Above: Jean-Paul Samputu, who lost his family, sings and talks about the genocide
The tragic events surrounding the Rwandan genocide of 1994 must never be forgotten. They are a major reason why some of us despise the isolationists of the right and the so-called “anti-imperialist” “left.” It occurs to me that a new generation of socialists has grown up largely unaware of these events, and miseducated by the isolationism -in-principle of people like the ‘Stop the War Coalition.’
The following is a modified and edited version of the account written by Janice Anderson, Anne Williams and Vivian Head in their book War Crimes and Atrocities (Futura, 2007):
In a period of 13 weeks from 6 April 1994, about half a million people perished in a mass slaughter of the minority Tutsi population of Rwanda, a tiny country in Central Africa. Thousands of the majority Hutus were also slain for opposing the killings
Rwanda’s population is divided into two ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis. The Hutus are the more numerous and are by tradition crop growers and farmers. Over the centuries, Hutus have encouraged Tutsis from northern Africa to come and work in Rwanda and, for over 600 years, the two groups shared the same language, culture and nationality.
Rwanda was first colonised by the Germans, but during World War I it was taken over by the Belgians, who caused a rift between the two groups by granting preferential status to the Tutsis. Then European missionaries added a further twist, by encouraging the Hutus to fight back, resulting in the loss of over 100,00 lives in a rebellion in 1956. Three years later the Hutus had seized power and over 200,000 Tutsis retreated to neighbouring countries where they formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), an army dedicated to taking on the Hutus.
When Rwanda became independent in 1962, the Hutus took power, but were constantly fearful of Tutsi retaliation, which eventually came in 1990, when the RPF attacked, forcing the then-president to sign a power-sharing agreement that was never properly implemented due to Hutu opposition. The situation was made even worse when a plane carrying the Burundi president (a Hutu) was shot down.
Aware that the fragile ceasefire was about to crumble, the UN sent a peacekeeping force of about 2,500 multinational soldiers, but by this time the majority of Hutus, including much of their political and religious leadership, had decided that the Tutsis had assassinated their president and that the only solution was to annihilate the entire Tutsi population.
In April 1994, amid ever-increasing threats of violence, the Rwandan president, Habyarimana and the new Burundi president, Cyprien Ntaryamira, held peace talks with the Tutsi rebels. But disaster struck on 6 April, when the small plane carrying the two presidents was shot down by ground-fired missiles as it approached Kigali airport. Their deaths plunged Rwanda into a frenzied state of political violence, leading to genocide.
Just 24 hours after the plane was shot down, road-blocks started to appear on the roads around Kigali, manned by the Interahamwe militia. The Interahamwe (meaning ‘Those Who Stand/Fight Together’) was the most effective of the Hutu militias. They identified Tutsis and hacked them to death with machetes. Tutsis who could afford to pay were given the option of dying by a bullet. Specially organised death squads, working from prepared lists, went from neighbourhood to neighbourhood in Kigali. Not only did they round up all the Tutsis, but they picked on moderate Hutus as well, including prime minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana: he was guarded by Belgian UN guards, who the attackers arrested, tortured and then killed, causing Belgium to withdraw the remainder of its UN troops.
The violence spread like wildfire from Kigali. Via the radio, the government urged Tutsis to congregate at churches, schools and stadiums, promising that they would make these safe places of refuge. Little did the Tutsis know that by gathering in large groups they in fact made themselves easy targets. Some of the victims managed to ward off attacks by using sticks and stones — until the joint forces of the Rwandan army and presidential guard were brought in to wipe them out with machine guns and grenades. In just two weeks, by 21 April, it is generally estimated that about 250,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered, making this one of the most concentrated acts of genocide ever.
What made the genocide even more atrocious is the fact that it was encouraged by government and church officials, who even bribed the killers to do their dirty work. Local officials and leaders of Anglican and Catholic churches conspired with the killers and in many cases took an active part in the slaughter. Men, women, children and babies were killed in their thousands in schools and churches where, tragically, they had gathered in the hope of finding sanctuary. The victims had to bear the knowledge that they were being killed by people they knew — neighbours, fellow workers, sometimes even relatives by marriage.
The Interahamwe weren’t driven by drink, drugs or even mindless bloodlust, but a fanatical devotion to their cause. They were cold-blooded killers who were urged on by the media and by the government. Participants were often given incentives, such as money or food, and were even told they could keep the land of the Tutsis they killed.
The radio was important in spreading the killing. Even the poorest households would possess a radio and people would listen intently to government broadcasts. When Hutus heard the voices coming through the radio calling on them to “kill, kill. kill the Tutsi minority”, they responded accordingly.
The genocide was initially aimed mainly at young male Tutsis who could have been members of the RPF guerrilla force. However, as the days went by women and children also became victims. Survivors later told stories of being aped by individuals or gangs, sometimes using sharpened sticks or gun barrels. Sometimes they were sexually mutilated or forced into “marriages” that made them a sex slaves.
The killing didn’t stop until July when the RPF finally managed to capture Kigali, causing the collapse of the government. A ceasefire was declared as soon as the Hutus realised that the RPF was victorious, and an estimated two million Hutus fled to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). It wasn’t until the killing stopped that UN troops and aid workers arrived in significant numbers – while it was going on there had been just a token and entirely impotent UN presence.
Why was it that while the genocide was happening the international community deserted Rwanda? Erratic media coverage conveyed the false notion of two ‘tribes’ of African ‘savages’ mindlessly killing each other as they had done for many years. As a result there was little public pressure in the West for governments to intervene. Controversy has raged ever since over the role (or lack of it) of foreign governments and the UN in allowing the genocide to proceed. It wasn’t until 7 April 2000, the sixth anniversary of the massacre, that Belgium’s prime minister apologised for the international community’s failure to intervene. He told an audience at the site of a memorial that, “A dramatic combination of negligence, incompetence and hesitation created the conditions for the tragedy.”
Linda Melvin, in the Guardian, points out that General Roméo Dallaire, the UN force commander in Rwanda in 1994 had wanted just 5,500 reinforcements to stand guard at places where desperate people were sheltering; this would have sent a clear signal to the machete-wielding Interahamwe that the world would not stand for their brutality.
Melvin concludes her important piece as follows:
The 20th commemoration of the genocide sees fine words spoken by all and it seems timely to reflect on why Rwanda was so quickly abandoned to its fate in 1994. There has never been a satisfactory explanation for the indifference over Rwanda. Western governments – the US, UK, Belgium, France – continue to withhold a wealth of information about events. Neither the US nor the UK, two permanent members of the UN security council, has ever answered accusations of a failure to abide by obligations under the 1948 genocide convention, nor revealed the information on which their decisions were based. The failure to critically examine the role of ministers and officials has further encouraged the sort of secretive and unaccountable decision-making that will no doubt shroud the decision-makers today and those who sit and read the cables.
With no official inquiry by either the US or the UK, blame for inaction over the genocide has simply slipped away from the officials and politicians responsible. This might be a suitable time to find out why the UK government was so determined in the security council that Dallaire’s UN peacekeepers be withdrawn from Rwanda, leaving behind a “token force” in order to “appease public opinion” – not to protect civilians but to try to negotiate a ceasefire in the civil war.
Since 1994 there has been an almost continuous series of debates, studies and resolutions on the failure over Rwanda. These have shown how little true humanitarianism there is at the heart of states that both possess abundant resources and profess a commitment to human rights. Nothing has changed.
By Simon Winder in the latest edition of Standpoint magazine (yes, I know that Standpoint is generally a right-of centre publication, but that doesn’t mean everything that appears there is wrong. This strikes me as a well-argued and perceptive piece, written from a left-of-centre perspective, that pro-independence leftists would do well to study, even if the suggestion that Salmond’s rhetoric is “effectively fascist” or that the SNP’s ideology is “national socialist” is, perhaps, a little OTT. It should not be assumed that everyone associated with Shiraz Socialist agrees with everything - or even anything -in the article):
Alex Salmond’s blend of flag-waving and leftist economics is all too similar to the ideologies that ravaged 20th-century Europe
Last summer, when I was checking the proofs for my book about the Habsburg Empire, Danubia, I found myself reflecting on the way that across Central Europe over the past century and a half different forms of nationalism have done almost untold damage. Wherever I travelled there were entire towns whose populations had been killed or expelled at the command of one form of nationalist zealot or another. My conclusion (which I am sure is an uncontentious one) was that anyone who makes exclusive claims based around flags, songs or mystical and immemorial borders was at some base level evil — that to believe in such things, which have more in common with magic than rationality, puts the believer and his disciples en route to catastrophe. And then I thought about Alex Salmond.
The Habsburg Empire, which was destroyed during the course of the First World War, joined together part or whole of 12 modern European countries and stretched from the Alps to western Ukraine. It was hardly a model of rationality and could often be cynical or incompetent – but it seems like a vision of paradise compared to the nihilistic disaster that unfolded for its inhabitants from 1914 to the end of the Cold War. Several generations found themselves savaged by all the most horrible elements in Europe’s formidable armoury of creepy prejudices sprinkled with a dusting of intellectualism – what language you spoke, your religion, your political views had you herded into different camps at different times. In the end nobody won. Whatever terrible crimes the Communists carried out they at least had a salutary attitude towards the nationalists scattered across Central Europe who had done so much to support the Nazis and to poison community after community that had until then generally lived cheek-by-jowl for centuries, if not in harmony then in grudging indifference.
The lesson of the Habsburg Empire’s demise is probably that multinational states are extremely valuable. They define themselves by some measure of tolerance and the heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand, had until his assassination, planned for his accession all manner of schemes to federalise the Empire. Before the catastrophe of the First World War very few of the Empire’s inhabitants imagined that independence was even a rational option. Even Tomáš Masaryk, later to found Czechoslovakia, could only imagine a federal solution – the lands of Bohemia and Moravia which he wished to have autonomy were simply filled with too many people who could never be reconciled to rule by Czech-speakers, as turned out to be the case.
This is when I started to think about Salmond. The United Kingdom is Europe’s last big multinational state – and in that sense vulnerable to what nationalists love to think of as “the tide of history”. But the disasters of the 20th century have perhaps taught us that there are many problems with nationalist ideas on sovereignty. Indeed the European Union was created specifically in order to neuter these problems. One hardly discussed reason why the EU might be antagonistic towards Scottish independence is that Salmond’s rhetoric and reality swim in exactly the opposite direction to all the most positive European trends since 1945. While most of Europe pools its sovereignty, here is someone yet again making mystical claims for the greater virtue that would emerge from drawing a ring around a particular chunk of land.
Honouring an anti-fascist hero and woman of incredible courage:
Above: famine/genocide in Ukraine, 1932-33
Thanks to Roger McCarthy for drawing our attention to this article by Gary Brecher. It makes depressing reading and it should not be assumed that we endorse all the sentiments expressed. But it seems to be well-informed and is certainly well worth a read:
Reading the Anglo-American press babble on about Crimea is painful, if you know anything at all about that part of the world.
Mark Ames tried to wipe away some of the slime a few weeks ago in his article, “Everything You Know about Ukraine Is Wrong,” — and you can just assume that everything you know about Crimea is even wrong-er. Today I’ll try to take apart the nonsense going around about the Crimean Referendum and impending union with Russia.
It’s not easy diagnosing the psychotic episode brought on in the western media by Crimea, because anti-Russian stories are pushing two totally contradictory lines at the same time. Sometimes the party line is that Putin has gone crazy, and Russia is a joke, “a gas station masquerading as a country” that will pay a “big price” for grabbing the Crimean Peninsula.
Then there’s the neocon version of Russophobia, peddled by shameless old Iraq-Invasion boosters like Eli Lake. According to Lake’s latest in the Daily Beast, “Russia is invading Ukraine in the shadows.” The proof? Eli don’t need no stinkin’ proof. He’s been told that the dreaded SpetzNaz troops—Nazgul with black ski masks—are “spreading out” through the entire territory of Ukraine. His source? “U.S. officials who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity.”
When you read a story by a shameless war shill like Lake, it’s fun to count the qualifiers and disclaimers:
“The same [Russian] special forces that appear to be rigging the elections in Crimea…”
“[t]he Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) arrested a group of people led by a Ukrainian citizen who were said to be scoping out three of its most crucial military divisions…”
“The forces behind these operations, according to U.S. officials briefed on the updates in Ukraine, are likely the Spetsnaz…”
And finally, my personal favorite:
“On the ground in Ukraine, such confusion reigns that the role of Spetsnaz is hard to confirm. But its involvement would come as no surprise.”
If you’re old enough to have lived through the mass lobotomy that afflicted America in the leadup to the 2003 invasion, the phrasing and logic of that last quote should be painfully familiar. It amounts to this: “We have no proof but they [Saddam, the Russians, whoever you want to spend a few trillion blasting] did it anyway.”
I’m not saying Eli Lake has no more shame than a hungry weasel, but that’s what was said to me, on condition of anonymity, by the same Leprechaun who told Ralph Wiggum to burn things.
Whoops, I outed my Leprechaun source, and on St. Paddy’s day, no less. Well, no big deal—he happens to be gay, this leprechaun, so they wouldn’t have let him in the parade anyway.
You can reasonably assume that the same anonymous U.S. officials who told Lake that Russian special forces are behind all the uproar in Ukraine are the same geniuses who informed him, when he was cheerleading for the Iraq Invasion, that Saddam Hussein was tight with Al Qaeda.
Lake was so attached to that idea that even after the rest of the neocons admitted they might’ve been wrong—not that they ever apologized to the families of the dead—Lake was still looking for proof that Saddam and Osama were in it together and trying one more time in 2013 with a ridiculous claim that an “Al Qaeda conference call”—seriously, Eli said that—forced US embassy closures around the world.
The call, according to Eli, was “like a meeting of the Legion of Doom.” Especially since it turned out to be fictional, not to say totally made up, as anybody with the barest knowledge of insurgent technique knew the second they read Eli’s comic-book fantasy. Al Qaeda is headstrong but not stupid, or at least not stupid enough to do a 20-member “conference call.”
But the “Legion of Doom” theory is all Eli knows; it’s how he makes his living. It’s a template, the kind where you just fill in the bad-guy name and run it through the same old program. Out come the SpetzNaz and the anti-SpetzNaz funding, which is what Eli and his anonymous NatSec sources are all about anyway.
The two versions of Russia—McCain’s “gas station masquerading as a country” and Lake’s fearsome conqueror—both start from the same bitter knowledge, even if Senator McCain and Mr. Lake will never admit that fact in public. It’s a simple one: Russia will take Crimea, won’t pay a big price for it, and there’s not a thing anyone can do about it.
They all know Russia has a free hand in Crimea. Just look at McCain’s punchline: “A gas station masquerading as a country,” Why “gas station”? Because Russia is now the world’s #1 oil exporting nation, topping Saudi Arabia—that beacon of democracy and fine American ally—by more than a million barrels a day.
With reserves estimated at 80 billion barrels, Russia will have a stash of what everybody wants for a long, long time.
Which makes it kind of a big gas station, even by I-80 standards. “Two zillion pumps, no waiting!” And Russia’s gas station is never going to run short of customers. The oil market is like the recreational-drugs trade: Pundits may make up stories about “pushers,” but the truth is there’s always more demand than the supply can handle. Nobody needs to push those products; they sell themselves, and people will pay anything to get them. That means the people who own the world’s #1 “gas station” can pretty much do anything they want, like Arrakis, the only spice-exporting planet, in Dune. The crude must flow, no matter how crudely its Russian owners behave.
The only media that seem willing to acknowledge this are the finance sites. They can’t afford to let jingoism affect their bets, so they’ve been surprisingly clear-headed, saying outright that there’s nothing the West can do…
Analysts from Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Bank of America Corp. and Morgan Stanley have said Europe probably won’t back sanctions that limit flows of Russia’s oil and gas. European members of the Paris-based International Energy Agency imported 32 percent of their raw crude oil, fuels and gas-based chemical feedstocks from Russia in 2012.
It’s a sad day for America when you have to get your honest news from the pigs at Goldman Sachs, B of A, and Morgan Stanley. Kind of like Clarice having to walk through a gauntlet of tossed cum to hear Hannibal Lecter’s take on the latest serial killer. But the stats don’t lie: the EU gets a third of its energy from Russia, and no country on earth could survive a one-third cut in energy, especially an optional, self-inflicted one ordered by those up top on behalf of some people who, as far as anyone can tell, actually want to join Russia anyway. Read the rest of this entry »
Above: Crimean referendum. Below: Austria 1938:
NB: the big, central circle was for “yes” votes
I was not the only, or the first, observer to notice the remarkable similarities between the strategy, tactics and justifications use by Putin in his his invasion of the Crimea and those used by Hitler in the Sudetenland in October 1938 - Hillary Clinton noted it as well. The comparison annoyed some of Putin’s sub-Stalinist apologists (including some who, against all the evidence, protest that they’re not that at all), and produced some sneering references to “Godwin’s Law” in the more worldly-wise sections of the bourgeois media.
What the wiseacres seemed not to notice was that nobody claims that Putin nurtures Hitlerian plans for world domination: just that his methods in Crimea bear a remarkable similarity to Hitler’s land-grabs in defence of “German-speaking peoples” and to restore historic borders before WW2. To point that out has nothing to do with “Godwin’s Law” and everything to do with having a grasp of history and an ability to draw appropriate analogies.
Today’s farcical referendum conjures up another highly apposite analogy: the Anschluss incorporation of Austria into Greater Germany, confirmed by a plebiscite in April 1938.
The description that follows is excerpted from the account given in Karl Dietrich Bracher’s The German Dictatorship (Penguin University Books, 1973):
The incorporation of Austria had not only remained the first and most popular objective of National Socialist expansionism … but … [was also] its most promising starting point. The Greater German-nationalist demands for self-determination lent effective support to the strategy. Versailles was a thing of the past; an effective defence by the West for this relic of a broken system was hardly likely…
The pseudo-legal seizure of power in Germany served as a model for the planned peaceful conquest … the German Army was working on plans for the invasion of Austria … On 11 March followed the ultimatum from Berlin; Seyss-Inquart [pro-Nazi Austrian Chancellor] after unmistakably clear telephone instructions from Goring in Berlin, opened the borders to the German troops on 12 March 1938, while the Austrian National Socialists took control of the regional governments …
So the coup worked … Amid enormous jubilation of a partly National Socialist, partly mislead population, Hitler moved into ‘his’ Linz and then on to Vienna, where church bells rang out and swastika banners were hoisted on church spires. And on 13 March he proclaimed the ‘reunification of the Ostmark [East March]‘ with the Reich. In tried and true fashion, there followed a Greater German plebiscite on 10 April 1938, which yielded the routine 99 per cent ‘yes’ votes.
The death this morning of Tony Benn is sad news, and all of us here mourn the passing of an honourable (if sometimes misguided) man who sincerely believed he stood for socialist principles.
In the late 1970s and throughout the ’80s Benn was an invaluable asset to the working class and the serious left. Paradoxically , it was later in his career, when he left parliament to “concentrate on politics” (in fact becoming a “national treasure”) that his politics went badly off the rails and he fell in with filthy, reactionary “anti imperialist” shysters like Galloway, German and Rees. Workers Liberty wrote this open letter to him in October 2005. Note that despite their gloves-off criticism of his utterly foolish softness on Saddam and Aziz, the authors acknowledge and pay respect to his role “as a fighter after 1979 against the Labour establishment”:
Dear Tony Benn
You have put your name to a petition on behalf of Saddam Hussein’s deputy Tariq Aziz. You have by now probably seen the newspaper reports that Tariq Aziz will give evidence against his old boss at Saddam Hussein’s trial — evidence that, among other things, Saddam Hussein gave orders for mass murder.
Tariq Aziz had to be there, that is, complicit in Saddam Hussein’s crimes against the peoples of Iraq, in order to be able to testify to such things. We will see what happens at the trial. But no-one has to wait for the trial to know who and what Tariq Aziz is. Yet you put your name to Galloway’s petition.
You, Tony Benn, unlike your co-signatories such as George Galloway have in the last 25 years been a man of the serious, class struggle left. Not infrequently we have disagreed with you on important questions.
But, comrade Benn, you are seriously out of place amidst the other signatories on Galloway’s petition on behalf of his friend Tariq Aziz. We say that not forgetting that on the eve of the US-British attack on Iraq you went to Baghdad and interviews Saddam Hussein in such a soft and accommodating way that the result, broadcast on British TV, was a “party political broadcast” for Saddam Hussein. Read the rest of this entry »
By Sean Matgamna and Martin Thomas (from the Workers Liberty website):
In the small hours of Monday March 12 1984, hundreds of Yorkshire miners moved across the border from Yorkshire into Nottinghamshire. Their destination was Harworth pit, and by the evening shift they had picketed it out.
Over the next few days, hundreds of Yorkshire pickets came down over the border again and spread out across the Notts coalfield. Their mission was to persuade Nottinghamshire’s miners to join them in a strike to stop the pit closures announced by the National Coal Board chief, Ian MacGregor. Their tactic was to picket Notts to a standstill.
In the great miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, miners had picketed coke depots and power stations. In 1984, for reasons which we examine, it had to be miners picketing out miners. That fact dominated and shaped the course of the strike.
Within hours, 1000 extra police had been thrown into Nottinghamshire against the picketing miners. Within days there would be 8000 extra police – highly mobile, centrally-controlled, semi-militarised police -moving – around the coalfields of Nottinghamshire.
The state had spent a dozen years preparing for this strike and everything had been made ready. Plans to beat mass picketing had been refined; police had been trained; special equipment had been assembled; and a national police nerve centre had been prepared and readied for action.
The Tory government had manoeuvred for years to avoid a premature battle with the miners. In 1981 sweeping pit closures were announced, and then withdrawn when a wave of strikes swept the coalfields. The Tories were determined that the battle would come when the government was ready and thought the time right. In 1981 they weren’t ready. The labour movement had not been softened up enough. So Thatcher backed off from a showdown with the NUM.
In 1984 they were ready. Now they would provoke the miners to fight back by giving them the alternative of surrendering and letting the NCB do as it liked with the industry. Read the rest of this entry »
From the BBC’s ‘Higher Bitesize‘ history site:
Hitler’s plans for Czechoslovakia
Sudetenland Invasion, October 1938
In 1938, Hitler turned his attention to the Sudeten area of Czechoslovakia.
The nation of Czechoslovakia had been created after WWI. Two Slavic peoples, the Czechs and the Slovaks, came together to form the country along with three million German speakers from the Sudeten area on the border with Germany, and smaller numbers of Hungarians, Ukrainians and Poles. The 20 years since its creation had seen its democracy and economy flourish.
The main threat to the fledgling nation was from Hitler’s plans for expansion and from the Sudeten Germans who, used to being part of the German-speaking Austrian empire, were not happy at their inclusion in a Slav-controlled state.
By March 1938, Hitler had successfully invaded Austria without a shot being fired. With one major German-speaking territory under his control he then turned his attention to another – the Sudeten area of Czechoslovakia.
Hitler wanted to use the Sudeten Germans to create trouble in Czechoslovakia and, as he had in the Rhineland and Austria, use this as a pretence for invading and “restoring order”.
Not content with merely one piece of Czechoslovakia, Hitler planned to smash the country. The Czechs and Slovaks were of Slavic origin and, according to Hitler’s racial proclamations that the German/Aryan people were superior to other races, they were considered Untermenschen (subhuman).
Hitler builds the tension
Hitler financed and supported the Sudeten German Party under Conrad Henlein. With Hitler’s backing the party became a force to be reckoned with in Czechoslovakia.
- In March 1938, Hitler ordered Henlein to create a crisis in the country. The Sudeten Germans made increasingly bold demands from the government. When the demands could not be met they insisted that they were being persecuted.
- In April 1938, Henlein announced his Karlsbad Programme for Sudeten self-government, and organised civil unrest.
- In May 1938, Hitler moved his armies to the Czech border to intimidate the Czechoslovakian President, Benes. In response, Benes mobilised the Czech army into positions along the border.
- In July 1938, Hitler promised Britain’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, that he would not invade Czechoslovakia if he were given control of the Sudetenland.
- In September 1938, Hitler made an inflammatory speech against the Czechoslovakian President, Benes, at a Nazi rally at Nuremberg.
- On the 12 September, the Sudeten Germans rioted and martial law was declared in Czechoslovakia.
Read the rest here
I recently came upon a stash of old jazz magazines, including some copies of ‘The Jazz Record’, edited by pianist-bandleader Art Hodes and his sidekick Dale Curran between 1943 and 1947. It’s fascinating stuff, full of contemporary reports of what was going on at Nick’s in Greenwich Village and what the likes of Pee Wee Russell, Sidney Bechet, Eddie Condon and James P. Johnson were up to. The piece reproduced below is from the January 1945 edition of the magazine, and I found it particularly moving. Clarinettist Rod Cless is now all but forgotten, but in the early 1940′s was a well-known and popular figure on the New York jazz scene. He died in December 1944 as a result of a fall over a balcony after heavy drinking, and then drinking some more from a bottle or flask smuggled in to him in hospital. This obituary – by someone who is obviously a close friend – strikes me as worth republishing as an example of how jazz people mourn:
By James McGraw
The rain fell from our hats in rivulets and formed little puddles on the warm mahogany. The old bartender looked annoyed as he served the two drinks we had ordered. We drank the raw whiskey in silence and pushed the shot glasses in front of us to indicate another round. Ray Cless fidgeted with his change. My finger traced designs with the water on the bar. Ray lit another cigarette while the other one in the ash tray still burned. He had brought cartons of them all the way from Greenland for his first leave from army duty in sixteen months. He had come to New York to celebrate the leave with his brother Rod.
We had been like this all the way in the cab. The wind slapped the rain against the misted windows with a force that made it sound like hail. The tires hummed a dirge on the wet pavement. We were wet and cold and gloomy. We tried to make conversation. Whatever subject we chose ended up the same way. No matter what we tried to talk about, Rod’s name was soon brought in and then we became silent again. That’s the way it was when we left St. Vincent’s Hospital and started up to the Medical Examiner’s Office at Bellevue and stopped off at this bar for a drink we both needed badly.
The doctor in the white apron at St. Vincent’s had been polite. Polite and nice in an officious way. He had asked Ray the usual perfunctory questions about relatives, names, dates of birth and so forth. He had escorted us down to an oven-hot basement to identify the body. He had said, “There are the remains of Rod Cless.” No reflection on him. he was hardened by the sight of corpses every day — every hour. He could not be held accountable for saying , “There are the remains of Rod Cless.”
How was he to have known that the real remains of Rod Cless were not on that cold slab before him? How could the poor fellow be expected to know that the best remains of Rod Cless were at that very moment and always would be rooted deeply, indelibly in the hearts and minds and souls of myriad jazz lovers in all corners of this war-torn world? How could he ever understand the lasting enjoyment that Rod’s clarinet had brought to all those who had been fortunate enough to hear his music? Did he ever experience the great thrill of hearing Rod play Eccentric and notice the technical mastery with which he handled his instrument? Did he hear him on records with Muggsy’s Ragtime Band or did he happen to catch him any night this past summer at the Pied Piper with Max Kaminsky when it was 90 outside and 120 in?
No, Doctor, those are not the remains of Rod Cless. His remains are scattered widely — in churches and in saloons, in brothels and in sewing circles, in fox-holes, submarines and bombers, in drug dens and in missionaries’ huts, in schools, in offices, in factories, in spaghetti joints on the south side and in Harlem rib emporiums, in tawdry dance halls and in glittering night clubs — everywhere you look — north, South, East, West, up or down — he’s there and he’s playing the clarinet; blowing his top and loving it, putting his heart, his soul, his guts, yes, his very life into that slender piece of black wood.
Why did he do it? Because he loved it and because tens of thousands of others love it. He was born to be a jazzman and he died just that. No more, no less, Doctor. Here is how it happened:
He was born George Roderick Cless in the year 1907 in Lenox, Iowa. At the age of 16 he played saxophone in the school band. Later, his family moved to Des Moines and at the age of 20, Rod went to Chicago. That was in the days when Chicago was the “toddling town.” Rod hung around the speaks where the finest jazz was being made. He listened for a while and he practiced constantly and then he took a job with a small band. Before long the quality of his playing (he doubled on alto and clarinet) was found out by such noted Chicago jazzmen as Teschmaker, Freeman, Condon and McPartland. Soon he played many dates with these men in top-notch bands and came to be known as one of the outstanding musicians in those parts. One night he went to the Sunset Café to hear Louis’ outfit. Johnny Dodds was sitting in. Rod listened to the clear, beautiful notes that came from Dodds’ clarinet. He was playing Melancholy Blues. The purity of tone and the amazing flash and brilliance with which Dodds used his instrument, decided Rod that this was it. Here is what he was after and he would settle for nothing less. At every opportunity he listened to the wondrous melodies, the variations which Dodds could produce from a well-worn clarinet. He took some lessons from Johnny. He knew now he was on the right path. He never played the sax again. From there he went to Spanier’s Ragtime Band. Read the rest of this entry »