Monday, July 1, 2013

Jazz Mirrors Iran#5: Strictly for the Persians

For my fifth installment in Jazz Mirrors Iran, I'll look at a tune from a third country in which the secretive consociation between the American art form and Persian culture took place: France.

If you were in Paris during the cold winter of 1941, walking by the Seine and watching the German barracks, you could whistle a beautiful tune by Alix Combelle Orchestra, a song ironically called Strictement pour les Persans, or in English, Strictly for the Persians. 

Strictement Pour Les Persans (Strictly for Persians) - Alix Combelle Orchestra

Paris’ underground resistance did not stay paralyzed for too long. To write the French off as cowards or conceding would be dismissive and inaccurate. A Parisian writer at the time was “incapable of surviving for long hiding, he would sell his soul to see his name in print,” silenced essayist Jean Guehenno observed. “He believes that he is French literature and thought and that they will die without him.” Satre himself had stated that artists and writers had a duty to tell the rest of France “not to be ruled by Germans.”

We all know that jazz played a significant role in uniting African-Americans under the oppressive Jim Crow laws. In Paris of 1941, even as a borrowed art form, it still manifested the self-empowerment to create a nationalistic identity at a point where the country was already fractured into rubble. Before the Nazi invasion of France, when news of an eventual war reached Paris, many African-American expatriate musicians left to return to the United States. Their sudden departure left the active French jazz scene on its own, and club owners found themselves without any entertainers or live music to supply the demand of tasteful customers.

Despite efforts to conciliate the French through alcohol and entertainment, Nazi forces were not as enthusiastic about jazz; the infamous, and somehow humorous phrase “Swing Verboten” captures the zeitgeist and horrifying dogmatics of the Gobbles ministry. Hitler feared young boys of the Third Reich corrupted by the “degenerative” music of jazz, and after his rise to power, jazz, consequently, went into a period of interregnum. Yesterday’s swingers and jazz men, if they wanted to stay alive, were forced to work for the Propaganda Ministry, playing light swing dance music to keep soldiers entertained and military morale high. Suddenly old tunes found themselves a darker life, infused with anti-Semitic, anti-British and later anti-American lyrics.

Alix Combelle
It was in this context that Alix Combelle emerged as a local hero in the Parisian jazz scene. Ironically, here, the interconnectedness of the United States art form and its European adoption involved a third country: Iran.

How Combelle and his band managed to play in clubs and keep a very hazardous line (blacks and gypsies) up is a bit of a mystery. Recent studies show that the Germans weren’t as “strict” as they seemed in handling the internal affairs of France, especially those having to do with culture. It was during this uncertain period when Combelle, a saxophonist, clarinetist, arranger and bandleader, adopted a new style that allowed him to remain on the bandstand without clashing with Nazi restrictions.

Among Combelle’s pre-war credits was being the host to the legendary Saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, when at one evening Hawkins showed up in the club Combelle was playing and improvised with the band for an hour and a half on Sweet Sue. Before this, Combelle had visited the U.S. and typical of a true Parisian, had turned down an offer by extremely popular bandleader Tommy Dorsey to join his orchestra.

shoes and clothing to be sent to Jewish refugees in Iran, 1940s.
But how did the name “Persians” make it into the title of his tightly orchestrated tune? Iran’s regime, in spite of declaring neutrality during World War II, mainly due to Reza Shah’s ambitions, was generally sympathetic
towards Germany, which later became the main excuse for the notorious Allied invasion of Iran that ousted him out of power and replaced him with his son. The infatuate Reza Shah, more than having an adherence to Nazi ideology, was obsessed with the idea of progress and building up Iran’s infrastructure. Historically, he had nothing against Jews, as they were already living peacefully in the country both before and after the Arab invasion. In this context, it’s really of no surprise that many Jews who fled Nazi occupation came to settle down in Iran.

Abdol-Hossein Sardari
I like to read Strictement pour les Persans as an imaginary homage to Abdol-Hossein Sardari, the Iranian Schindler, a diplomat in war-time Paris and when the song was recorded. Sardari’s moving story, only recently uncovered, contains the amazing chapter of his rescue of nearly 2000 Jews under the political protection he had in the occupied France. His story is one of cleverness and passion, where one individual single-handedly saved so many lives by fabricating some strange, and ultimately unbeatable stories to justify the return of Persian Jews to Iran and sparing them from concentration camps. While the context of is rueful, the mathematical mind of Sardari and his unique methods in convincing Nazis that Persian Jews are not really Jews is something of irony and wonder.

The opening lines of Strictement pour les Persans are orchestrated in such way that throws us into a Persian city-scape. As if we are following the story of an individual among the crowd, music plunges into a sweet unison of the trumpets. It becomes a swinging piece in which the humor of muted trumpet embodies the witty side of a Persian. In some parts, the music amazingly resembles Iran’s old national anthem.

footage of the man in action

If right under the noses of the German authorities, jazz music was still alive and influential, a similar subversive act was made possible by Sardari and what he did “strictly” for Persian Jews.

Strictement pour les Persans is a surprising documentation of what Max Harrison calls "demonstrating of what French jazz musicians had learnt from their [American] visitors," or "denationalization of American jazz", and Sardari’s story is a demonstration of what a Persian has learned from hundred years of occupations and invasions in order to survive, and a lesson in “nationalizing” all Persians, whether Muslim or Jew.


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