Jazz Survivor

Jazz Survivor: The Story of Louis Bannet, Horn Player of Auschwitz, by Ken Shuldman. London and Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2005.
ISBN: 0-85303-476-1 (paper). Pp. 70. $18.50.

In the Museum of Jewish Heritage/A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City is displayed a large-bell Bb trumpet on permanent loan. The owner had been Louis Bannet. An inscription in the exhibit information informs the viewer that it was that actual trumpet that gave Bannet the strength to live through the unimaginable horrors of Auschwitz. Musicians often have a strong tie to their instruments but few can be credited with life-saving power. This and many other aspects of Louis Bannet’s life are effectively related by Ken Shuldman, but perhaps of even greater interest to readers of this Society is the examination of how jazz was embraced by one of Europe’s early proponents of this music.

Bannet, born in 1911 in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, was a child prodigy whose chosen instrument was the violin, but intense professional competition drove the young musician to switch to the trumpet. He displayed an equal virtuosity on his new instrument. At some point after his 13th year young Bannet began to frequent a coffee house, which also doubled as a musician’s hiring hall, and in this rough waterfront district he obtained his first professional music experiences. The sailors and dockworkers brought many objects of world-wide trade including jazz records. Armstrong’s classic 1925 Hot Five recordings were among the treasures from the New World and Bannet quickly became completely absorbed in Armstrong’s new jazz vocabulary. While dates of his progress are not systematically recorded in this book, a photo dated 1928, shows a 17-year-old Bannet, trumpet in hand (a trumpet, not a cornet!), with Anton Swan and The Swantocker, the very first jazz group he was associated with. Bannet was well on his way to becoming the “Dutch Louis Armstrong,” as he became known in Europe during the next decade.

Only within the last several years have early jazz developments in Europe drawn the serious attention of music historians, and the same can be said of music during the Nazi period. What is of particular interest is the time frame of the availability of the American jazz recordings and the remarkable speed in which the music was disseminated and learned by Bannet and his European colleagues. Shuldman’s account of Bannet’s familiarity with the Armstrong Hot Five recordings indicates that he was studying them almost as soon as they were released. That his improvisational skills were honed enough to have been in a professional jazz band by 1928 also speaks to the speed in which this new music was absorbed by European musicians. Also of importance is the quick reception and acceptance by the general public. Clearly the new European jazz groups would not have been able to perform and develop had there not been a large enough audience to support those developments. Accounts of the musical interaction with Coleman Hawkins and the repertoire they performed is also revealing. At the height of his fame in the 1930s fronting his group, Louis Bannet’s Rhythm Five, the trumpeter received the thrill of his life. A knock on his door was followed by a raspy proclamation, ”So you’re the Dutch Louis Armstrong. Well, it’s nice to meet you; I’m the American one.” This tale is so full of the straightforward wit and warmth Armstrong was famous for, it’s hard to deny the veracity of it.

The bulk of this short study is biographical and detailed musical issues are not addressed to any great degree. This is an unfortunate shortcoming but Bannet’s story is fascinating in its own right. The insight it offers concerning the reception and development of jazz by European musicians is extremely valuable and the jazz community owes Ken Shuldman a great debt for that alone. For students of the Holocaust, this book also presents an inspiring story. Not for the faint of heart, the horrors of Auschwitz are revealed in the starkest light. Elie Wiesel relates an anecdote meeting the great trumpeter in his seminal holocaust book, Night. He mentions Louis, the distinguished musician from Holland, who was upset that the Nazis would not let him play Beethoven because Jews were prohibited from playing German music. It is ironic however, that in spite of a ban on “degenerate music,” which included jazz, Bannet and his Auschwitz band members regularly performed jazz for the Nazi officers and even for the birthday party of the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele. It is said that survivors have a certain personality that allows them to survive but certainly luck often plays a part. His “audition” for the Auschwitz band was held in a freezing cold room and when exhaustion and frost bitten hands of his fellow musicians resulted in their inability to play, they were instantly shot. Bannet however, spied a stove in the back of the large room, managed to work his way toward it and placing his hands on it, brought some warmth to his hands and mouth and played well enough to live another day.

Live he did. After the War and resuming his playing career, Louis Bannet emigrated to Canada where he flourished and became somewhat of a TV celebrity. In 2002, past the age of 90, Bannet died of cancer. There are scant references to his activities in the standard jazz reference works. The holder of the moniker, “The Dutch Louis Armstrong” certainly deserves better and Ken Shuldman’s brief but fascinating study is a step in the right direction.

--Jeffrey Nussbaum