Making Jazz French

By Jeffrey H. Jackson, Assistant Professor of History


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How Parisians Came to Appreciate the Sounds of America′s Music

In Paris this past summer, the sounds of jazz were everywhere. From cafés, restaurants, record stores and radio stations to the several jazz festivals taking place around the city, I couldn’t go far without hearing those familiar tunes. During the citywide music festival called La Fête de la Musique that turns all of Paris into one daylong series of concerts near the end of June each year, I was captivated by a fabulous French jazzy rhythm-and-blues band playing on the Champs-Élysée. They had practiced the English words so well that they fooled me into thinking they were Americans until they started speaking to the audience in perfect French, and the crowd was generous with its applause. Parisians, it seems, just can’t get enough of jazz.

But nearly a century ago, the audiences in Paris weren’t always so friendly. When African-American musicians first carried jazz across the Atlantic during World War I, they were often met with more confusion than wonder. Bandleader James Reese Europe, for example, was a fixture in New York and had helped popularize black music in the U.S. When he toured France during the war to help boost the morale of the troops, French listeners did not know what to make of him. At one event, his orchestra played La Marseillaise, but no one in the audience even recognized it as the national anthem. Some French musicians thought that Europe’s band was using new or special instruments to make their crazy sound.

The reaction to Europe’s orchestra was not unique. After the war as jazz bands began to play in greater numbers, Parisian audiences became even more critical and frightened. One critic called jazz “a collection of melodic dust, a puzzle of minute imitation...of deafening timbres and pinching tones.” Another thought jazz was nothing but “blasts of sardonic whistling.” Still another feared that jazz might make listeners go insane.

These sounds so new to French ears were producing a kind of musical and aesthetic controversy in part because they symbolized something much deeper. To many, jazz was not only music. It was a herald of the modern era and life in the new century.

In particular, many thought it was the sound of the machine age. One, for example, called it “the music of mass-produced men.” Machines often meant not just technology, but also America. Jazz, some argued, was the musical outcome of industrial development in the U.S. The critic Georges Duhamel, who wrote a stinging critique of American life called America the Menace: Scenes from the Life of the Future (1931), compared the sound of jazz to the mechanical world from which it came.

“The music suddenly burst forth from a corner,” he wrote. “It was the falsest, the shrillest, the most explosive of jazz—that breathless uproar which for many years now has staggered to the same syncopation, that shrieks through its nose, weeps, grinds its teeth and caterwauls throughout the world.”

And now it was taking over France, something of great concern to Duhamel and many others like him.

French audiences also took careful note of the fact that the people playing jazz were usually black, and the music would be associated with supposed racial characteristics for a long time to come. “Blackness” meant a variety of things to the French, but most often it evoked the jungles of Africa that France had been colonizing in the preceding decades. If the rise of jazz represented the ascent of black culture, many wondered, did that mean that those who listened to it might “go native” or become “uncivilized?” “If the ‘folie noire’ [black craze] is not stopped soon,” proclaimed one frightened critic, “in a few months, I won’t see any whites!”

Modern or primitive? American or African? Jazz was all of these things to French listeners depending on who gave their opinion. But whatever the answer, the end result was the same: Jazz was something foreign because it had not come from the French people themselves. And this produced the greatest conflict of all. In the years after World War I, France had to reconsider its place in the world as its role as a great power weakened. American influence was on the rise, something signaled by the growing number of American products on store shelves and U.S. motion pictures in the theaters. Uprisings in French colonies in the 1920s foretold of brutal wars that would bring an end to a worldwide network of economic and political influence. The thousands of immigrants who came to France just after World War I caused many to wonder if France would be washed away in a tide of foreigners who, they feared, subverted their culture and took their jobs. That was the very moment at which jazz arrived.

French musicians were also concerned with the foreignness of jazz. But unlike those who made aesthetic or cultural arguments, their worries were more bread-and-butter. For working musicians, getting a job could be hard enough in good times. Even though the entertainment industry in Paris was healthy, high taxes just after World War I meant that many clubs were struggling to make ends meet. And club owners preferred American (usually black) musicians who could put people in the seats. The law required a certain percentage of musicians on stage to be French, but to get around the regulation, some clubs hired a French band to sit idly by while the Americans actually played. And American jazzmen often received significantly higher wages than their French counterparts did. One early jazzman supposedly received 10 times the salary of a member of the government’s cabinet.

By the 1930s with the onset of the Depression, French musicians again feared for their jobs. As the economy turned sour and American tourists went home, audiences dwindled. On more than one occasion, French performers protested inside and outside clubs where American jazz musicians were playing, and they pleaded with French listeners to boycott establishments that hired only Americans.

Jazz posed a problem to people in France: Should it stay or should it go? Was jazz just a flight of fancy—a fad with no real impact on the music scene—or had it changed French art and entertainment forever? Amidst the debate that erupted, an important group of musicians, critics and fans began to propose an answer: Jazz had not just come for a moment, but had come to Paris for good. And they worked diligently to make sure that those hopes would come true.

In the mid-1920s, two college students formed a fan club called Jazz-Club Universitaire to promote the music they loved. Soon, they made friends with another young man named Hugues Panassié, already an important player on the Parisian jazz scene. Panassié was not a professional musician but a prolific critic who had already written thousands of words in favor of jazz and was on his way to writing thousands more. He became the president of the Jazz-Club Universitaire and changed the name to Le Hot Club de France in honor of his favorite kind of music, “hot jazz.”

In 1934, Panassié published his book Le Jazz hot, which outlined his aesthetic philosophy of the music.

“The very form of jazz,” Panassié proclaimed, “is entirely different” from everything that had come before. As a result, he took it upon himself to educate French listeners about “hot music”—the New Orleans-style jazz played by black musicians like Louis Armstrong, Panassié’s personal hero. “Where there is no swing,” Panassié argued, “there can be no authentic jazz.” In creating a category of “authenticity,” he tried to separate what he believed was “real” jazz (played by black musicians) from the commercially successful, watered-down music performed by large (usually white) dance bands. Panassié was a musical purist, and wanted his jazz as hot as the musicians could play it.

Panassié was not alone. Although it was never enormous, the membership of Le Hot Club de France grew, thanks in part to the organization’s magazine Jazz-Hot which published profiles of artists, record reviews, articles about jazz performances in the U.S. and Europe and advertisements by those in search of recordings that were hard to find in France. The members of the Hot Club gathered in homes throughout the country listening to records and sharing their appreciation for jazz.

Critics and fans also encouraged French musicians to play more jazz, too. There had been French jazz bands since the music arrived, but they were often looked down upon by listeners who thought they were not as good as the Americans. One of the first successful French bands, Grégor et ses Grégorians, touted its all-French personnel. The music stands on their stage were painted blue, white and red to create the effect of a French flag. As Grégor said, “We have freed ourselves from our dependence on the Americans.” Likewise, another very popular musician, Ray Ventura, promoted himself as a French jazz musician by performing old French folk songs in a jazz style—including Frère Jacques and many other tunes with which everyone in the audience was familiar. His reception was overwhelmingly positive. “Finally a French jazz band under a Frenchman’s direction,” gushed one critic.

By the early 1930s, a generation of young French musicians began to make names for themselves: Stéphane Mougin, Alix Combelle, André Ekyan and others. They had grown up listening to Americans play jazz, and now they asserted that they were good enough to play on their own—and to expect the admiration of French audiences. Most famous of all were Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, the cornerstones of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, a group organized by Panassié and his fellow enthusiasts. They became the cutting edge of French jazz bands, both because of their international success in records, radio and personal appearances and because of what many thought was their “uniquely French” sound as an all-string band.

Audiences conveniently overlooked the fact that among France’s jazz pioneers, most were immigrants: Grégor was Armenian, Reinhardt was a gypsy born in Belgium and Grappelli was the son of an Italian. Although their roots in France may not have been deep, they were deep enough for audiences to accept the music they played as a statement about France’s openness to musical innovation. To many listeners, they proved jazz may have been created elsewhere but that it could become French.

And that openness may be the most important legacy that France’s early jazz musicians left behind. When it emerged on the scene during World War I, jazz threatened many people’s sense of themselves and their culture. It appeared to be a foreign music, both because it was African and American and because it sounded so shockingly different from anything audiences had heard before. But as they listened, people began to think differently: Their ability to appreciate jazz taught them that part of being French meant finding and loving the good things that other cultures have to offer.

Editor′s Note:
Prof. Jackson, author of Making Jazz French: Music and Modern Life in Interwar Paris (2003), is a consultant for a documentary about the African-American community and jazz musicians in Montmartre in the 1920s and 1930s. The film, currently titled Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story, is being co-produced by PBS and French filmmakers.