Fascist Italy: A Jazz Odyssey

When an ordinary person thinks of Benito Mussolini and his fascist regime of the interwar period, they think of the throngs of supporters, animated speeches, and something about trains running on time. If this hypothetical ordinary person was tasked with naming types of music that fit this time period, triumphant military anthems are the first to come to mind. So, it was a surprise to me when I learned that jazz music was one of Mussolini’s favorite genres and actually became the soundtrack of Mussolini’s youth movement. The question that inevitably arises is: why jazz? What made jazz a musical vehicle to help deliver Mussolini’s propaganda? And why has the relationship between jazz and Italian fascism been ignored for so long?  The sheer incongruity of rigid fascism and fluid jazz is fascinating, even though only a few scholars have looked critically at this relationship. 

In a book chapter entitled “Jazz and Fascism”, Marilisa Merolla discusses the three distinct phases of how Italian music scholars describe jazz’s entrance into Italian culture: “’indifference’ (1919-1925), ‘diffusion’ (1925-1935), and ‘prohibition’ (1935-1943)” (Merolla 32). This framework, while broad, is a good starting point to understand some of the finer aspects of jazz and fascist identity. While there is not much scholarship on the “indifference” period, Merolla makes a strong argument for how jazz helped Mussolini’s quest for totalitarianism during the “diffusion” period.  Merolla essentially argues that at the start, jazz was used as a way to entice Italians to listen to the national radio stations, subjecting them to education and propaganda as well as music (Merolla 41). To support her argument, Merolla used a variety of sources, building a broad framework of secondary sources and supplementing with impressive primary sources from the various radio stations and magazines that were popular in Italy at the time. To use the national media of the regime to show jazz’s impact, it demonstrates just how the rise of jazz music went together with the rise of fascist radio propaganda in a way that only classical music could rival. However, the jazz that was broadcast on Italian airwaves was not American jazz – Italian radio had to have Italian Jazz, according to Mussolini. As a result, the new national record company Compagnia Edizioni, Teatro, Registrazioni e Affini (CETRA), revamped Italian jazz with “Italian lyrics and more melodic tunes” (Merolla 42-43), lending itself to a new, more Italian jazz.

Both points that Merolla makes, about jazz as a tool of the regime and an example of unique Italian identity, are echoed in the most comprehensive book on this topic: Anna Harwell Celenza’s Jazz Italian Style. Harwell Celenza, more of a musicologist than a historian, covers a wide swath of the intersection between jazz and Italian culture. She covers such a wide swath, in fact, that the first quarter of the book or so is entirely about Italian-Americans performing jazz music in America before jazz even reached Europe. However, the section that ties in most to this topic is the third section, once again entitled “Jazz and Fascism”. In the first few pages, Harwell Celenza explains the history of “Giovinezza”, the anthem of Mussolini’s regime. She makes sure to note that “’Giovinezza’ was never a jazz tune, but its “dotted rhtythms, lilting melody and sanguine lyrics offered the same pep and mechanized energy that characterized the nation’s newest trends, both musical and political” (Harwell Celenza 72). Jazz may not have been as much of a political symbol as the march-like “Giovinezza” (although some scholars have said otherwise), but it was an important cultural unifier among an Italy hurtling toward further modernity. Harwell Celenza delves extensively into how jazz permeated through Mussolini’s family (his youngest son was a renowned jazz pianist!), through film, and even through the invasion of Ethiopia. Jazz was so prevalent that as Mussolini felt pressured to follow Hitler’s lead regarding racial superiority, jazz was adapted to fit this new normal instead of being scrapped altogether (Harwell Celenza 116). The notable Italian accordion was brought into jazz music, and the lyrics became nonsensical in order to evade Mussolini’s race laws (Harwell Celenza 119-120). This shows further how during the rule of fascism, even the popular music was consciously shaped to fit some sort of Italian standard that was determined from the government rather than the people. It also highlights the fact that Italy was truly fascinated by the outside world, and had to try and Italianize foreign (e.g., American) media in order to support the fascist consensus.

 The final work on jazz and fascism that is worth mentioning is Fabio Presutti’s article “The Saxophone and the Pastoral: Italian Jazz in the Age of Fascist Modernity”, where Presutti’s deeply intellectual argument presents a unique perspective on the contradiction of Italian fascism and jazz. Presutti first presents the prevailing view among mainstream scholars that jazz was contradictory to fascism; fascists valued rurality and despised anything American, including (and especially) African Americans. Presutti pushes back on Merolla’s categorization of “indifference”, “diffusion”, and “prohibition”, because to Presutti, there is no true “prohibition”. For his argument, he uses these traditional, surface-level analyses to lead the reader to the much different conclusion that the intersection between Italian jazz and fascism should not be “under the umbrella of the prohibition theory” and gives three examples as to why (Presutti 290). Throughout all three examples, it is clear that Presutti believes that contradiction is essentially inherent to the fascist condition, and therefore was never truly prohibited. Italian jazz, “on the most superficial level…creates an exotic evasion…from what Leonardo Sciascia once called the “boredom” of fascist life on the brink of war” (Presutti 291). There is an ironic contradiction there, in which a country facing a perpetual struggle of heroism and independence eventually gets bored of there always being a struggle – and jazz exemplifies that contradiction. Next, Presutti describes how the adoption of a foreign artform helps to “offer a somewhat elastic image of itself” in which “the intellectual and cultural operator [have] a certain degree of dissent” (Presutti 291). One would think that in a totalitarian state, the level of dissent would be near zero, and yet, there still must be at least the mirage of some dissent – and jazz exemplifies that contradiction. Finally, Presutti touches on the racial aspect of jazz, in which he details how the trivialization of jazz music coincided with the trivialization of race (specifically Black and Jewish people) in general, which allowed fascists a “child-like innocence” regarding the significance of racial issues (Presutti 292). The fact that many fascists were naïve in the face their oppression of minorities enabled more violent totalitarianism. In this way, race is attempted to be portrayed as both non-important and all-important – and jazz exemplifies that contradiction.

There is certainly much more to be explored surrounding the convergence of jazz and Italian fascism, but some startling similarities emerge between each of these works. All three of these major works have similarities in that jazz was certainly a cultural unifier that aided fascist operation. Mussolini, who personally was a fan, wanted to make a specialized version of this genre in order to fit what he thought was a coherent, revolutionary new ideology. And yet, this unification is couched in contradiction. Jazz music is undoubtedly one of the most creative and liberating artforms, while also being mass produced for a totalitarian regime. This can lead to the question: what else was clearly contradictory throughout the rise of fascism? The rise of modernity and the glory of Rome? Wanting to be independent and being second to Germany? With this example specifically we can clearly see the struggle of national identity: Mussolini seeking the glory of a uniquely Italian identity while also placing that identity in relation to foreign power. These are more obvious, of course, but seeing as to how jazz music was co-opted by Mussolini, there is without a doubt other examples of contradictory fascist practices that give insight to inconsistencies surrounding cultural identity. As Eco writes in his essay on Ur-Fascism, there is not one formula for fascism, and the cultural contradictions of Mussolini’s fascism certainly exemplify that point (Eco).

Bibliography

Celenza, Anna Harwell. Jazz Italian Style: From Its Origins in New Orleans to Fascist Italy and Sinatra. Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Eco, Umberto. “Ur-fascism.” The New York Review of Books 42, no. 11 (1995): 12-15.

Presutti, Fabio. “The Saxophone and the Pastoral. Italian jazz in the age of Fascist modernity.” Italica 85, no. 2/3 (2008): 273-294.

Merolla, Marilisa. “Jazz and Fascism: Contradictions and Ambivalences in the Diffusion of Jazz Music under the Italian Fascist Dictatorship (1925–1935).” Jazz and Totalitarianism. Routledge, 2016. 51-69.

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