Friday, July 15, 2011

How Did Jazz Become French, Anyway?

Jazz at Juan-les-Pins
When I lived in Aix-en-Provence, we hopped from summer jazz fest to jazz fest all around the Provencal region and the South of France. I wasn’t a huge fan yet but the swaying, dancing all-ages crowd around me sure seemed to be. They were mouthing those lyrics and humming those tunes as if they’d grown up on the music.
In fact, most of them had. Across the country, radio stations had long been spinning homegrown jazz as often as American jazz – and their playlist lengthened every year. 

Used to be, when jazz first shocked and entertained Paris out of its World War I doldrums, that Black-played jazz was considered the only real jazz. Boatloads of musicians hit the Normandy shores and took the train straight for Lower Montmartre, aka Black Montmartre. Club owners and club goers couldn’t get enough; the local musicians, however, weren’t thrilled to be pressured to learn this foreign American music. 

And then there were the insightful fans who saw the future of French music in jazz and began the quest of elevating this American ‘pop’ music to an art form. The Jazz Hot Club, formed by Hughes Panassié and Charles Delauney , launched the first Jazz Magazine in Europe from their locale near Rue Pigalle. Here, eager young people could come try out the new sounds, meet the Americans, and gain confidence. Then, two of their protégés formed the first real French jazz band. Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli and their Jazz Hot Quintet toured the region in the 30s, spreading the jazz gospel.

But the occupation of Paris by the Nazis sent Americans back stateside and outlawed so-called degenerate Negro music on the airwaves and in public places.  
"The fervent fans simply took their old New Orleans-style records down to the soundproof, underground cellar clubs of St.Germain-des-Pres and the Latin Quarter."

With no Americans around to show them the chops, and no new records being pressed and distributed, the young French resorted to imitating Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway.

One particularly avid fan was Claude Luter, who formed a band reproducing the sounds of his idol, Sidney Bechet. By 1946, Les Lorientais were considered the best live jazz band, drawing crowds, known as Les Rats de Cave, to their hot, sweaty cellar club near Rue du Vieux-Colombier (6th district). 

The Soundtrack of St.Germain-des-Pres

Like in the 20s, jazz was the music of the French youth. Thousands of them flocked to the St.Germain-des-Pres and Latin Quarter from their native provinces, creating a veritable revolution. They gathered by day in the smoky literary cafés – The Flore, Les Deux Magots, bickering over existentialism with their philosopher king Jean Paul Sartre, lunched at Bart’s on Rue Jacob, then around midnight headed for the jazz mecca. 
Among them was a lanky, balding, ambitious engineer, writer and poet Boris Vian. His nickname became The White Negro for his obsession with Black music and culture. Not surprising he was the one, in April 1947, to open the most infamous of the area’s clubs – The Tabou Club. The same kids who haunted the literary cafes by day, descended treacherous low-ceiling stone stairways into the smoky, damp, joyous cellars to boogey-woogey 'til the wee hours. Decked out in black market American jeans and plaid shirts bought off the GIs, they swung to the same well-scratched records, or to Vian’s old piano or his ever-present trumpet and house band. 

For the rebellious young, jazz was more than about music. At first it was their tool to rebel against the Nazi edict. It composed the soundtrack of their generation. And, by embracing Black American culture they felt they were proving themselves bigger than the American racism.

Return of the Masters

Boris Vian and Miles Davis
Then the Americans started returning to Paris after the war, looking to take up the glory where their 1920s predecessors had left off. The fledgling French jazz bands didn’t deny the American superiority, they paid their respects to the greats like Dizzy Gillespie who played Paris’ first International Jazz Festival in May 1948 held at the Salle Pleyel. 

They plunked down their francs for festivals featuring Max Roach, Charlie Parker, Lips Page, Buck Clayton, Kenney Clark, Coleman Hawkins and countless others. Parisian jazz fans stormed Vian’s next and just as famous club, Le Club Saint-Germain on Rue St. Benoit, blocking the narrow street by the hundreds, elbowing their way in to see Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Sidney Bechet up close.

But they longed for the recognition that would convince the American musicians to play alongside the French. 

Bechet was the first to break the barrier, in 1949, joining forces with Claude Luter’s band. Bechet genuinely liked this fledgling French jazz, and they loved his talent for melodies that mixed European quadrilles with traditional jazz.

What also divided the French jazz fan world was the appearance of the new generation of jazz stars – the Beboppers.
If they couldn’t get in to the shows, they could hang around Hotel Louisiane on Rue de Seine until Bud Powell or Miles Davis and their friends emerged from their headquarters/rooming house.
Clubs like Le Caveau de la Huchette stuck with New Orleans style (to this day), while others embraced the smaller formations of Bebop. 

By the 1960s, the French musicians felt they’d earned their stripes and their fair share of club dates. A law, similar to one of the 1920s, limited the number of American-only bands played per night in the various venues.

These days, French jazz bands are plentiful; mixed French and Black bands are common. 

Back In The Day...
A few background facts :
  • The jazz club, Chez Inez, opened 1949 by Inez Cavanaugh and located on rue Champollion, near the Sorbonne. The venue’s specialty was fried chicken and jazz. Pianist Art Simmons got his Paris start here. Cavanaugh had managed Duke Ellington, married Danish baron and noted jazz critic Timme Rosencrantz.
  • The most well-known existing jazz club from post-war Paris is Caveau de la Huchette which opened in 1945. One American GI recalls using an army jeep to drive from Antwerp to Paris and finding the Caveau de la Huchette within two hours of his arrival. It was filled with soldiers, mostly Afro-American.
Its specialty was, given the late arrival of bebop to the capital, Dixieland jazz although Art Blakely and his Jazz Messengers played in 1972. Bechet and Armstrong played shows here in the 50s.
  • On Rue de Sommerand, also near the Sorbonne, the Chez Moune nightclub was opened in ’48 by French West-Indian Moune de Rivel. Aaron Bridgers (a disciple of Art Tatum, and who accompanied singers such as Inez Cavanaugh and Muriel Gaines) started his Paris career here. As did Gordon Heath who began as a singer and player of folk guitar before opening his open club Cabaret de l’Abbaye near Rue Saint-Benoit in the 6th.

  • One of first ‘Saint-Germain-des-Pres’ type jazz club was La Rose Rouge in 1948. Located on Rue de Rennes, it was run by African dancer Feral Benga and Greek-Ethiopian Nikos Papadakis. On the program were professional musicians and dancers (Maya Angelou sang in the 50s, Billie Holiday headlined in 1958).

  • Between 1947-9, Chez Honey was an African-American club gallery, near Montparnasse. Painter Herbert Gentry displayed works of young artists but also ran one of the first post-war jazz cafes. His wife Honey Johnson sang and Art Simmons played the piano. Many musicians performed here – Zoot Sims, Don Byas, Kenny Clarke, and James Moody often played with French musicians like Pierre Michelot. Duke Ellington played here. Singers included Jimmy Davis, Lena Horne, Moune de Rivel, and the Peters Sisters sang. Also: here in 1947 Kenny Clarke’s ‘Epistrophy’ became the first ‘bop’ record cut in France.

Poster from Jazz A La Villette 2011
Upcoming Jazz Festival
JAZZ A LA VILLETTE  - August 31 - Sept 11, 2011
It's big, it's bold, and it gets cooler every year! This year's theme is: When Jazz Meets Funk & Hip Hop.

On the programme: Archie Shepp, Roy Hargrove, Maceo Parker plus Meshell Ndegeocello reinventing Prince's most controversial songs. Uh-huh!
Also nostalgic movies - Stormy Weather, Glory, Jungle Fever, Jazz Singer, even Gone With The Wind.
Plus a kid's programme.
See the full list and details here

Monday, February 14, 2011

Love Letters for Paris & France

For 200 years Paris has held a special home in the heart of African Americans.  Long before the sheer beauty of the place takes hold, there are expectations. Black history is chock full of alluring, mythical stories from Paris and France - longstanding acceptance and deep appreciation of Black culture, to start. Then what comes after the first coup de foudre? Some of us know the love affair never ends. At some point though, for those who linger, eventually new understanding sets in. 

I've gathered here a few reflections from writers, artists, abolitionists, poets and intellectuals. Their eye-opening moments transformed a sojourn into an important point of evolution. Whether folks looked to Paris as a place to soothe old hurts, to delight a grumbly heart, or simply to learn something about oneself, it seems that it came down / comes down to looking for love of some kind.                   Paris, on vous aime!

Lois Mailou Jones
Lois (Mailou) Jones, artist, future long-time teacher at Howard University :
“France gave me my stability, and it gave me the assurance that I was talented in that I should have a successful career. [Also] I remember that I had the most wonderful studio. The American University found it for me… it looked out over the city towards the Tour Eiffel. It had a loft and it had a roof garden. It was really paradise working in that studio of my dreams."
From an interview with Charles H. Rowell for Callaloo.

William Wells Brown, visiting in 1849 as a fugitive slave, a militant abolitionist, and as delegate to the Peace Congress:
"All Paris appeared to be on the Boulevards and looking as if the great end to life was enjoyment.
From Sketches.
James Weldon Johnson, 1905:
"From the day I set foot in France I became aware of the working of a miracle within me. I was free from special scorn, special tolerance, special condescension... free to be merely a man."

Frederick Douglass, 1859:
“To think that I, once a slave on the Eastern shore of Maryland was experiencing all this… Now I was enjoying what the wisest and best of the world have bestowed for the wisest and the best to enjoy.”
From The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

Henry O.Tanner

Painter Henry O.Tanner, arrived in 1891. A former Sunday School superintendent and advocate for temperance, he was constantly surprised by cultural differences and wary of being seduced by French customs:
“But primarily, I was really afraid… I might grow to like it, that there might be lurkng somewhere within me an appetite which, once awakened, I could not control.”
From The Story of an Artist’s Life, H.O.Tanner.

Langston Hughes, romanticized his rooms near Place Clichy where he landed in 1924:
“The room was right out of a book and I began to say to myself I guess dreams do come true … Because here I am, living in a Paris garret, writing poems and having champagne for breakfast (because champagne is what we had with our breakfast at the Grand Duc from the half-empty bottles left by unsuspecting guests.
From The Big Sea, 1940.
This particular apartment was the upside of Hughes' first years in Paris; the downside being his financial hardships and the xenophobia he experienced while competing for scarce jobs.
Jessie Fauset, a Phi Beta Kappa scholar and graduate of Cornell, former teacher of Latin and French, literary editor for Crisis:
 “[It’s] lovely just to be oneself and not bothering about color or prejudice,” but noted that her writing might be suffering from such freedom, “I think strangely that’s why my book progresses so slowly, because I am away from the pressure."
From Noblesse Oblige.

Countee Cullen, poet, champion of all things French. More than other expatriate during the Harlem Renaissance, he explored Diaspora Paris and came up against surprising results:

“As an American Negro we are somewhat startled to find that our dark complexion avails us nought among these kindredly tinted people. Language must be the open sesame here, and it must be French.”
From Opportunity, September 1928.

Horace Cayton, psychologist and sociologist, wrote in his 1960s autobiography ‘Long Old Road’ of his trip in spring 1936:
“I walked down rue de la Paix to the Madeleine and then down into the magnificent Place de la Concorde where I turned up the Champs-Elysées. It was early evening and the air was soft and balmy. Crowds of people were sitting in the numerous cafés on either side of the wide street. I was just one of a crowd. I felt free and happy as I had never remembered feeling in the United States. 
Ralph Ellison first heard stories of France brought back from WWI by his favorite cousin. Later he read French literature, and visited French battlefields after D Day. Writing to Richard Wright:
“I saw the bombed buildings… even the negative symbols contain enough of their lost vitality to make one regret he failed to get there sooner. Certainly, it provided me a new perspective through which to look upon the U.S. and brother, the view is frightful.” 

Chester Himes was ambivalent about his stay in France but acknowledged its contribution to his success:
"In Paris, I found many ways to feed myself without disastrous effects. I gathered throwaway scraps in the markets, old bread, stale wine, and hotel proprietors let me live in rooms until I could afford to pay. France did not support me; it let me live and grow strong enough to concentrate on my work, which was writing … I became famous.” 
As told to author Michel Fabre, 1978.

Hazel Scott, the famed pianist arrived at the end of the 50s for a 3-week vacation and stretched it into a 3-year stay:
“I’m not going to say that France is paradise, but I will say this: you can live anywhere if you’ve got the money to live. You can go anywhere if you’ve got the money to go and whomever you marry or date is your business.”  
What Paris Means To Me,  Negro Digest 1961.

Surrealist poet Ted Joans wrote this tribute to his idol poet André Breton:  

“How can I thank you for the exquisite encounter
On rue Bonaparte in Paris (June 1960)
Of a giant in grey and an Afro American sunbeam.

From Spetrophilia, 1966.
Richard Wright:
How calm I've felt here in Paris! No more of that tension that grips so hard ... I walk down a street and feel my legs swinging free."
From his journal, 1947.

James Baldwin, through a fictional character in This Morning, This Evening, So Soon:
"But I could not hate the French, because they left me alone. I will always love [Paris]; it is the city that saved my life ... by allowing me to find out who I am."

So what about you? 
What's your love story with Paris? 

During my first trips to Paris (I was a flight attendant) I was less than impressed. The city tried to charm me but I finally swooned at my first crossing of the Pont Neuf. It was a foggy November morning, best spent in the Louvre, where I was headed. I just stopped dead, peered through the haze, felt - rather than saw - the Conciergerie and the lamp posts reaching out to me; I heaved a sigh and that was that. That was 1982. Like a marriage worth its salt, we've had our falling-outs, but as you can see, I just can't leave it alone.