Somewhere in my cd collection is Romano Mussolini’s Jazz Album, put on sale by saar Srl in 1998. It includes six pieces composed by Romano himself, for example, «Lub-dlub Blues» or «I’m Blue Tonight,» before ending with Cole Porter’s «Love for Sale.» The cd might worry the ghost of Adolf Hitler and any purist fascist whose racism decreed that jazz is «negroid» music and whose sexual purism might be troubled by the lifestyle of Cole Porter. Such concern might be further deepened by the fact that Romano’s daughter, Alessandra Mussolini, has been a durable player in «post-fascist» (but perhaps not altogether «post») Italian politics, while Romano, who died in 2006, prompted the foundation of the Centro Studi Romano Mussolini on the family estate at Villa Carpena, near Forlimpopoli, with an attached museum providing a gilded version of the Fascist ventennio and of Benito Mussolini’s career as dictator.
Romano was born in September 1927 and had not reached his eighteenth birthday before his father’s fall and death. He was the second-youngest of Mussolini’s five legitimate children (there were eight or nine illegitimate ones). In the spirit of the times, his name evoked romanità and the regime’s pretentions to purvey a «political religion» and control every Italian’s mind. But the imperial Roman legions of long ago had not marched to jazz and Romano, the (international) jazz-player, hints at the ambiguities and contradictions that lurked within the culture of what is best defined as the «Italian dictatorship.»
Courtesy of Anna Harwell Celenza’s research, we now have a scholarly, readable, but sentimental account of Fascist jazz. Celenza begins her story before 1914, suggesting that the Italian variety of such performance was indeed Italian, and national culture «filtered the influences of American jazz through a prism of highbrow Italian lyricism and lowbrow North Italian folk music» (p. 3). The connection to the United States could be complicated. Celenza dates the first commercial jazz recording to 1917, with the «Dixie Jazz Band One Step,» from a band of five whites, two of them Italo-Americans, whose spokesman, Nick LaRocca, the son of Sicilian immigrants, denied any debt to black culture and, indeed, then and thereafter was an unashamed racist.
With the war’s end, jazz did spread into Italy, helped initially by a «Victory Tour» by the «American Jazz Band,» which, for example, won praise from Futurists, always happy to skewer bourgeois complacency. Again, however, Jazz’s radicalism may have had its limits. As Celenza phrases it: «jazz became a symbol of affluence [and «modernization»] among most young Italians, and, as the music’s popularity grew, exclusive nightclubs appeared in the upscale neighborhoods of large Italian cities» in the North of the country but not in the South (p. 48). A more skeptical observer might add that such cultural forms scarcely entered the life experience of that majority of Italians who were peasants, making the claim that «most» young were won over plainly exaggerated.
Celenza is a musicologist and not a historian. She might elicit discord from an audience among my profession with such remarks as «championing economic liberalism and an improvement in the conditions of workers, Mussolini formed the National Fascist Party (pnf) in 1921» (p. 55). Her image of Mussolini’s family life and the place of jazz and other forms of music in it is also uncritical, with her revelation that Mussolini employed Umberto Bozza, «a dance band leader,» as his violin teacher and, in the 1930s, cheerfully «invited jazz musicians home and introduced them to his sons.» Publicly, she says, Mussolini’s «musical identity became firmly linked to the realm of classical music. But, privately, he continued to pursue more popular fare» (pp. 78-9). Perhaps, but according to Claretta Petacci’s commentary on her lover’s musical taste from 1936, the Duce disliked the modernism of such «Fascist» composers as Alfredo Casella but did get emotional over Puccini or Beethoven.
However, Celenza is not writing a biography of the Duce and it is her account of the place of the local version of jazz in Italian society that matters to a reader. No doubt, historians will suspect overstatement when she remarks that «thanks to Mussolini’s initiative, jazz became the symbol of national identity during his years in power» and «served as the soundtrack for Italy’s “Giovinezza” generation» (p. 73). But it is well to be reminded that a musical form with plenty of transnational features did win quite a following among urban youths under what was being proclaimed as a totalitarian dictatorship.
In January 1935 Louis Armstrong, praised effusively by Vittorio Mussolini a few months before, made a well-publicized visit to Turin. However, by then, what in October became the Fascist assault on Ethiopia was already brewing. In turn, that brutal but never quite victorious venture sparked the regime’s drift to racism, whether anti-colored or, from 1938 on, anti-Semitic. Even if Josephine Baker remarkably told the Chicago Tribune on the day before the invasion, «The Negus is really the enemy of the colored race, for he maintains slavery, which Mussolini is determined to stamp out. If need be, I am willing to recruit a colored army to help Italy» (p. 110), other jazz musicians were less naïve and, in February, the party newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia damned jazz for its «Jewish» decadence.
As young Romano Mussolini’s enthusiasm demonstrates, the damnation and exclusion were never complete, and Celenza narrates the performances well into the Nazi-fascist war of the Trio Lescano, in fact Dutch Jews, whose music was not repressed until after September 1943. So, the story debouches into the post-war period when, Celenza concludes, «American jazz had become the soundtrack of everything Anti-Fascist» (p. 175), a cozy comment that might worry the ghost of Antonio Gramsci who, we learn in passing, distrusted jazz as «Negro music and dancing» (p. 88). With Liberation, the performers of Fascist jazz changed out of their black shirts without difficulty or hesitation, and the Trio Lescano also re-emerged. Now the archetypal «Italian» performer across the «West» became Frank Sinatra, helped by his mother Dolly. As Celenza phrases it with ongoing sentimentality: «Dolly Sinatra was a force of nature, both at home and in public […] Like many American democrats, she supported Mussolini during the 1920s and 1930s. But when Italy joined forces with Germany she changed her mind about Fascism. Indeed, Dolly was the one to instill in her son the belief that pride in one’s Northern Italian heritage didn’t require an adherence to Mussolini’s racist policies» (pp. 188-9). Jazz Italian Style, a critical reader might conclude, beats to some reassuring current American assumptions about politics and life.
Richard J.B. Bosworth (Jesus College, Oxford)