Leo the Lion and Jazz in Denmark during the Nazi Occupation
One of the greatest Danish jazz musicians of all time is Leo Mathisen. He was a total showman in the manner of Thomas “Fats” Waller ... and equally impossible to miss.
He sported a pencil-thin mustache with hair sharply parted down the middle. He chomped away at his signature cigar and made it dance to the swing beat so characteristic of the era.
Audiences in Denmark have celebrated his classic song, “Take It Easy,” ever since its debut in 1940. It's difficult to imagine now, but at the time, a song about relaxing and having fun was considered dangerous. It was so threatening that Mathisen had to scat the melody in indistinguishable syllables instead of singing the actual English lyrics.
The same year that Mathison’s “Take It Easy” debuted, Germany occupied Denmark. They did not leave until 1945.
The Nazis banned singing in English. They made it a preoccupation, if you will, to make life miserable for musicians and jazz enthusiasts who played and appreciated this African-American art form - one that directly challenged Nazi order and control.
Mathisen, on the other hand, is wild, rowdy, and unruly - and can be found almost every weekend at Restaurant Munich in Copenhagen, where he lets loose behind the piano through a thick fog of tobacco smoke.
The clubs become a welcome and much-needed escape from the scary reality of things - venues are a parallel universe that feel more like America than German-occupied Denmark. And although the occupation is horrible for most Danes, the general hardship is good for the growth and expansion of Danish jazz.
When Leo and his band play, the place is packed. There’s a dank, heavy combination of tobacco and sweat in the air. People dance and clap and sing and drink. But Leo has an ace up his sleeve that never fails to take things to another level. Even when it seems like things can’t get any hotter, louder, or more intense... He calls the song “Anita.”
These weekend nights at Restaurant Munich make the darkness around Europe seem far away. In just a few more years, however, the Nazis and their Danish sympathizers, the Schalburg Corps, are harassing, intimidating, and terrorizing the city.
In the summer of 1943, the Danish government was on the verge of resigning. Nazi Germany believed that the policy towards Jews and communists, in particular, is too weak and the moral decline of the Danish youth is not given enough attention.
Singer Freddy Allbeck remembered a particularly tense moment that year at the Odd Fellows Hall.
“Everyone was so nervous. Leo was sitting there, playing with a lump in his throat and a cigar between his teeth. It was the last tune of the concert and we had almost made it all the way through without anything happening. Leo Mathisen took a solo - and his relief and joy in that moment was so overwhelming. He hit the keys so hard that four hammers flew out of the piano, which he had taken the top off of … And all in the same movement, he snatched one of them out of the air. What a crazy moment! Then he took the cigar out of his mouth and replaced it with the hammer he had just plucked out of the air - so now it looked like he was smoking a little wooden pipe! To our great surprise, the Schalburg people sat there and clapped. Their demonstration was sabotaged because they were having too much fun!”
Not every situation like this ended well. The Danish Nazis in the Schalburg Corps bombed the Glasshall - the popular jazz venue in the middle of Tivoli, the amusement park and tourist attraction in central Copenhagen.
Life as a Danish jazz musician in the 1940s is full of extremes. One moment, you can be hailed as a hero by audiences, and the next, you’re running for your life with a brigade of Nazis chasing you.
But in the evenings after closing time, behind thick curtains, one could still find the presence of royalty... the Danish jazz king Leo Mathisen.
Trumpeter Erik Parker describes what could happen on any given night back then. “Once the lights were off and Leo had had a few drinks, he’d go up to the piano and sit down and play. It was in those moments that he was at his best. Because something came out of the piano that I will never, ever forget. I really wish that we had had tape recorders back then. Because if we could had recorded Leo at one of those after hours concerts and heard it today, I think we’d all agree that Leo was not only an excellent jazz musician, but one of the greatest musical talents to ever live.”