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"The Exalted Vertigo": Jazz Frenzy Sweeps Interwar Bucharest

Updated: Jun 28, 2020

Jazz comes quite early to Romania, in the first years after the First World War, and soon establishes itself as one of the first forms of American culture that enjoys a massive and irresistible spread throughout the Romanian society. The other one is, obviously, Hollywood cinema. Already in the 1920s there are several places in Bucharest and other major cities where one can engage in the frenzied beat of the Charleston, Foxtrot or the Boston. Some of the contemporaries see jazz as an “epileptic dance,” a source of anarchy and lustfulness, but fascination lurks beneath even the most moralizing and opaque observations. One of our first travelers to the United States, writer and navigator Jean Bart, cannot miss the hypnotic force of the new sound: “A rhythmic music, without melody, that grows even faster until the feet are moving frantically, disarticulated, like in an exalted vertigo… Clapping, abrupt talk, guttural sounds, deep sighs, knelled shouts accompany the paces moved by the excitement of this crazy speed.”

The interwar Romanian jazz scene is dominated by the bands and groups led by Dinu Șerbănescu, Jean Ionescu, Bibi Alexandrescu and above all Sergiu Malagamba. In the 1930s Bucharest, the new music becomes a fixture of all the chic places like Mon Jardin, Mon Caprice, Melody, and Colorado. Jazz is so much more a part of the capital’s cultural fabric that it finds its place in the most popular novels of the day, like Cezar Petrescu’s Victory Way (Calea Victoriei): “The jazz band bursts incited. After almost two hours of uninterrupted rampage, it seemed as if a new nervous vigor, a frenetic spasm like that of the howling dervishes was communicated from one to the other, disarticulating the five musicians of the band. The drum boomed making the windows shake, the saxophone gurgled in a cry ending in guttural horselaughs, the piano splattered the notes through its ivory teeth.”

Truly phenomenal is the drummer and band leader, Sergiu Malagamba, one of our first genuine pop stars, who draws at his concerts big crowds of ecstatic young Romanians ready to imitate all his mannerisms. The Malagambism, our own version of a subculture of jazz fanatics en vogue at the time in many European countries, attracts o lot of young people crazy about the new rhythms and harmonies, who can be instantly recognized by their jackets descending down to the knee, high collar shirts, bouffant pants that reveal the striped socks, shoes with thick soles, and large brim hats. Malagamba is so popular that during the Second World War the country’s dictator, Marshall Antonescu, has him arrested and thrown in a camp on the grounds that he is corrupting the youth with his indecent scores and lifestyle. Yet not even the war censorship can silence this music which, popular as ever, continues to be heard in some joints, at the radio, and on the gramophone records.

After the war the passion for jazz reignites with a renewed fervor. Back from the camp, Malagamba triumphs in a series of concerts hosted by the Palladium Circus and other big halls. The stages of Timișoara, Cluj and Iași, the biggest cities in Romania, are busy with gigs attended by hundreds. The excitements of freedom regained finds its beat in the visceral rhythm of the swing. The imposition of the communist dictatorship in 1947, with its cohort of dogmatic prescriptions and interdictions, hits the jazz scene hard but it is not able to mute it entirely. Check out our next posts to find out how it survives.

References: Bogdan Barbu, Vin americanii (The Americans are Coming), Bucharest, Humanitas, 2006; Jean Bart, Peste ocean. Note dintr-o călătorie în America de Nord (Over the Ocean. Notes from a Trip to North America), Bucharest, Cartea Românească, 1926

In the photo: Dancing in old Bucharest, 1939

Video: Sergiu Malagamba - “I Recognize You in the Dark, Bucharest”

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