybe You Could Be The Last." So as a Jewish person, he was able to leave Berlin immediately when the Nazis came to power. And later, he was absolutely successful in America. He wrote songs - for example, "San Francisco." (Singing) San Francisco, open your Golden Gate.

SIMON: (Singing) Open your Golden Gate. You'll let no stranger wait. Yeah.

RAABE: Exactly. Yeah. All these Groucho Marx films are with the music of Walter Jurmann.

SIMON: Many of the composers, musicians, performers, as you note, had either fleed (ph), or they died tragically, outrageously because they were Jews.

RAABE: Yeah. It was a horrible period in in German history. It's a shame. But the music is still alive. And whenever I'm on stage and have my announcements, I always mention the name of the composers - that they don't have to be forgotten.

SIMON: Well, let me ask you about one of the composers whose name is still very familiar these days. And that's Kurt Weill...

RAABE: Of course. Yeah.

SIMON: ...Who came to the United States in 1933. In fact, let's play a little from a song a lot of Americans may be less familiar with, although it's called "Alabama Song."


KURT WEILL: (Singing) Oh, moon of Alabama. We now must say goodbye. We've lost our good old mama and must have whiskey. Oh, you know why.

SIMON: What's the story of this song? It was written for "Mahagonny," wasn't it?

RAABE: Yeah, "The City Of Mahagonny," yes. And, of course, Bertolt Brecht and he - they were working together.

SIMON: I have heard a recording of "Mahagonny." How do we hear it these days? How does it reflect events that were going on then in the '30s?

RAABE: Kurt Weill took very strange harmonies and unusual melodies. And I can't explain it. But when we played, the audience is still touched. And there was a rock band who played this in the '70s.

SIMON: The Doors. The Doors did a version.

RAABE: The Doors. Exactly, yeah.


JIM MORRISON: (Singing) Oh, moon of Alabama. We now must say goodbye.

RAABE: Yeah, the music is still alive, still there.

SIMON: There are people who draw parallels between the rhetoric in the World War II years in Germany and the rise of the Nazi Party and what's going on in the world now...

RAABE: Yeah.

SIMON: ...Right-wing nationalist movements in Europe, hatred on display in the United States. I wonder if there's something you would like people to hear in this music now.

RAABE: That was a dangerous time when they created, but you won't find it in the lyrics of the songs. They speak about love and personal relationship. The music want to entertain the people and to make them forget what - outside of the concert hall or the dance hall.

SIMON: Max, what do you enjoy about singing this music now?

RAABE: We travel a lot. And, of course, the train is not on time. That plane is - didn't start. I will lose our baggage or whatever. But when we start with the concert at 8 o'clock, the world is wonderful. And we make the people forgot what's going on in the world. And I forget it in a way, too.

SIMON: Max Raabe. Max and the Palast Orchester will tour the U.S. in this month of March. Max, thank you so much for being with us.

RAABE: Thank you for the invitation. Was a pleasure.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.