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Drawing on memoirs, press accounts, and cultural criticism, Jackson uses the history of jazz in Paris to illuminate the challenges confounding French national identity during the interwar years. As he explains, many French people initially regarded jazz as alien because of its associations with America and Africa. Some reveled in its explosive energy and the exoticism of its racial connotations, while others saw it as a dangerous reversal of France’s most cherished notions of "civilization." At the same time, many French musicians, though not threatened by jazz as a musical style, feared their jobs would vanish with the arrival of American performers. By the 1930s, however, a core group of French fans, critics, and musicians had incorporated jazz into the French entertainment tradition. Today it is an integral part of Parisian musical performance. In showing how jazz became French, Jackson reveals some of the ways a musical form created in the United States became an international phenomenon and acquired new meanings unique to the places where it was heard and performed.
“Jeffrey H. Jackson’s work is unique in providing a more detailed history of jazz in interwar France than anything yet in print (certainly in English). Jackson offers a new, rather unusual perspective, concentrating on the ways jazz was integrated into national practices and traditions, rather than portraying it as simply a foreign intrusion into national life. This is a very rich approach to cultural history, offering a far more complex and nuanced understanding of the process of trans-Atlantic cultural interchange than top-down perspectives.”—Tyler Stovall, coeditor of The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France
“This lively and innovative book views jazz through the prism of contemporary ideas about 'blackness' and the Americanization of Europe's economy and culture to explore the relationship between culture, race, and national identity in twentieth-century France. Jeffrey H. Jackson reveals a complex interplay of cultural and social forces that stretches from across the Atlantic to the trenches of World War I to the colonies of la plus grande France."—Alice Conklin, author of A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930
Parisians were already accustomed to the presence of Americans in their city by the time of the Great War. Throughout the preceding century, Paris had been an important educational and cultural destination for intellectuals, artists, and wealthy travelers from the United States who admired its history, sophistication, and opportunities for recreation. By the century's end, that contact had expanded, and the growing personal familiarity with Americans added to French curiosity about the young, dynamic United States that authors like Alexis de Tocqueville and many others had fueled with their reports on American life throughout the 1800s.
Regardless of these previous connections, however, World War I represented a watershed in the relationship between France and the United States. The influx of some two million U.S. soldiers into the European theater of battle meant that thousands of French and Americans experienced an unprecedented level of contact with one another-now as individuals, not merely as abstractions. And this interaction occurred not only in Paris but in towns and villages in the countryside. Unlike the earlier generations ofAmericans in France, the soldiers were generally neither wealthy nor highly educated. Instead, they offered the French people a much more representative cross-section of U.S. society, including its racial diversity. Black Americans had traveled to France before, but never in such large numbers (around two hundred thousand). Although most French villagers had never seen a black person, either from the United States or one of France's African colonies, many had the chance to do so by the war's end.
These new wartime contacts begin to explain how French listeners first came to hear jazz music. The Americans brought jazz to the troops and Parisians for entertainment and morale boosting. At first, the French were not quite clear how to evaluate this new music or what impact it would have. In fact, they sometimes had difficulty defining it. During the 1920s, musicians, critics, and audiences alike worked to make sense of the new sound, trying to decide whether it portended good or ill for the future of French entertainment. But common to their assessments was the belief that jazz represented something transformative-above all, something modern. Jazz was a sign of the times because it challenged previous musical norms. It seemed "noisy" and "mechanical." To those who heard bombs and explosions in jazz, the music soon extended the wartime chaos into the postwar age. Furthermore, it represented culture in motion. Jazz was an American music, but it quickly gained widespread popularity in France, Britain, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere. Jazz posed a crucial challenge to many in France by suggesting the arrival of an era when old national boundaries and artistic categories were far more porous than before.
FRANCE, THE UNITED STATES, AND THE GREAT WAR
The Great War created an intimate contact between the French people and Americans that has lasted ever since, but that relationship was ambivalent from the beginning. By 1917, the war-weary French welcomed the Americans coming to fight on their behalf. French merchants were also happy to take U.S. dollars from soldiers who seemed quite wealthy given their comparatively better pay. "America equals innocence plus gold," one French soldier summed it up. Yet appreciation was mixed with confusion as French civilians and soldiers sometimes marveled at the strange ways of their American visitors. One U.S. chronicler of the war remarked, for example, that "the newcomers were regarded by the French as mad, incomprehensible persons-rigolo, in their phrase." Misunderstanding and tension went both ways, often arising out of the different styles of working toward their common wartime goals. "They find us dumb at mathematics," recalled one U.S. soldier. "We find them impractical, wasting time on non-essentials. Humor and exasperation on both sides." The Americans were "Janus personified," according to one Frenchman trying to reconcile seeming contradictions. "One of his faces is called idealism, the other positivism."
People in towns that the soldiers visited made the acquaintance of Americans, but Paris was the main place for consistent contact. The many U.S. officers and volunteers who gathered there during the war used their valuable dollars to purchase the pleasures that the City of Light still had to offer. And at the war's end, a loosening of the restrictions that had previously kept enlisted men out of the city now allowed an even greater number to visit. Elated by victory, U.S. soldiers enjoyed the abundance of wine and prostitutes, as well as the city's art and monuments. The continuing strength of U.S. currency relative to the franc allowed the American Doughboys to entertain themselves so thoroughly that the songwriters Sam M. Lewis and "Mighty" Joe Young captured the excitement of those days in the lyrics of the popular U.S. song "How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree)?" Would U.S. soldiers even want to return home to their farms and hard work, the song mused, now that they had experienced the exhilaration and temptations of Paris? Meanwhile, many Parisians soon began to resent the Americans and their display of wealth in the postwar frenzy. Before 1918, U.S. soldiers had been warned not to spend too much money for fear of alienating their Parisian hosts. Now after the war, some of the city's residents came to believe that the influx of dollars was contributing to the postwar inflation sapping the French people's pocketbooks. That same inflation made the Americans wonder bitterly whether the French were trying to gouge them to make up for lost wartime revenues. The Americans also brought trouble to neighborhoods in Paris. Both officers and enlisted men frequently started fights, openly wielded guns, and sometimes robbed merchants or people on the street. They were often publicly drunk and rowdy to the disdain of Parisian onlookers, and the French authorities had no recourse in such cases but to turn the ruffians over to the U.S. military police. Such a short time after defeating the German invaders, many Parisians soon became wary of this new group of intruders from the United States.
In many ways, however, the arrival of American entertainment and popular culture-particularly film-was far more memorable to Parisians than their encounters with individual soldiers, although again the impressions were mixed. During the war, American films had become more widely available and popular than French productions, in part because U.S. motion pictures brought a refreshing change to Parisian entertainment. "For three years we have lived in an increasing shadow," wrote the Parisian novelist and socialite Colette about life during the war. "Artificial light, dimmer every day, no longer inundates the stages or our private homes.... What is left for the public? Where can it bathe itself in decorative illusion, adventure and romance, high life, society, inexhaustible splendor? At the cinema." For Colette and others, American movies enabled Parisians to bask in a kind of luxury that the war had made impossible. Unlike French wartime films, which were often based on historical or patriotic themes designed to serve the war effort, American productions were escapist fantasies. American film companies reaped the rewards bestowed on them by French audiences while the French houses suffered from the competition. According to one tally, the number of meters of French film produced each week accounted for 38 percent of the supply of films in 1913, but by 1916, that figure had dropped to 18 percent. As a result, despite the popularity of American films at the box office, resentment toward the United States and its motion pictures began to surface among French film critics and politicians. The trend toward showing more American films persisted throughout the 1920s, providing a point of increasing tension between Americans and those in France who feared that their nation was being invaded by a cultural import at the expense of their own cinematic artisanship.
THE GREAT WAR BRINGS JAZZ
If World War I opened up many questions about Americans and their culture for the French, one of the clear conclusions that many in France drew during the war was that not all Americans were the same. In particular, the war introduced African Americans to a greater number of French people than ever before, often to the delight of black soldiers, who felt more warmly accepted in France than in their own country. French civilians were, to be sure, happy to meet anyone willing to fight on their behalf, but their reactions to African Americans were especially positive. Many French officers disdained the U.S. regulations that kept whites and blacks in separate units, criticizing the hypocrisy of an army that was supposedly "making the world safe for democracy," in the words of President Woodrow Wilson. French generals who failed to understand such segregation sometimes destroyed American literature that advocated racial discrimination.
These kinds of French actions added to the long-standing belief among African Americans that France was a color-blind country truly practicing the equality that the United States only preached. Previous generations of black American writers, intellectuals, and entertainers who had visited France brought back stories of a nation that was open and racially tolerant compared to the United States. Many black Americans, urged by leaders who continued to describe France in these terms, joined the U.S. army in order to fight for France as the true land of liberty. And contact between African Americans and French civilians reinforced many of these notions. In one oft-quoted story, the mayor of a French village complained when white troops arrived, saying, "Take back these soldiers and send us some real Americans, black Americans." In fact, though, the French army did not treat its own sub-Saharan African troops and laborers or colonial subjects in Africa with the same kind of generosity, and the contradiction between French words and actions on this issue was beginning to make some African American intellectuals, like W. E. B. Du Bois and Claude McKay, doubt the truth of France's claims to racial tolerance. Furthermore, not everyone in France welcomed black American visitors to Paris, as the debates over jazz would soon reveal. But in spite of an evolving understanding of French attitudes toward race in the early twentieth century, the generally positive wartime experience of African American soldiers set the stage for many others, including jazz musicians, to thrive in Paris afterward.
Even if such a large number of black Americans was new to many Parisians, their music was not entirely unknown. By the time jazz players arrived, black American musicians and white musicians playing black music had already been entertaining French audiences with minstrel songs, ragtime, and cakewalks, the latter having been wildly popular as a dance craze around 1900. But the war did provide an opportunity for Parisians to hear black musicians in greater numbers than ever before. One of the central figures in bringing jazz to France during the war was James Reese Europe and the military orchestra that he conducted. By the time he went to France, Europe was already a well-established popularizer of black American music. As a famous New York bandleader in the 1910s, Europe had helped to organize his fellow black musicians to ensure that they could find performing jobs. Touring around the United States with the popular white dancers Vernon and Irene Castle, Europe introduced many white audiences to the rapidly developing sounds of ragtime and early jazz. World War I provided yet another occasion for Europe to employ his talents as a disseminator of black American music, but this time he did so across the Atlantic as an army lieutenant. In 1917, Europe's commanding officer asked him to recruit "the best damn band in the United States Army." Advertisements in black newspapers and personal persuasion enabled Europe to create an orchestra that included the composer Noble Sissle along with the dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson as the ensemble's drum major. The band was known as the Hellfighters and originally traveled with the 369th United States Army Infantry Regiment, whose nickname they took. They were later attached to a French army unit. Europe's band toured throughout wartime France to boost the morale of the troops and civilians.
The uniqueness of James Reese Europe's music frequently took the French by surprise. Since his orchestra played many tunes already familiar to audiences, the novelty was not what Europe performed but how he and his band played. Europe noted the distinction between his performance and that of the French when a Parisian bandleader asked him for a copy of his musical score. The French band could not replicate the sound, with its "jazz effects," Europe reported. Some of the French musicians "felt sure that my band had used special instruments." On one occasion, Europe's band performed a rendition of the French national anthem, "La Marseillaise," that confused many French listeners since the sound of its rhythm and the arrangement were so unusual. But the effects of "filling France full of jazz," as one wartime reporter described Europe's accomplishments, were astounding. Along with several other bands, Europe's orchestra performed at a concert at the Tuileries garden near the end of the war. Europe quickly overshadowed the others, and the crowd turned its full attention to his musicians. "We played for 50,000 people, at least," he marveled, "and, had we wished it, we might be playing yet." Noble Sissle recalled that, at another concert, "the audience could stand it no longer; the 'Jazz germ' hit them and it seemed to find the vital spot, loosening all muscles and causing what is known in America as an 'Eagle Rocking Fit.'"
Europe was not the only African American to bring his music to France during these years. While his orchestra was entertaining on behalf of the war effort, the drummer Louis Mitchell and his band played at the music hall Le Casino de Paris and also made a few records. Mitchell had already performed elsewhere in Europe, including in London in 1914 and again in 1915, according to the Belgian jazz critic Robert Goffin, who spent much time in Paris. In 1917, Mitchell was drumming at Le Casino de Paris when the management sent him back to New York to recruit a jazz band, suggesting that they believed the venture to be a potentially profitable one. Goffin remembered their 1917 group called Mitchell's Jazz Kings as the first black jazz band he ever heard, seconding the description of one U.S. observer of Mitchell at the time: "The big attraction at the Casino Theater here and the big attraction for every Parisian theater that can bid enough for his services, is Louis A. Mitchell, who just drummed his way to Paris and into the hearts of Parisians." Goffin also noted the financial rewards for such affection by Parisian audiences. "Paris, at the end of the war was a wide-open and exciting place," he proclaimed. "Louis Mitchell earned money hand over fist. He received seven thousand francs for a week's engagement, or just about ten times the salary of a Cabinet member."
Excerpted from Making Jazz French by Jeffrey H. Jackson Copyright © 2003 by Jeffrey H. Jackson. Excerpted by permission.
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|1||The Arrival of Jazz||13|
|2||The Spread of Jazz||34|
|3||Jazz and the City of Paris||52|
|4||The Meanings of Jazz: America, Negre, and Civilization||71|
|5||Making Jazz Familiar: Music Halls and the Avant-Garde||104|
|6||Making Jazz French: Parisian Musicians and Jazz Fans||123|
|7||New Bands and New Tensions: Jazz and the Labor Problem||143|
|8||The Discovery of Hot Jazz||154|
|App||Histories of Jazz in Interwar France||205|