The seven-year-old sat playing the violin at his window in the working class Jewish Rotterdam neighbourhood where he lived with his family. The boy – completely self-taught – found that his love for music provided a temporary escape from his impoverished environment. One day Leon Bloorman, a violin teacher at a conservatory in the city, happened to be walking by and heard the music of the young Louis Bannet. Marching upstairs to the tiny apartment, he took the child for an impromptu audition with the headmaster of the conservatory. Louis was accepted as a student and Bloorman took him under his tutelage.
As the youngest student in the conservatory, Bannet took his studies very seriously. Together with some fellow students, he founded a small orchestra that played at bar mitzvahs or busked on street corners for spare change. Such was his talent that he was selected at the age of twelve to play for the Dutch Queen Wilhemina when she visited the school in 1923.
Although he completed his studies successfully, Bannet found himself struggling to survive after his graduation. The economic environment of interwar Holland was not supportive of struggling young musicians, and he found only odd jobs playing at birthday parties or in an orchestra for silent movies. His musical development was to take a sudden turn when, for the first time, he heard a jazz album by Louis Armstrong. The music totally fascinated him; the moment the teenager held a trumpet in his hands, he knew that this was where his future lay. With the financial support of his uncle, Bannet studied the trumpet with Aaron De Vries, building his technique and listening to any record by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five that he could find.
After several years of building his skills at the horn, Bannet got a position as trumpet player with Anton Swan and the Swantockers, who played in the bustling dance halls and clubs of Amsterdam and The Hague. In 1934, Louis Bannet’s Rhythm Five first began to perform, including drummer Maurits von Kleef, Dick von Heuvel on vibraphone, Lex von Weren on piano and Jac de Vries on bass and saxophone. The new formation successfully toured across central Europe. Bannet added singing to his repertoire, and the papers christened him ‘The Dutch Armstrong’.
It was during the late 1930s that Bannet built his reputation as a horn player. He was not particularly concerned about the Nazis, like most of his fellow Dutch Jews: Holland’s neutrality, along with the Dutch tradition of tolerance, gave him a false confidence.
On 10 May 1940 this confidence was shattered, when the German army invaded, heavily bombing Bannet’s home city. Holland surrendered quickly, and the destruction of Dutch Jewry began soon after. Non-Jewish friends quickly secured Bannet fake papers and a hiding place in the countryside. However, his success counted against him: Gestapo police recognised the musician and arrested him on 15 December 1942. After an interrogation at Gestapo headquarters, the trumpeter was taken to Westerbork, a transit camp and collecting point for Jews awaiting transports to the East.
On 22 January 1943, Bannet was forced onto a train headed for Auschwitz. He was sent to Birkenau, one of a few dozen from his shipment of hundreds to be selected for survival rather than gassing. In Birkenau he met an old friend from Rotterdam, who organised an audition for him and some other Dutch musicians with the kapo of the music block, and he was taken on as a trumpet player in the Birkenau men's orchestra. Along with several other Dutch musicians, Bannet also formed a jazz band that played for the entertainment of jazz-loving Nazis.
By the end of 1944, as the military situation was worsening for Germany and the Red Army was drawing near, the Nazis began mass evacuations of the camps. Bannet and the musicians of the orchestra were put on a cattle train for Sachsenhausen near Berlin. They went on to Ohrdruf, a satellite camp of Buchenwald, to do forced labour. Finally, Bannet was transferred to Buchenwald, where overcrowding and lack of supplies had resulted in total chaos. In the spring of 1945, the exhausted and sick Bannet was sent on a final train journey, this time to Prague.
With the war over, Bannet awoke from a coma in a hospital in Prague. He recovered briefly in the liberated Theresienstadt, before being taken in June 1945 to a Displaced Persons' camp in Bamberg, Germany. Here he resumed his music-making, playing again both trumpet and violin. Soon he met a young survivor named Flora who had lost her husband in Buchenwald. They married and settled in Amsterdam, where Bannet, Maurits von Kleef and Jac de Vries briefly reformed the 'Rhythm Five'. In 1953, Bannet joined the Canadian Army as a musician, and in 1957 settled permanently with his wife and son in Canada. There he continued his musical career, recording seventeen albums ranging from jazz to Hungarian folksongs and Christmas carols. The ‘Dutch Armstrong’ died in Toronto in 2002.
Shuldman, K., 2005. Jazz Survivor: The Story of Louis Bannet, Horn Player of Auschwitz, London & Portland, OR: Valentine Mitchell.