Mountains, Chocolate and Cheese…er..Jazz

We tend to forget about our own backyard when studying the history of Jazz while focusing almost exclusively on the USA. But I wanted also to understand how Jazz had developed in Switzerland and to resolve the all-important question: Wer hat’s erfunden?

The initial impulse for Jazz in Switzerland came around 1920 after the end of the first World War. Tourism bounced back and English- as well as US American tourists took advantage of their very strong currencies to travel Europe and especially also Switzerland. Like almost all tourists, which travel far to enjoy what they have at home, they wanted to dance to the music they knew. And so orchestras in hotels and restaurants started incorporating “Jazz” into their repertoire.

We can safely assume that most of what was played then under the label “Jazz” had little to do with what we nowadays understand as Jazz. But certainly also in the US not every band sounded like Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five.

Although Swiss Folk music of that time and the early Jazz played in Switzerland had probably a lot in common, at the end both was dance music, we can answer the question raised above: This time it were not the Swiss who invented it, rather Jazz was imported from the US.

Initially Jazz in Switzerland followed mainly a Paul Whiteman style, i.e. Jazz elements were incorporated into classic music. “Hot Jazz” was not yet known or deemed as “too wild” or “too exotic”. This changed around 1930, when King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson became the new idols.

Visits and concerts of American Jazz player were obviously highlights in the development of the music. When Louis Armstrong visited Switzerland, he got a reception like nowadays probably only Obama would get. The fans waited for him at the bottom of the gangway and in a later visit, they even forced him to play the “alphorn”, as can be seen on the cover of the respective live record. His first appearance in Switzerland he made in 1934.


Coleman Hawkins on the other hand liked it so much in Switzerland that he stayed for almost three years, 1935-37.

In these times before Amazon, iTunes and Spotify, it was difficult to get hold of records from the US, but also sheet music was rare. Jazz enthusiasts and musicians in the 1930ies started to organise themselves in Jazz clubs, which became very important platforms in the evolution of Jazz in Switzerland. In these clubs the precious records and notations of songs, but obviously also information and knowledge were exchanged.

In the US, the radio had been instrumental for the success of the Swing music in the late thirties and early forties, the “Swing Craze” went hand-in-hand with the “Radio Days”.
In the US the four national networks had clear program structures and even worked with sponsors already then. The public broadcaster which dominated Europe’s radio landscape were mostly in quite a different shape. Switzerland had already then three stations for the three main language regions of the country. Famous (at least amongst over 40 year old Swiss) radio “Beromünster” served the German speaking part. The program was produced in three different studios, which operated quite independently. This federalism (which we love here) led to a ragtag program mix without fix schedules. A consistent program pattern developed only in the sixties in Switzerland.

Initially a typical radio program would consist of lots of music, roughly 2/3 of the time, which was mainly played live in the studio by an orchestra. Only about 20% of the music stemmed from records. There were tensions between the radio stations and the record companies as the latter feared a drop in sales due to the radios playing records.

The radio orchestras soon started played Swing music, however “Hot Jazz” came only from records. During the second World War the Swiss radio stations were under the control of the government and the army (1937 – 42). They banned too exotic Jazz music from the schedule but rather fostered Swiss folk music.
To put this into perspective, the Nazis in Germany, just north of the border, banned Jazz completely and considered it as degenerated.

Obviously not everybody was in favour of Jazz being played in the radio. The mighty association of Swiss farmer (“Bauernverband”) asked the program directors to play Jazz music only during times when the farmer would not listen to the radio, before 7pm and after 9pm…

Only towards the end of the war the first commented Jazz programs appeared on radio. The aim of the programs was to educate the listener about this still relatively new music genre.

But even with all these limitations, the emergence of the radio was important also for the development of Jazz in Switzerland. Not only did Jazz musicians learn from the music played in the radio, some even built their own receiver to get BBC broadcasts, but the radio was also (and still is) an important producer of Jazz records in Switzerland.

Similar to the US, the academies of music were not very open to Jazz. In the Swiss conservatories Jazz was prohibited until well into the forties. But also the nowadays very famous Berklee school started educating Jazz only in 1945. This means that musicians largely thought themselves how to play Jazz.

No, Jazz was not invented here, it developed in the times before the end of WWII mainly driven by stimulus from the US. And it struggled with chaotic radio schedules and obviously the second world war. But it nevertheless developed slowly and steadily. The hunger for good times dance music, during the Great Recession and the war, was similarly huge in Switzerland as it was in the US.


4 thoughts on “Mountains, Chocolate and Cheese…er..Jazz

  1. Really interesting to read about jazz in Switzerland. I bet there were a couple of farmers who liked jazz and were mad about that decision! I never really thought about the importance of radio broadcasts in sharing music internationally. Thanks for this post!

    1. Well, radio was very important in the first half of the last century, when not everybody had a grammophone at home, respectively records were rare and expensive. Besides live shows, radio was the easiest way for people to listen to music back then.
      And indeed, some Swiss Jazz fans build their own special antennas to catch BBC radio, which had much more frequent and better shows on Jazz than the Swiss stations.

      1. I love thinking about people building those antennas. How beautiful to want to hear distant sounds and then make something to pull them down from the ether and actually hear them. Maybe I’ll write a poem about this…

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