Coco Schumann interview in Die Zeit Oct. 29 2015


Anyone with Swing in His Blood Can’t March in Lock-step

Berlin-Zehlendorf, Bruno-Taut apartments. I knock at the door of my old guitar teacher. We haven’t seen each other in a long time. For 30 years we met every week, after that only sporadically. When I was still his student, “Coco” Schumann didn’t want to speak about his personal history. It was only in 1997 that he struggled with the decision to publicize an account of his life as “The Ghetto Swinger.” Thanks to his music, he survived several concentration camps and became one of the most significant jazz musicians of the postwar era. Coco shuffles down the narrow stairs, in his slippers and bathrobe. 11:30 AM is still damn early for a jazz musician.

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Eckart von Hirschhausen: Hello, Coco, how are you?

Coco Schumann: Man, Ecki, you’re a medical doctor. I don’t have to dress myself properly for you, or…?

EVH: No, I’ll take that as a vote of confidence. Do you have someone who helps you?

CS: Yes, one of the outpatient caregivers comes by. Before, women always wanted to undress me. Now, they want to dress me.

On the wall hangs a poster of Marlene Dietrich, whom he accompanied in concert at the beginning of 1946. Underneath, always within reach: the case with his guitar.

EVH: You should have actually taught me classical guitar, but that didn’t interest you. That’s why you have always taught jazz to your students.

CS: I have at least tried to do that.

EVH: There’s a joke, where the doctor says to the musician: “You have two more weeks to live.” To that the musician says…

CS: “…On what?” I know it. But it’s not a joke.

EVH: Is that why you became a teacher at the music school in Zehlendorf?

CS: Clearly I had to make a living somehow. So I’ve gladly hung around with guys like you.

EVH: You have always said: “Notes are only black dots…”

CS: … and one has to bring them to life. That’s why I’ve always liked jazz and swing, because you don’t just have to play what someone else once composed.

Coco didn’t fit in at the music school. Whether I practiced or not didn’t make a difference to him. He was just chill, fun loving, with a melancholic side that I felt even when I had no idea what he has been through.

EVH: How important is the silence in music?

CS: Pauses are enormously important. Otherwise, it turns into repetitive monotone. My teacher Hans Korseck said: The most important notes are the ones you don’t play.

EVH: Where did your feelings for swing come from?

CS: It’s innate. You can’t learn it. It comes from within.

EVH: In jazz, music always has something to do with life. Is it then an advantage to have had an eventful, at times not easy life?

CS: Yes. Anything that has something to do with feelings, one can transfer to the music – the high points and the low points.

EVH: One basis of jazz is the blues – a form that can help explore human suffering.

CS: Jewish music also has a lot to do with blues. With klezmer music, feeling is just as important. The blacks made blues socially acceptable; Jewish immigrants did the same with the other music, film music. Both forms met halfway.

EVH: I remember once when you told a short story about when you were in jail – you mumbled you were dragged into some sort of mess. There was never talk of the concentration camps. Why didn’t you want to talk about your life story for so long?

CS: They didn’t have a lot to do with one another, the music lessons and what I experienced as a youngster. That was simply a different life. Theresienstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau. I had the feeling that no one would be able to understand what had happened. I myself couldn’t.

EVH: But at some point you decided to talk about your life.

CS: I kept getting asked. Man, write a book already. First, recently, one of the nurses said that to me. I got up and took my book off the shelf.

EVH: When I was taking lessons from you, I was the age that you started being followed as a Jew. Have you ever thought to yourself, Man, young people these days don’t know how good they have it?

CS: No, those thoughts didn’t occur to me at the time. Also, as a young person I did what I wanted – even though it was forbidden.

EVH: You played for your admirers on the Wannsee Strandbad, even though in 1941, going there [or any public park] was strictly prohibited [for Jews].

CS: We didn’t give a shit. I’ve always had a big mouth. When I came to a police control, I didn’t run away, instead I asked totally seriously: “Mr. Obersturmfuehrer, how do you get to so and so street?” So I always made it through [the checkpoints] pretty well.

Within sight of the Strandbad still stands the villa in which the Wannsee conference of January 1942 took place, where the “Final Solution” was organized. Coco often had great luck. He was also quick witted in many respects. He grew up in the middle of Berlin in the Scheunenviertel [Barnyard Quarter], liked to box, played the drums, and impressed women. His nickname originated during this period and was given to him by a French woman who couldn’t pronounce his name, “Heinz”.

EVH: Your hiding place was in the public. You had a wild life.

CS: Yes, until 1943, when someone ratted me out and I was arrested. I was officially accused of not wearing my Jewish star, of playing forbidden music, and of seducing Aryan women. I landed at the gathering place on Grosse Hamburger Strasse, where the deportations were assigned. I was scheduled for Auschwitz, but my father, who was not Jewish, called out to officer Dobberke – I will never forget that name. My father told him that he had fought at the front during the First World War, and he begged: Please send my son to Theresienstadt – where my grandparents were. He was an ice cold type, but my father softened him and I was sent to Theresienstadt.

Coco became a part of a macabre scenario, where the Nazis tried to convince The Red Cross that their ghettos were humane. The Ghetto-Swingers played in coffee houses while at the train station, trains left for Auschwitz; two months after Coco’s arrival, his grandparents were deported and killed in the gas chambers.

EVH: What did the Nazis not like about swing music?

CS: That it’s Negro and Jew music. The music was suspect to them, because it didn’t come from Germany and from the so-called Aryans. Anyone with swing in his blood doesn’t march in lockstep.

EVH: How was it to play music that was forbidden by the Nazis in the ghetto?

CS: When I played, I forgot where I was. I forgot hunger and misery, the emaciated people, the many dead. We were a “normal” band with “normal” fans. We knew everything and forgot everything in the same moment. The music was a shield. Music and jokes.

EVH: Do you still know any?

CS: An SS officer calls out to a prisoner. “I’ll give you a piece of bread if you can tell me which of my eyes is a glass eye.” “The right one – It looks so kind.”

EVH: You came to Auschwitz-Birkenau and looked into the eyes of Dr. Josef Mengele, who assigned you to forced labor. Then the SS had you play La Paloma, a love song from the Hans Albers film Grosse Freiheit Nr. 7, during which prisoners were sent to the gas chamber. How could you play this song ever again?

CS: For many years I couldn’t. Then I tried it as a joke with the announcement: “Next, we’ll play La Paloma in German: ‘The Black Chicken.” Then everyone laughed. The song can’t help it if it’s being misused. I have tried not to mix up Auschwitz with my life after the war.

EVH: You were the first person in Germany with an electric guitar. Where did it come from?

CS: We built a pick up on an acoustic Roger guitar. After the war, heaps of radio operator headphones from the armed forces were laying around. I heard Charlie Christian and said: Man, what is that strange sound? Someone explained to me that they attach a pick up to the bottom of the strings. That’s how you can amplify the sound. He asked if he should make me one. That’s how I got the sound.

EVH: After the war you played music everywhere, in many clubs, with big bands, on cruise ships – what was your favorite musical era?

CS: With Helmut Zacharias. Him on the violin, me on guitar, then it went from there. After the war, jazz flourished in Germany. Helmut and I understood each other very well. I would whisper to him during the concert: “Helmut, did you see the boy in the third row?” “No.” “You didn’t hear what he said to his mother?” “No, what did he say?” “When uncle starts snoring, then we can finally go home.”

EVH: Helmut has said about you: “Coco knows what I play before I play it!”

CS: That’s one of the secrets of swing. I also admired Jimi Hendrix, but I never wanted to play my guitar with my teeth. I also never wanted to copy anyone.

EVH: Which you also taught me: Find your own style. Only when you are being copied, are you any good. When you have found your style and your audience. You had to have played in the Berlin clubs and bars every night until the morning hours.

CS: Arrive at nine in the evening at the Red Rose in Europa Center, then Club von Bubi Scholz, and leave at five in the morning. And if we had admirers who sent us a few rounds [of Schnapps], it would often become noon. Explain that to your wife!

EVH: You have played with famous musicians, here’s the poster from Titania-Palast.

CS: That was with Marlene Dietrich in Berlin in 1946. The Americans gave my band a standing ovation, we named ourselves the Melody Trio. And there were many jam sessions with Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie or Ella Fitzgerald. The bar everyone came to was on Stutti, The Stuttgart Place in Charlottenberg.

EVH: Do you still play guitar?

CS: No. I practice sometimes, but I’ve noticed that in my old age I have forgotten a lot. I used to play everything without sheet music, and now I ask myself where it all went. Somewhere up here it’s getting calcified … But the feeling, everything is still there.

We take the guitar out, as soon as Coco has it on him, the music starts. “One Note Samba” – a Brazilian Bossa Nova. The swing is always there, the rhythm is in the blood, but the fingers have become slow. We pack up everything carefully. The guitar is Coco’s sanctuary.

CS: So, kids, that really was the last time that I took the guitar out.

EVH: Is it awful to be 90?

CS: It’s worse to not be it. What will I do when I’m 91? After all, until this past year, I’ve always been able to perform [on stage].

EVH: In your life, you’ve always been pretty close to death – do you then lose the fear?

CS: I never think about it. I don’t complain that I was in wartime concentration camps. I rejoice that I survived. I am also not the concentration camp survivor who makes music. I’m a musician who was once in concentration camps.

EVH: Today, there are modern therapy methods for many who suffered tragedies. Did you ever see a psychotherapist?

CS: No.

EVH: Was music your therapy?

CS: Yes, I always say, as long as I am making music, I have no time to grow old. There is something in the world that protected me. My life, my joy for living, they were not able to take that away from me then, and I am not going to let anybody take it away from me now. I look every morning into the mirror and think: I can’t be as old as I look.

EVH: You are a phenomenon…

CS: … are you kidding me?

EVH: Nonsense. I admire you so. Or to say it with a song: There will never be another you!

CS: It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing!

EVH: If I had a pill that would allow you to forget your traumatic memories, would you take it?

CS: No. It all belongs to my life. It’s all been part of my destiny, and it shall be so. I have no regrets in life.

Born in May 1924, Coco grew up in Berlin. His father, baptized Christian, married a Jewish woman in the Jewish community. Therefore, by the Nazi definition Coco was a “half Jew.” Like many others, the family trusted the new regime wouldn’t be in power for long. And Coco was more interested in music anyway.

In July 1936, the twelve year old sat on the wall outside the Delphi Palace on Kantstrasse and heard the saxophonist Teddy Stauffer with his band. That’s when he knew that he wanted to become a musician, and he began to play with jazz bands, first as a drummer starting in 1938 and then as a guitarist.

What Coco’s eyes have seen remains unimaginable for my generation. After he spent 17 months in Theresienstadt, he was deported to Auschwitz. In the morning hours of October 3, 1944, he arrived at one of the most horrid places of the 20th century – the platform of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Coco stood firmly in front of Dr. Josef Mengele, the SS camp doctor who would determine his life or death, and was assigned to hard labor. And, hard to believe: on the same day, a fan recognized him who had often heard him play in Berlin, and gave him a guitar [from the pile of requisitioned possessions]. So Coco made music in Auschwitz: for the camp inmates or for the entertainment of SS guards. Often his band stood at the gate of the camp and played “La Paloma” while men, women, and children bound for death were marched into the gas chambers. Coco played in hell in order to survive.

In January 1945, as the Red Army approached, Coco was brought to the Bavarian Kaufering camp [an outpost of Dachau], from where the SS forced the inmates on a death march toward Innsbruck. But death didn’t arrive – in Wolfrathausen, the prisoners were liberated by Americans.

At the beginning of July 1945, Coco was back in Berlin. One of his first walks took him to Ku’damm, where he heard swing music coming from a basement. Coco went downstairs – sitting there was a musician with whom he had played before his arrest. First there was dead silence – then a huge welcome. Coco snatched up a guitar and once again played along.

Translation by Ellie Shoja and Karin Howard, copyright DoppelHouse Press 2015