After Django: Making Jazz in Postwar France

After Django: Making Jazz in Postwar France

by Tom Perchard


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How did French musicians and critics interpret jazz—that quintessentially American music—in the mid-twentieth century? How far did players reshape what they learned from records and visitors into more local jazz forms, and how did the music figure in those angry debates that so often suffused French cultural and political life? After Django begins with the famous interwar triumphs of Josephine Baker and Django Reinhardt, but, for the first time, the focus here falls on the French jazz practices of the postwar era. The work of important but neglected French musicians such as André Hodeir and Barney Wilen is examined in depth, as are native responses to Americans such as Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. The book provides an original intertwining of musical and historical narrative, supported by extensive archival work; in clear and compelling prose, Perchard describes the problematic efforts towards aesthetic assimilation and transformation made by those concerned with jazz in fact and in idea, listening to the music as it sounded in discourses around local identity, art, 1968 radicalism, social democracy, and post colonial politics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472052424
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 01/12/2015
Series: Jazz Perspectives Series
Pages: 308
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Tom Perchard teaches in the Department of Music at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Read an Excerpt

After Django

Making Jazz in Postwar France

By Tom Perchard

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2015 University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-12075-8


Histories of Jazz in France

There's a notion of long standing that the French, loving jazz perhaps even more than the Americans whose birthright it was, have always offered the music and its musicians safe haven — great, and sometimes weather-beaten African American players above all. Stories of the black artists who had flocked to interwar Paris in search of a creative life free of race prejudice took root around the middle of the 20th century, as did the idea that it was in Europe that jazz was first given the critical scrutiny and celebration that was its due. The Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet's 1919 article on the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, and particularly its star clarinetist Sidney Bechet, was resurrected by the French jazz press in the late 1930s as proof of the music's early, cultivated European appreciation; Rudi Blesh's classic jazz history Shining Trumpets (1946) was only one of the books that soon helped fix this idea for American jazz audiences. Just as important was the famous reverence with which French audiences regarded those expatriates who, at home, had been mere vaudevillians, Josephine Baker and later Bechet most prominent among them. After World War II, popular tales of culture celebrities like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir's dancing to jazz in choking subterranean caves, and filmic representations like Paris Blues (1961) — centering on two jazz musicians, played by Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier, who had escaped American small-mindedness to ply their trade on the Left Bank — helped perpetuate the belief that jazz was better off abroad.

Maybe there was something in it. Even in the late 1960s it was possible for the members of Chicago's experimental, marginal Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) to move to Paris, play to audiences of thousands, and shape a countercultural profile that would have been unthinkable for them in the United States. Nevertheless, numerous jazz musicians living in France knew that the supposed freedoms on offer came with strings attached, and the jazz historian James Lincoln Collier has argued forcefully that serious French enthusiasm for the music neither antedated nor surpassed what was to found in America. Black-and-white memories of jazz in France still flicker in a cultural imagination for which the country — and especially Paris — stands as a fount of taste, romance and untrammeled creativity. Yet that imagination does more work than many jazz musicians could ever find.

That's one meaning of this book's subtitle, "Making Jazz in Postwar France": the study investigates those critical discourses that "made" jazz into an object of fascination, debate, and contemporary culture — and, indeed, which made "jazz in postwar France," since the book also asks how particular historical narratives of the music's life in that country have been constructed. But underneath all that is a more literal meaning and a more straightforward aim. To begin with, the book is a study of the music's French creation between 1945 and 1985.

This is a history that is still underexplored, especially in Anglophone writing, but it threw up practices and trends that demand study: the emergence of musicians who excelled in American styles, the development of musical approaches that tried to pull away from transatlantic example, the cultivation of particularly lively and sophisticated critical discourses (these often as illustrative of the social climate in which they flourished as of the music they addressed). Still, postwar developments built upon an older fascination with black music, and though the tale of jazz's arrival and interwar life in France is increasingly familiar, it needs outlining here.

What would now be called African American music had been heard in the country at least since the 1870s, when touring vocal groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers had begun to popularize the spirituals. In 1903 the vaudeville stars George Walker and Bert Williams presented Will Marion Cook's operetta In Dahomey at the Olympia, Paris's famous music hall; in the same year the cake-walk craze pranced across French society floors. The drummer Louis Mitchell led a band through a residency in the basement club of the Casino de Paris in 1917, and in January of the following year, after the United States' entry to World War I, James Reese Europe's regimental band disembarked their troopship at Brest — these were the Harlem Hellfighters, who would play in some twenty-five French cities and towns through 1918. Those groups mixed novelties, sentimental songs, ragtime, military and dance music; by the 1920s the chanson of the Parisian cabaret or the Nice resort had often been replaced by the "jazz band," even if that term could signify nothing more than the presence of a drum, or a dark face. All-black spectaculars followed, most famously La Revue nègre which, in 1925, introduced Josephine Baker to the French public. In the latter 1920s and early 1930s, Sam Wooding, Noble Sissle, Lucky Millinder and other African American bandleaders toured and enjoyed residencies at clubs and restaurants in the capital and on the coast. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington made their Parisian debuts in 1932 and 1933, and over the course of the 1930s Fats Waller, Coleman Hawkins and many other American jazz musicians, black and white, would also pass through.

The French culturati was, for a time, entranced by the new music, and again and again in their writings the claim was made: a Romantic idea of "art," too distant from 20th century experience to remain meaningful, was being replaced by new forms — jazz, cinema — that fused the creative and the everyday. In his 1926 book, Le Jazz, André Schæffner argued that it was because "Negroes perhaps no longer perceive in their culture that hiatus that we seek to maintain between art and the other manifestations of our activity" that jazz was capable of wringing out an "occidental art, saturated with harmony and orchestration." Writing in the surrealist movement's house magazine, Documents, Michel Leiris argued that it was precisely because it didn't constitute "an Art proper" that jazz was immune from the "overdevelopment" that plagued "that bastard concept."

This kind of thinking is explored later. But no matter how much jazz was venerated for its pure popular vitality, from its appearance in France the form was met by efforts to cultivate those elements of the rather more polite light classical music that it also contained. This was the style that became known in France and across the world as "symphonic" jazz, a music that emphasized the ensemble elegance of the ballroom or concert stage over the hot brass effects of speakeasy fantasy, and brought jazz into a less dubious, more widely appreciated sphere as a result. Most notable among symphonic jazz's French stars, all of whom followed the extremely successful American example of Paul Whiteman, was Grégor Kelekian. Though the bandleader was an unremarkable musician, like Whiteman he had a great capacity for spectacle, business and talent-spotting, and his highly popular group, Grégor et ses grégoriens, featured many of the best French jazz players to emerge during the 1930s: the saxophonists André Ekyan and Alix Combelle, the trumpeter Philippe Brun, the pianist Stéphane Mougin, the violinists Michel Warlop and Stéphane Grappelly. The "hot jazz" of players like Louis Armstrong, Muggsy Spanier, Bix Beiderbecke, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington inspired great fan devotion in interwar France, and it was soon supported by a dedicated commercial and critical infrastructure. But that music could not compete with the work of (white) American dance bands like those of Whiteman and Ted Lewis, and the local imitations that trailed in their wake. Grégor aside, it was French bandleaders like Ray Ventura, Raymond Legrand, Fred Adison — and their English counterparts Ray Noble, Nat Gonella, and above all Jack Hylton — who were generally understood to represent "jazz" in 1930s France.

Even the most famous of all French jazz groups was only moderately successful on its home territory. In 1933 the young founders of a soon-to-be-important jazz fan society, the Hot-club de France, decided to form an orchestra that would tour and promote both the music and the organization. An early formation featured the Paris-resident Americans Arthur Briggs on trumpet and Freddy Johnson on piano. But the club directors leading these efforts — Jacques Auxenfans, Pierre Nourry and Charles Delaunay — soon resolved to concentrate on promoting local musicians instead. In spring 1934 they set about forming a French group, and by the end of that year a lineup had begun to cohere. Two recording sessions were arranged featuring violinist Grappelly, guitarists Roger Chaput and the brothers Jungo and Joseph Reinhardt, and bassist Louis Vola (Grappelly and Jungo would, sooner or later, become Grappelli and Django). The recordings released on Ultraphone in February 1935 bore the group's definitive name, Le Quintette du Hot-club de France.

Though Grappelli and Reinhardt vied for leader status, in truth the guitarist rendered his colleague undistinguished: despite having famously lost most use of the third and fourth fingers of his left hand in a 1928 caravan fire, Reinhardt had cultivated a mastery of style and thought which, in contrast to the violinist's babbling linework, was always articulated in the clearest terms. Playing the banjo-guitar with musette and tango groups long before he discovered jazz, the young Reinhardt's taste and technique had been formed by exposure to cultures of gestural virtuosity that, in those two musical styles as in early century New Orleans jazz, likely owed as much to European concert music as they did folk improvisation of whatever kind. But by the time of his first recordings in 1934, the trills, octaves and note showers with which the guitarist embellished his melodic inventions often recalled Fats Waller's pianism; Louis Armstrong's clarion arpeggios and deft vocal feints were just as present.

As much as his technical excellence and fluidity, it was Reinhardt's play of ideas that set him apart from his bandmates, and from the preponderance of jazz musicians at home or abroad: the motifs that were stated and then restated, subject to surprising rhythmic shifts each time, or the lines and patterns that, seeming to head for a certain point, continued on to a destination more unlikely but much better. This looping detail stood in relief to the solid motion which the Quintette had perfected by the time it recorded for Decca in London and Paris during 1938–39 (the group would essentially dissolve at the start of World War II). In feel, instrumentation and repertoire this was an absolutely local jazz style, and though in the postwar period musicians and critics routinely pondered how a truly French jazz might be reached, the Quintette had provided one answer early on. A number of groups soon began to work in the same territory, Michel Warlop and André Ekyan's various ensembles prominent among them, and numerous musical and familial associates of Reinhardt's would continue to work in the style that would eventually become classicized as jazz manouche, or gypsy jazz (among them Joseph Reinhardt, and later Django's son Babik).

Following the outbreak of war in September 1939 and France's capitulation to the German army in June the following year, the country was divided in two: a German-administered occupied zone in the north and along the Atlantic coast, and in the south a free zone governed by Maréchal Pétain's Vichy regime (which was itself subordinate to German interests). Until the country's progressive liberation by Allied forces from mid-to late 1944, the French were subject to the diktats and whims of Nazi rule and its local interpretation. Hardly the most serious of these was the assertion of control over the performing arts, and it has often been assumed that in France, jazz, a music associated with the Nazis' various American bêtes noires, was subject to a blanket ban. In fact the situation was more complex. Jazz was never prohibited outright in France, though Nazi limitations on jazz's diffusion, and measures against the performance of work by American and British songwriters — especially if Jewish — certainly had serious effects on the way the music was played, written about and enjoyed. But some Nazi edicts were ambiguous, and others were not. If names of works to be played during public performances were often required to be submitted to local authorities, and all English-language titles replaced by French approximations, then the performances themselves were still largely permissible; if one of the leaders of the Hot-club de Marseille was sent to a Silesian concentration camp never to return, it wasn't because he was fond of jazz, but because he was Jewish.

The few black American musicians who had not left Paris as war loomed found themselves interned as Americans rather than non-Aryans. French Caribbean and African musicians like Robert Mavounzy and Freddy Jumbo — and the Rom Django Reinhardt — could still perform and tour. The American-born but naturalized French trumpeter Harry Cooper was able to negotiate his release from prison, and went on to perform regularly on the German-run Radio Paris, recording for the jazz label Swing in 1943 even after the introduction of a requirement that all such activity had to be approved by the Propaganda-Staffel. Hugues Panassié was able to broadcast a jazz radio series on national radio in mid-1942, and though subsequent complaints led to the Vichy prohibition of such programming, jazz remained accessible via British and Swiss stations. Members of the German army and occupying government were often no less partial to the music than were the people they policed.

Nevertheless those involved with jazz and its promotion proceeded with caution. Charles Delaunay, de facto head of the Hot-club during the occupation, acted to suppress the organization's public activity, not least because a small resistance network had formed around the club's headquarters: Delaunay and his fellow club member Jacques Bureau were arrested, and several members of the extended network were eventually caught and executed. Still, Delaunay was able to organize events and festivals in wartime Paris, sometimes making a concerted effort to frame the music offered in terms that would quell Vichy and Nazi anxieties. Before a "Festival de jazz français" at the Salle Gaveau in December 1940, Delaunay distributed to the press a pamphlet that underscored the French cultural heritage of this New Orleans music, and the native excellence demonstrated by the Quintette. "I intended to create a fiction, a sort of myth for better or worse capable of protecting our little concern," Delaunay wrote in a postwar apologia. As Andy Fry has suggested, this was one of the acts of accommodation that, committed yet not fully resistant, cooperative yet not fully acquiescent, characterized French life during the occupation.

But jazz was also the instrument of more dogged and openly articulated positions. Several prominent collaborators wrote on the music during the war, among them Lucien Rebatet and André Cœuroy. The latter's Histoire générale du jazz, published in 1942, is an aggressive version of the defensive Frenchification of jazz that Delaunay and others practiced, one which begins with orthography — Cœuroy insists on referring not to the blues, but the blouze — and widens to claim the music for France and Europe. "Jazz is not an isolated island forever cut off from the continent of music," the author writes, instead a "peninsula" jutting off from that continent, one essentially European.

We have long believed that jazz was specifically negro. The present thesis is quite to the contrary. Jazz has been black only by accident. The principal elements of which it is comprised are owed to the whites, and to the whites of Europe. Through its history, through its materials, jazz is ours; its future is in our hands.

The argument continues throughout Cœuroy's book: whatever the mooted etymologies of the word "jazz," "in reality" it comes from the French word jaser, to gossip, which is what a jazz ensemble does; the music reflects far less its African heritage than it does the old European folk music found in the once-French colonies of the south; rhythmic superimpositions thought characteristic of black music could be found in Chopin and even Mozart as well as African sources. The Hot-club Quintette, Cœuroy concluded, had recently won "a victory for the whites in the raging quarrel of jazz." For those 21st century writers seeking to develop an appreciation of jazz's global dimensions, the book is intriguing — and deeply disturbing, since the author's intelligent if impressionistic attempt to expand upon jazz's African/American origins is so tainted by the nationalism and racialism of the moment.


Excerpted from After Django by Tom Perchard. Copyright © 2015 University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents

1 Histories of Jazz in France 1

2 Hugues Panassie's Supernatural Swing: Criticism, Politics and the Iconic Jazz Recording 20

3 Jazz between Art and Entertainment: André Hodeir and Thelonious Monk 54

4 Cool Going Cold: Miles Davis and Ascenseurpour l'échafaud 112

5 Barney Wilen: Phantoms and Freedom 144

6 Looking for Something We Don't Yet Know: Towards a French Jazz 190

7 A Good Jazzman Is a Dead Jazzman 234

Notes 245

Index 285

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