Son of Il Duce, disciple of Duke

Romano Mussolini was always more interested in Duke Ellington than world domination. But when the dictator's son arrived in London to play jazz, his concert was hijacked by the ghosts of his past. By Peter Popham

Peter Popham
Tuesday 05 March 1996 00:02

Romano Mussolini's recent visit to London would have passed off in complete obscurity had it not been for a small slip-up. Mussolini, son of the late dictator and father of the Italian neo-Fascist deputy Alessandra Mussolini, is a professional jazz pianist and was in town to give a concert. Jazz does not pay: as Romano himself remarks, "It's the most unpopular popular music." Casting around f or a sponsor for the concert, the organiser, an Italian businessman, hit upon an Italian accommodation agency, Meeting Point, which was glad to underwrite it.

Too late it was discovered that Meeting Point is run by two self-declared Fascists, Massimo Morsello and Roberto Fiore, who in Italy have been sentenced to three years in prison in absentia for membership of an illegal organisation and an armed gang. "We are Fascists," they told reporters, while denying that Mussolini's concert was to be a Fascist rally. "We are organising this out of respect for Romano's father."

As a result, a couple of dozen demonstrators from the Anti-Nazi League were waiting outside the Marriott Hotel in London where the concert was held; at one point they broke in and were involved in scuffles with the organisers' security guards. The concert proceeded without interruption, but it was not quite the "pleasant evening in a luxurious atmosphere" that the organisers had promised, permeated as it was by the air of tension created equally by the Anti-Nazis outside and the inordinate number of hatchet-faced young Italians in dark suits cracking their knuckles around the periphery of the hall.

Anchored by the presence of Carlo Loffredo, the veteran bass player who is Italy's best-known jazz musician, it was a brilliant evening of nostalgia for the almost entirely Italian audience. There was virtuoso playing not only from Mussolini but also from the young clarinetist Peppino D'Amato. A crooner called Paolo Baccillieri, star of a television pop show hugely popular in the late Fifties, sent the audience into paroxysms of happiness. The last time Mussolini played in London, at a festival in Soho three years ago, the Evening Standard declared, "They came, they saw, they bombed." This time around, such a judgement would have been wildly unfair.

But as a result of the demonstration and ensuing publicity, Romano Mussolini was frozen for a brief moment in the glare of unwelcome publicity. Intrigued by how a man burdened with such a name has lived his life, I went to see him shortly before he flew back to Rome.

We met in the comfortable Kensington flat where he had been staying. He wore a dark grey suit and sober tie. The family resemblance is hard to detect: he's bald, though not as bald as Benito was; but while his father exuded passionate intensity and fierce determination, Romano's face is generally wreathed in a kindly smile. He's relatively tall and lean; Benito was short and tending to stoutness. Papa devoted his life to the goal of total power with terrifying single- mindedness; figlio has done this and that, dabbling in business and film production as well as music. Even in his chosen musical field he preserves an air of dilettantism: he is a very good jazz pianist in the swing idiom, and has played with many of the greats, Ornette Coleman, Lionel Hampton and the like. But he has never learned to read music. He confesses this with a little self-effacing giggle, as if to add: "That's me all over."

To attempt to make a living playing jazz in Italy is a quixotic undertaking, not likely to result in great riches. But as he explained, his taste for it was acquired early in life. "My brother Vittorio and sister Edda visited London in 1927," he said. "Edda came back with a present for me, a wind- up His Master's Voice gramophone. Vittorio brought back many jazz records - he was crazy about the new music. So I was already listening to the music when I was very, very young."

Romano was born in 1927, and it was a memorable year for the family in other ways, too. Papa had at this point been Duce for five years, and was revelling in the world's admiration. Churchill came to call, and extolled Mussolini's "courteous and simple bearing ... his calm and serenity. His only thought is for the lasting welfare of the Italian people." Aside from the appearance of Romano, this was also the year that Mussolini set about draining the Pontine marshes, looked on complacently as huge statues of himself were erected around the country, passed a law on maternity and infancy to encourage procreation, and rebuffed the advances of Hitler. Romano was named in honour of the grandiose new imperium he planned to build.

Yet Romano's thoughts from a precociously early age were for music. "Our house was always full of music," he told me. "My father was an excellent violinist, my sister played piano, Vittorio cello. My father particularly liked classical music, but he heard a lot of jazz, too - because that was what we played."

Jazz lay about Romano in his infancy, while Papa gritted his teeth and marched on towards war. In 1932 Romano was five: Benito survived two assassination attempts, opened the Via dell'Impero in Rome, and predicted, "Inside 10 years, all Europe will be Fascist..." Mosley's blackshirts marched in London, as if to prove him right. Back at home, meanwhile, Romano discovered Duke Ellington.

And so it went on: public megalomania and a loving family life bizarrely intertwined - or perhaps more often moving in parallel. When the two touched, there was friction. In 1935, when Romano was nine, Paramount films persuaded the Mussolinis to give them fly-on-the-wall access to the family home. After hours of compliantly playing games, kissing the children and jumping on and off his horse, Il Duce blew a fuse. "What does all this sentimentality mean?" he raged. "Is America afraid of me?"

Mostly Benito kept affairs of state for the office. "My family was all for the arts," Romano said. "Vittorio, for example, became a film producer. We talked more about art than politics. And our way of life was quite simple and ordinary: I went to the local state school with the local children."

None the less, I suggested, the family's decline from first family in the land to lowest of the low must have been a shock for a young man?

"It was a crisis in emotional terms," he said, "because of my great love for my father, but it was not a crisis in terms of the family's situation. My father told me, this is politics, this is history." Meanwhile, the American music that nourished him from childhood suddenly assumed a larger significance: in 1943, as the Fascists began to lose the war, Romano took up the piano.

I wanted to know what it must have been like to carry this name throughout the post-war period, when it had been virtually taboo in Italy until recently; when the only people the name attracted were those hopelessly nostalgic for the vanished past, or those disaffected from the country's post-war political realities.

"When I started to play jazz in Italy, I attracted curiosity - but sympathy, not malicious curiosity," he said. "When one is good, people accept. It would be very difficult if I was not a good piano player. The daughter of President Truman, Margaret, wanted to sing, and her father was very interested, but she was not good so she had no success. Jazz is collective music - I don't play alone. So it would have been very difficult if the other players had not accepted me. And whether I was the son of a president or Mussolini or whoever you like, if I hadn't been good, I wouldn't have been accepted."

Surely he must have political opinions of his own?

"I've always shared the ideas of my father," he said, "but I always respect other opinions, too. I've never been an extremist. But I respect the people who remember my father: Fascism was one thing, Mussolini was another, and many people loved my father who were not of the right, not Fascists."

Romano Mussolini smiled his gentle smile: life is complicated, it seemed to say, one can't expect to understand it fully. The son of the inventor of Fascism, father of a standard-bearer of fascism revived, has spent his life immersed in the classical music of the black man. But the world is full of such paradoxes: for example, the Jewish American film producer, a good friend of his brother, who kept a photograph of Benito Mussolini on his desk. "I've made two records in Germany with a jazz musician called Oscar Klein - it's strange, you know, he's Jewish..." His voice trailed off in gentle bemusement.

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