My article below featured in the Oxford Times this week:
I first came across the ‘Swing Kids’ aged 16 while studying Nazi Germany for my History GCSE. I was immediately attracted to the glamour of these teenage rebels who defied the Nazis by listening and dancing to banned jazz music. Often from rather wealthy backgrounds, they wore elaborately English clothes, let their hair grow to louche lengths, and – more riskily – boycotted the Hitler Youth movement, which became compulsory during the war. Their ironic motto was ‘Swing Heil!’, accompanied by a V-sign salute, and some even dared to sport a Union Jack lapel pin.
The Nazis had an uncomfortable relationship with jazz music, not least because it enjoyed a huge popular following in 1930s Germany which they couldn’t risk alienating. Many senior Nazis were also great fans of the genre, with Goebbels owning a huge private record collection. But the Afro-American roots of jazz and the fact that many leading musicians were Jewish was problematic in view of Nazi racial theories. An inconsistent policy was the result, with some bland forms of jazz deemed acceptable (Goebbels even set up an official ‘Aryan’ swing band, Charlie and his Orchestra) and others labelled ‘degenerate’. The great dance halls of cities such as Hamburg were closed and many musicians emigrated or were taken to concentration camps. But jazz did not die out: instead, like so many resistance movements, it went underground, literally. I loved the idea of these casually courageous teenagers living a secret nocturnal life in their bunkers and attics. Maybe the Swing Kids were just bolshy teenagers reluctant to bow to authority, like any others. But the Nazi authorities weren’t like any others: a special camp was set up for juveniles at Moringen, where many died.
I re-discovered the Swing Kids when I became a history teacher, currently at Magdalen College School, where I’m Director of Drama. I’ve premiered three original full-length musicals at the school and wanted to try something different with my next piece of writing: a studio piece, with a smaller cast and band. I’m part of a jazz trio, Manouche Etcetera, and it struck me that it would be fun to write a musical which could feature the band as well as some of the most talented recent pupils from MCS. On the recommendation of Roger Griffin, History Professor at Oxford Brookes, I read Different Drummers, Michael Kater’s detailed study of jazz in the Third Reich. I came across such intriguing characters as Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi, one of the very few black people who survived the Nazi regime. As a youth growing up in Hamburg he earned extra money as a jazz saxophonist, and escaped the worst forms of persecution through luck and good sense. Ironically he was desperate to join the Hitler Youth, seduced by the Nazi propaganda, but was refused entry. He later emigrated to the U.S. and became an eminent journalist. Having amassed material, I penned a first draft and tried it out on my cast: they gave it the thumbs up, and we agreed to premiere the show over the summer, after an intensive rehearsal period. The Old Fire Station had a one-day gap in their programme which we snatched up!
This summer also marks the 75th anniversary of the devastation of Hamburg by allied bombing raids: 40,000 died in one night alone due to a vast firestorm. Swing Heil is set during these terrible raids of 1943, and is intended both as a remembrance of those victims of war and a tribute to the bravery of those who defied tyranny. The story follows a group of seven teenagers centred around Max, whose father is away, working in Berlin. They live a decadent life in an air-raid bunker, out of sight of the authorities. But when dangerous anti-Nazi pamphlets and a fugitive American airman appear in their midst they are forced to decide just how far they’re prepared to go to stick up for their freedom.
Swing Heil! premieres on Saturday 18th August (4.30pm/7.30pm) at the Old Fire Station theatre, Oxford https://oldfirestation.org.uk/whats-on/swing-heil/
Read about the show at http://www.swingheilproductions.wordpress.com/