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Music

Jazz against the Nazis: Saxophonist Emil Mangelsdorff turns 90

One of Germany's most famous jazz musicians is turning 90 - and still performing. Saxophonist Emil Mangelsdorff not only witnessed the evolution of modern jazz, but also the atrocities of World War II.

He may be turning 90 on April 11, but alto saxophone legend Emil Mangelsdorff still practices at least three hours a day to keep himself in form. "Daily practice keeps the body fit," he told dpa.

He's also got performances scheduled this year in Augsburg and Munich and at a number of jazz festivals.

Growing up in a musical family in Frankfurt in the 1920s and 30s, Emil Mangelsdorff learned early on that music can be a form of political protest. Because of its origins in the American black community, the Nazis considered jazz racially unsuitable and prohibited the genre. After the Nazis rose to power in Germany, Mangelsdorff and his father secretly listened to jazz on Belgian radio.

The young musician started performing with his ensemble, the Hotclub Combo, in Frankfurt's Rokoko club and studied clarinet at the conservatory in 1942. However, he and his fellow musicians quickly drew the attention of the Nazi authorities, and the secret police, the Gestapo, spied on their concerts.

In April 1943, he was arrested by the Gestapo and spent two weeks in jail before being sent as a soldier to the eastern front until the end of World War II. When the Nazis capitulated in 1945, he was taken prisoner by the Soviets and didn't return to Frankfurt - or his beloved saxophone - until 1949.

Mangelsdorff (far right) with the Hessischer Rundfunk jazz ensemble in 1958, Copyright: Kurt Bethke/Hessischer Rundfunk dpa/lhe

Mangelsdorff (far right) with the Radio Hesse jazz ensemble in 1958

The experience left a lasting impression on Mangelsdorff, who has always felt the need share his experiences. Today, he tells his music students about his war-time experiences and how he and his combo gave their English numbers German titles to avoid suspicion from the regime. "Tiger Rag" became "Die Löwenjagd im Taunus" and "St. Louis Blues" was dubbed "St.-Ludwig's-Serenade."

As the jazz scene evolved, Mangelsdorff continually developed his style, going from 1930s swing to the bebop and cool styles that followed. His career developed parallel to that of his successful younger brother, trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff, who died in 2005 and was an important innovator in trombone playing technique.

After playing with jazz greats like Joe Klimm and Jutta Hipp, Emil Mangelsdorff joined the Frankfurt Allstars and the Jazz Ensemble of Radio Hesse. In 1960, he founded the Emil Mangelsdorff Ensemble, which can be heard here in excerpts from "Songe ma belle" and "Blues Forever."

For Emil Mangelsdorff, music still has strong political power. He frequently performs at political protests, including recent demonstrations against xenophobia in Germany, and union events.

kbm/rf (with dpa)

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