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The Ghetto Swinger reviewed by Los Angeles Jazz Scene

The Ghetto Swinger by Coco SchumannThe Ghetto Swinger
Review by Scott Yanow, American jazz reviewer and editor of the L.A. Jazz Scene

A fascinating story that is well worth discovering.

Coco Schumann, who is 93, is considered one of Germany’s top jazz guitarists since the 1940s. While he had a very productive career for decades, playing jazz, pop music and in a countless number of settings, and he is well known in his homeland, it was not until the mid-1980s that Schumann freely talked about a dark period in his life. During 1943-45 he was in Nazi prison camps including Auschwitz. It was only due to his youth, his naiveté and his musical skills that he was fortunate enough to survive although he did witness quite a few horrors.

In addition to appearing in films and in interviews about the period, in 1997 Coco Schumann wrote his memoirs, The Ghetto Swinger. The fascinating autobiography has recently been translated into English and is available from DoppelHouse Press.  Schumann, who is Jewish but looked Aryan, remembers first discovering swing in 1936 and becoming a lifelong convert. Skilled as both a guitarist and a drummer, he worked in Germany nightclubs into 1943, somehow playing jazz regularly despite the regime’s hostility to the new music. Schumann’s stories about the German swing scene are full of revelations. However a crackdown in 1943 resulted in the 19-year old being arrested. At first he was not treated too horribly despite the loss of freedom. He was housed in a phony small town with other artists and musicians that was documented by the Nazis for a propaganda film about how well they were treating the Jewish people. During this period, Schumann played drums with the Ghetto Swingers. But after the film was finished, he and most of the others were shipped to Auschwitz. His reminiscences of the horrible train ride and tales of life in the prison camp make one wonder how anyone survived.

But Coco Schumann did survive, was freed by the Allies in 1945, and soon had a busy musical career. Considered the first ever jazz electric guitarist in Germany, he played swing for years but was versatile enough to perform in much more commercial settings during the lean periods. He kept his memories of the prison camps mostly to himself for four decades.

The Ghetto Swinger has Coco Schumann telling his story honestly, colorfully and with occasional humor. It is a fascinating story that is well worth discovering.

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