Swingin' Swedes

Mischa van Kan, 2017. Swingin’ Swedes: the transnational exchange of Swedish jazz in the US. Diss. Gothenburg: University of Gothenburg. 315 p. ISBN 978-91-85974-21-4

Mischa van Kan’s dissertation is a contribution to what is often called the New Jazz Studies, which includes among its various agenda the attempt to find historiographical narratives that are not misleadingly circumscribed by the US-centric canonical model. One way of prosecuting that objective is by turning attention to the history, social functions and semiotics of jazz outside the US, the global jazz diaspora. In terms of new information, among the most valuable contributions of van Kan’s work is the presentation of relevant primary material from Sweden in English for the first time. However, the importance of the work goes well beyond what might be regarded as that Anglocentric satisfaction.

In 1947, Swedish clarinet player Åke Hasselgård moved to the United States and trumpeter Rolf Eriksson made the Atlantic crossing the same year, both attracting significant notice among American jazz circles. van Kan takes that year as the point of departure for his study of post-war Swedish/US jazz connections. He draws on such theoretical models as Becker’s ‘art-worlds’, actor-network theory and Bruno Latour’s synthesis of approaches to cultural analysis that have been discretely evolving in reaction against the neo-scholasticism that post-structuralism so quickly became. While he recognises that there is some tension between the models, they share the recognition that a social formation is created not just by the obvious ‘actors’, in this case musicians, but also by networks. This makes a horizon-expanding change from the established jazz narrative centred almost wholly upon the male and mostly black US jazz musician.

These theoretical frameworks are deployed judiciously, never seeking to hammer the subject into holes which it doesn’t really fit. This respect for the ‘voice’ of the subject is particularly important in suspending conventional expectations, given that the primary objective is to study the reverse flow of the usual diasporic model: that is, the dissemination and reception of Swedish jazz in the United States during the period 1947–63. In this case, that ‘voice’ covers an intimidating array of primary sources, including unpublished documents such as correspondence between a range of actants including producers and promoters. These disclose the extent of the Swedish jazz presence in the US imagination, where it was clearly regarded as the major diasporic centre, even above France. This entails a comparison of the understandings of ‘Swedishness’ in the US and in Sweden itself. van Kan describes how US record companies and promotional mechanisms marketed that ‘brand’ for Americans, which lead to a finely articulated discussion of the convergence in the US mind of Swedish furniture, décor design and jazz. The comparisons are also given point by the revealing tactic of comparing the artwork on Swedish and US releases of the same sessions. The US image of Sweden was appealing because it subliminally carried no baggage left over from the war. When Australian bands toured in Europe in the late 1940s, they were struck by the devastation and decay that the war had inflicted. This changed their idealised view of Europe from one of civilisation to an image of disease. Sweden’s neutrality situated the country as simultaneously European yet different from Europe – free of the taint of wartime barbarity and producing the ‘positive connotations’ of clean, stylish and forward-looking freshness.

Other issues that this enquiry raises include the adequacy of the concept of ’nation’ in attempting to engage with globalised music, of which jazz is the twentieth century prototype. When US jazz enthusiasts listened to Swedish jazz, did they think of it as simply Swedish? Or as generically Scandinavian, European? Or perhaps as exotic? The study raises the question of how ‘Swedishness’ was gendered in the US imaginary. It is notable that Hasselgard, profiled conspicuously as a Swede, is referred to as tall and good-looking, as though these attributes are particularly Swedish. ‘Blondness’ is also notable, as is ‘whiteness’. For non-Swedes, the most prominent stereotype of Swedishness is the cliché of the ‘nordic woman’, as in some of the artwork that features blond women in highly sexualised configurations. 

The discussion of gender is of special interest in this connection. It converges with all the complexities of the politics of representation, and whether women are active creators of cultural identities, or merely passive furniture in the spectacle. It is certainly true that they were central actors in the construction of jazz culture in the 1920s, to the extent that the ‘New woman’ was feared and anathematised along with jazz itself as actively subverting civilised tradition. But, as men took ownership of the music in the post-war period covered by this study, women remained ‘in the frame’ although playing a more passive role – as parts of the general attempt evident in popular literature, music and film to push them back into the immediate pre-war domestic space as an adornment, along with other modern life-style accessories. So: it appears that they played a role in the projection of Swedish jazz identity, but a more subaltern one, as a passive subject of the Playboy-reading hipster’s male gaze. The liner notes for a Bengt-Arne Wallin US-release album illustrate the point: ‘From Sweden, a country that abounds in picturesque scenery and equally picturesque movie actresses, comes this album of music. ISN’T IT ROMANTIC is its title’. The Swedish woman is seen in the US as beautiful, blond, cool but sexually sophisticated and available, the embodiment of ‘Swedish sin’. This is all played up in the ‘export version’. One of these, Jazz smorgasbord with the N-B Dahlander quintet, portrays a blond woman scantily clad in a skin tight tu-tu, clarinet lying suggestively over her arm, almost under a ‘Swedish modern’ coffee table laden with fresh food. And of course, situating a generic Swedish woman as a smorgasbord emphasises consumption, and suggests taking your pick and having as much as you like.

For the male US customer, the offer had special plausibility given that, at the same time, male Swedish jazz musicians were situated as, albeit good looking, withdrawn and introverted – not sexually competitive. Consider for example one of the examples presented here, the cover of Prestige PRLP 119, 1951. Compared with other jazz LP artwork of the period, one of the most notable aspects of the representation of the musicians is that it makes no reference to a thematised life-style outside performance. It contains the musicians wholly within the interior realm of a recording studio, focussed on their written charts. van Kan quotes George Simon’s characterisation of Swedish jazz as ‘organized rather than spontaneous and disciplined instead of informal’, and the implication is that, so serious are these Swedish jazz musicians, that they have no life outside performance, and not even performance interacting with a live audience. This is a telling contrast with the cover of the 1959 Counting five in Sweden on Metronome 15018, showing black American Joe Newman sitting outside on a lawn, holding the hand (and appearing to be almost sucking a finger) of a young, presumably Swedish, woman who in turn holds his trumpet against her thigh. In the way in which the gender dynamics are arranged for Swedish and American representations, there is a further major thesis just in this line of enquiry: the postwar transition from the feminisation to the masculinisation of modernity, its technologies and consumer goods.

The discussion of this powerful semiotic includes the way Swedish female singers in the US were described in the press. Given the constraints on print, the need to be implicit rather than explicit, the visual semiotics are more revealing, as in the posture of the woman on Jazz smorgasbord. This is seamlessly laminated over the US Playboy culture, to which we can also attribute the fact that while the piano accordion was a major voice in Nordic jazz (van Kan uses the fine word ‘Borealic’), no Swedish jazz that included such an unhip instrument was exported to the US. It is thus one of this study’s cautionary arguments that the US perception of Swedish jazz does not necessarily correspond with the actual music. An American review of a recording by Arne Domnérus compared him to Parker, but with a sugary tone: ‘understandable, of course – he’s Swedish’. As van Kan notes, the reference to ‘sugary’ evokes Swedish pastry (the title of one of the titles recorded by Hasselgård), and a US marker of Sweden. I would not say that Domnérus’ tone is notably ‘sugary’; there is a tendency to be so on ballads like ‘Out of nowhere’, but that is partly the tradition of the ballad, and there are much more ‘sugary’ versions from US players (Johnny Hodges, for example). On faster numbers, he is rather dry and acerbic.

The limits of the established US-centric canonical narrative of jazz history have been unequivocally demonstrated by the New Jazz Studies. The more research I undertake into jazz history, the more convinced I become that the way out of that cul-de-sac lies in local studies that range from regional to micro-communities, as well as transnational perspectives. As van Kan notes in his final chapter, it is a dubious essentialism to reduce a national culture to something supposedly homogeneous, and he implicitly underlines this by exploring how US jazz audiences conceptualised ‘Swedishness’. The fine and nuanced detail of his study, with its magisterial deployment of often ephemeral primary sources, is itself a major contribution to this project, and a confirmation of the explanatory potential of studies of diasporic jazz.

Bruce Johnson