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


Jacqueline Luckett said...

Jazz was such a critical and important part of Paris back then. Especially for the African American expat musicians who struggled to make it big. The combination of the two make Paris and the whole of France even more exiciting.

Carolyn Vines said...

This post has got me wanting to pack my overnight back and head down to France for that Jazz Fest! Inspiring post!

Non Chef Nick said...

I found your site by pure accident, trying to find any info on my grandfather, Max ROCHE (not to be confused with Max Roach), who was a well known jazz composer in France. You would LOVE to chat with my mom. She was a Jazz and Bebop celebrity during the late 40's and early 50's. Her stage name was Lolita. She sang and danced with the band known as L'Orchestre de Fred Addison. She worked with Sidney Bichet, Louis Armstrong, and so many more during that time. She could certainly tell you stories that would enrich your knowledge of that period. So glad I ran into you!!!!

tarani said...

Hello there, I happened upon your blog and this post while trying to find the address for Gordon Heath's L'Abbaye. I currently live in Paris with my husband, who is a jazz musician, so naturally I was intrigued to read your piece until I came to this sentence:

"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."

Jazz, as a Black American art form, was not elevated from "pop" music by the French. To say so is a slight to Black Americans and the entire artistry that was produced by the likes of Coltrane, Davis, Parker, et al. This type of thinking has a pointedly racist history of anything originated by Black people needs "elevating" in order to be appreciated by the masses. Jazz is one of the few art forms that reached its pinnacle before being appreciated by the French.

I am very glad that French people have a love of jazz music, even in ways that many Americans no longer have in the states. However, to infer that the French made jazz into an art form does a serious disservice to the originators of the music.

Julia Browne said...

Hello Tarani,
I understand your upset about the suggestion that the French 'elevated jazz from pop'. I think I expressed myself not too clearly. What I intended to convey was that jazz was considered by many, especially established musicians fearful for their jobs, like pop music at the time, meaning it seemed like a trend, wasn't going to last... not like the established forms. The crew from Jazz Hot changed that perception.