Music of the Imagination: Jazz Behind the Iron Curtain

The Wende Museum, Culver City, California
June 30 - November 8, 2013

Jazz music was among the most controversial and hotly-debated cultural aspects of East German (GDR) society. It celebrated its American origins, and therefore was viewed as imperialist, capitalist, and decadent across the Soviet Bloc countries. However, the music was immensely popular with the people. Capitalizing on this, the United States exported its famous jazz musicians to the East as a tool to endorse democracy, and thus, Socialist government officials became suspicious of anyone involved in the jazz scene.

Attempts to repress or eliminate jazz were tense in the postwar years. Performing, promoting, or even listening to jazz constituted a political offense. It is not surprising that strict limitations on jazz led to the birth of a counter-culture, comprised of artistic, literary, and musical communities, striving for freedom and individuality. These artifacts from the Wende Collection capture the liberating effect that jazz afforded the citizens of the GDR and Eastern Europe, as well as the government’s ever-changing position on how to best control the unstoppable musical force.

Music of the Imagination: Jazz Behind the Iron Curtain featured the portfolio “Jazz & Improvisation,” a tribute to the musical talents of international artists who toured in the GDR, as well as a collection of jazz records that display the government’s attempt to regulate the music. These were complemented by other objects, such as posters for jazz festivals in Leipzig, East Germany, and a beautiful rosewood Blüthner piano, made in Leipzig in 1975, and provided by the Kasimoff-Blüthner Piano Co. Hollywood, CA. This exhibition explored the changing social and cultural implications of jazz in the GDR during the Cold War.