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Jazz and Machine-Age Imperialism: Music,

Jazz and Machine-Age Imperialism: Music, "Race," and Intellectuals in France, 1918-1945

by Jeremy F. Lane

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Jeremy F. Lane’s Jazz and Machine-Age Imperialism is a bold challenge to the existing homogenous picture of the reception of American jazz in world-war era France. Lane’s book closely examines the reception of jazz among French-speaking intellectuals between 1918 and 1945 and is the first study to consider the relationships, sometimes symbiotic,


Jeremy F. Lane’s Jazz and Machine-Age Imperialism is a bold challenge to the existing homogenous picture of the reception of American jazz in world-war era France. Lane’s book closely examines the reception of jazz among French-speaking intellectuals between 1918 and 1945 and is the first study to consider the relationships, sometimes symbiotic, sometimes antagonistic, between early white French jazz critics and those French-speaking intellectuals of color whose first encounters with the music in those years played a catalytic role in their emerging black or Creole consciousness. Jazz’s first arrival in France in 1918 coincided with a series of profound shocks to received notions of French national identity and cultural and moral superiority. These shocks, characteristic of the era of machine-age imperialism, had been provoked by the first total mechanized war, the accelerated introduction of Taylorist and Fordist production techniques into European factories, and the more frequent encounters with primitive “Others” in the imperial metropolis engendered by interwar imperialism. Through close readings of the work of early white French jazz critics, alongside the essays and poems of intellectuals of color such as the Nardal sisters, Léon-Gontran Damas, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and René Ménil, Jazz and Machine-Age Imperialism highlights the ways in which the French reception of jazz was bound up with a series of urgent contemporary debates about primitivism, imperialism, anti-imperialism, black and Creole consciousness, and the effects of American machine-age technologies on the minds and bodies of French citizens.

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University of Michigan Press
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Jazz Perspectives Series
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6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

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Jazz and Machine-Age Imperialism

Music, "Race," and Intellectuals in France, 1918â"1945

By Jeremy F. Lane

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2013 University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-11881-6


Between "the Virgin Forest and Modernism"

Techno-Primitive Hybrids in the Work of André Schaeffner and Robert Goffin

One of the central criticisms leveled by Jane Nardal in her 1928 article "Pantins exotiques" was that white French commentators were guilty of exploiting black musical forms in order symbolically to heal the rift between "the virgin forest and modernism," as she put it (J. Nardal 1928). Projecting their fantasies of both American machine-age modernity and African primitivism onto those musical forms, she suggested, allowed white commentators to imagine a way of reconnecting an alienating modernity with the sources of primitive authenticity from which it had seemingly cast adrift. As we saw in the Introduction, there was certainly no shortage of attempts to interpret jazz as representing some kind of techno-primitive hybrid among early French commentators on the music. The most detailed and sophisticated of these techno-primitive hybrids were to be found in the first two book-length studies of jazz to be published in French, André Schaeffner's 1926 study Le Jazz and Robert Goffin's 1932 Aux Frontières du jazz. A close reading of both these texts will therefore facilitate a deeper understanding of both the nature and the ideological implications of such techno-primitive hybrids. It will also allow us to assess whether Jane Nardal's criticisms were as applicable to early specialist jazz critics as they were to more occasional commentators on the music or whether such critics' deeper knowledge and understanding of jazz allowed them to avoid some of the pitfalls she had identified.

In his study of the reception of jazz in France, Matthew Jordan reads the tendency to interpret jazz as representing some kind of techno-primitive hybrid as an inherently positive phenomenon, an important first step in the abandonment of primitivist assumptions and the consequent acknowledgment of jazz's true status as both African and American in its origins and essential nature (Jordan 2010, 119–26, 128–40). He argues that, in his Le Jazz, Schaeffner recognized the hybrid, essentially African-American nature of the music in a manner that made it thereafter "difficult merely to call jazz a subspecies of la musique nègre and judge it for its expression of racial primitivity" (Jordan 2001, 179). This belief that recognizing the hybrid status of jazz is, in itself, sufficient to scotch all claims as to the music's supposedly primitive characteristics is surely mistaken. As Christopher L. Miller has reminded us, it would be foolish "to celebrate ... all intercultural hybridity ... without scrutinising the terms by which the meeting of cultures is defined" (1998, 57). For example, if the hybrid nature of jazz is understood as the result of a meeting between the untutored, instinctive, spontaneous rhythms of black Africa and the more sophisticated, intellectual, yet occasionally sterile forms of Western music, then hybridity rests on an enduring primitivism, rather than undermining or challenging it. Hence, rather than merely celebrating those discourses that identified jazz as a hybrid cultural form, a mix of primitive and modern, African and American, it will be necessary always to scrutinize the terms according to which that hybridity is defined. This chapter will thus examine the techno-primitive hybrids elaborated by both Schaeffner and Goffin, the better to understand their nature and precise logic, as well as to assess whether they might merit the kinds of criticism Jane Nardal addressed to the more general contemporary European vogue for black musical forms.

Jazz and the Rhythms of the Machine Age

André Schaeffner's 1926 study Le Jazz was, then, the first book-length analysis of the music to be published in French. The text itself was the result of a collaboration between Schaeffner and André Coeuroy, an established musicologist and editor of France's premier journal of music studies, La Revue musicale. The vast majority of the text, thirteen of its fourteen chapters, was written by Schaeffner. Coeuroy contributed a final chapter, which offered a survey of the jazz scene in the mid-1920s, and an appendix, which included the results of a poll of opinions of jazz among established French musicians and critics alongside Coeuroy's survey of representations of jazz in contemporary French literature. Coeuroy's role was thus subordinate to Schaeffner's, inasmuch as the latter took primary responsibility for the study's methodology and conclusions. For this reason, the analysis that follows will focus exclusively on Schaeffner's account of jazz since this is far more significant than Coeuroy's much briefer contributions to Le Jazz.

At the time Le Jazz was published, Schaeffner was a working anthropologist and ethnomusicologist. He had studied under Marcel Mauss and Paul Rivet at the newly founded Institut d'ethnologie and was a close friend and colleague of the anthropologists Michel Leiris and Georges-Henri Rivière. All three would later participate in the Mission Dakar-Djibouti of 1931, the extended fieldwork trip that proved a founding experience for the discipline of anthropology in France. All three were also jazz fans and later became regular contributors, with Georges Bataille, to the dissident surrealist journal Documents (1929–31). Moreover, as Jean Jamin has argued, their passion for early jazz was a primary motivation for their engagement with the discipline of anthropology (in Leiris 1996, 9–59). As Leiris later put it in his autobiography L'Âge d'homme (1939), it was jazz "which was to lead me as far as Africa and, beyond Africa, to ethnography" (162).

Schaeffner's intellectual affiliations and professional status were clearly reflected in the text of Le Jazz, which paid relatively little attention to contemporary forms of jazz, concentrating instead on locating the music's roots in tribal West Africa and tracing its evolution as enslaved West Africans were brought into enforced contact with Europeans in the New World. Schaeffner's approach to jazz was thus fundamentally anthropological, and his primary sources were existing anthropologies and travel accounts of French West Africa, the French Antilles, and the American South. However, when he came to explain the phenomenon of syncopation, Schaeffner appeared to leave these anthropological sources behind, turning to the world of mechanized labor, rather than to any evocation of primitive Africa, to explain the strange disjunction between beat and rhythm that is such a defining feature of jazz. Or, more accurately, in seeking to explain syncopation, he alighted on an image that combined the apparently discrete worlds of the primitive and the machine age to striking effect.

Schaeffner suggested that the unsettling effects of jazz's syncopated rhythms could best be illustrated by reference to the dancing style of two of the stars of the Revue nègre, the musical review featuring Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, and Louis Douglas, among others, that had taken Paris by storm the year previously in 1925.

The dancers of this Revue, like Josephine Baker or Louis Douglas, sometimes gave the floor the appearance of a conveyor belt, which they seemed to be running up the wrong way, countering the force of the beat that was carrying them downwards with the free energy of a rhythm unleashed by jazz. (Schaeffner 1926, 32–33)

The conveyor belt on which Schaeffner imagined Baker and Douglas dancing might be taken as a synecdoche for the accelerated mechanization and rationalization of the production process along Fordist and Taylorist lines in interwar France. That Baker and Douglas were imagined dancing back up this conveyor belt "the wrong way," meanwhile, suggested some kind of return to their origins; they seemed to be dancing against the flow of modernity, backward toward the primitive roots of jazz.

This striking image represented merely one of a series of analogies that Schaeffner drew between jazz and the world of mechanized labor in the course of his analysis. In order to understand quite how these analogies function, it is necessary to grasp the nature of the relationship Schaeffner posited between African music, jazz, and the rhythms of work. One of Schaeffner's founding assumptions was that all "nègre music" originated in societies in which all music, art, and culture were integrated into the praxis of everyday life. In African societies, according to Schaeffner, music and dance formed an integral part of and logical accompaniment to work and ritual. This intimate relationship between music, labor, and ritual had reappeared, in the American context, in the work songs on cotton plantations and the call-and-response patterns characteristic of African-American church services, both of which had fed into jazz. As Schaeffner put it, "There seems no need to insist on the direct relationship between the physical movements of agricultural labour and musical rhythm amongst the Nègres" (25). Indeed, he suggested that the first percussion instruments were directly analogous to the first tools, being merely the "external prolongation" of a set of organic impulses and movements.

Whether he is dancing, walking, or working, the Nègre hears singing in himself a rhythm that his body first translates, then which, from the beating of his hands or feet is passed to the objects he touches, percussion instruments being originally, like the workman's tools, but the external prolongation of his arms and legs. (23)

The organic relationship between laboring bodies and the rhythms of work in Africa or on the cotton plantations described here might seem to have nothing in common with the characteristic rhythms of mechanized factory labor, of the routinized, parcellized, scientifically managed tasks demanded of the Fordist worker. However, Schaeffner would draw a close analogy between these two forms of labor and their attendant work rhythms. First he quoted the French travel writer Luce Cousturier's 1925 account of African workers towing her barge up the River Niger. Having evoked the "rhythmic noise" and "syncopated" beat of the African workers' coordinated steps, as well as the "staccato mechanism" behind their combined labors, Cousturier noted that after a while her "tired gaze no longer distinguishes between individual workers" since all have merged to form "the great gearwheels, the brown-colored steel con rods of some celestial machine" (quoted in Schaeffner 1926, 25–26). In Cousturier's account, the rhythms of African labor thus conjured images of a modern mechanized factory, of gearwheels and con rods. Schaeffner expanded on Cousturier's insight to argue that under the impetus of the machine age European workers were rediscovering those elemental work rhythms, and European citizens were being returned to a more primitive state in which some organic link between labor, art, and everyday life might be recovered.

The Nègres perhaps no longer perceive in their culture that hiatus that we seek to maintain between art and the other manifestations of our activity. A hiatus which in the West closes up somewhat whenever a wholly material violence invades our art and at the same time we put more harmonious movement into our actions at work [nos gestes de travail], actions now solidified in the form of machines (absolute regularity in the pulsations of a locomotive, in the spinning of a propeller, etc.). The result is that, under these two equally conjoined signs, our modern civilization, for all its outward clutter and maturity, is nonetheless tending towards a primitivism close to that of the Nègres, where the things of art are on the same level as the rest of life. But the crucial point is not located where we ordinarily imagine it to be, in the supposed invasion of everything — of both dreams and art — by the materiality of mechanical action. Rather, it is that the very characteristics of that mechanical action are already engendering, by themselves, properly aesthetic impressions, which risk, little by little, transforming modern life into a genuine substitute for art, — something which, in every epoch, seems to have been a feature of nègre civilization. (26–27)

For Schaeffner, then, "modern civilization" was tending toward a "primitivism close to that of the Nègres" under the conjoined effects of the First World War, that "wholly material violence" that was "invading our art," and of machine-age technology. The machine age was understood to have two distinct but related effects here. First, Schaeffner's reference to the "more harmonious movements" now placed in "our actions at work" was a clear allusion to the effects of Taylorized scientific management on the experience of work in a mechanized factory, to the rationalization and parcellization of work practices. Second, these more harmonious work rhythms were being "solidified" into the products of such mechanized labor, into the regular rhythms of a locomotive or a steam turbine driven propeller, to exert an effect over the broader population. Both on the side of production and of consumption, then, modern life was being imbued with an "absolute regularity" that paradoxically endowed the lives of all Europeans with a rhythm that was in harmony with the rhythms of primitive life. The shocks and dislocations of machine-age modernity were thus, according to Schaeffner, heralding a wholesale reshaping of the body and its affects, whether in form of the routinized gestures demanded of the assembly-line worker or the necessary adaptation undergone by a population at large now living in a world of propellers, locomotives, and steam turbines. As he put it, the "very characteristics" of "mechanical action" were engendering "properly aesthetic impressions," the very same aesthetic impressions as were conveyed through the strange syncopated rhythms of jazz.

Schaeffner was not alone at this time in suggesting that the realities of living and working in the machine age might somehow correspond to a return to more primitive actions and affects. Frederick Winslow Taylor himself, the man after whom Taylorization was named, made this very point, when he quipped that rationalized and mechanized production demanded work "so crude and elementary in its nature that the writer firmly believes that it would be possible to train an intelligent gorilla so as to become a more efficient pig-iron handler than any man could be" (quoted in Gramsci 2001, 589 n.36). That this was no isolated remark by Taylor would seem to be confirmed by the report offered by Louis Destouches, better known under his literary pseudonym Louis-Ferdinand Céline, of his visit to the Detroit Ford factory in 1925. Destouches reported that the company doctor responsible for checking the physical and mental health of new recruits had claimed that the ideal Ford worker would be a "chimpanzee." Moreover, in adding, "they used to employ such animals on the plantations in the South," the doctor revealed that the word chimpanzee functioned simultaneously here as a figure for the primitive, in a general sense, and as racist code for African-American workers, in a more specific sense (Destouches 1925, 123).

According to both Taylor and the Ford company doctor, then, by working in the most modern and mechanized of industrial factories, workers paradoxically risked being reduced or returned to a more primitive, elemental state. Highly regulated industrial labor required no intellectual effort but rather a rhythmic adaptation of the body to the metronomic movements of the machine. Mechanized industrial labor engaged the body not the mind, the affects not the intellect; it engaged the most primitive or elemental aspects of life itself, the body and the heartbeat, in a manner that might be seen as analogous to music and a fortiori to jazz, if jazz were figured as a primitive music.

The parallels Schaeffner drew between the primitive rhythms of jazz and the rhythms of machine-age modernity might lead us to conclude that he had merely elaborated a more detailed and sophisticated version of the kinds of techno-primitive hybrid we located in the Introduction in the work of Michel Leiris or Le Corbusier. It is important to note, however, that in one respect at least Schaeffner's techno-primitive hybrid was far more radical. Both Leiris and Le Corbusier figured jazz's genesis as resulting from a process whereby unsophisticated, primitive African rhythms had been schooled and elevated by their encounter with the more rational and hence intellectually more sophisticated culture of modern America. As Le Corbusier (1937, 182) put it, in jazz "the old rhythmic instinct of the virgin forest has learned its lesson from the machine." Or, in Leiris's terms, jazz was taken to be the product of the meeting of "an ancestral, magical and primitive" African "current" and an American "current" characterized by its inherent capacity for "technical improvement" and "intellectual transformation" (in Leiris 1992a, 22). In both cases, the hierarchy between Africa, as essentially primitive, and Europe or America, as the sites and sources of all science, progress, and reason, remained firmly in place. Schaeffner's point, by contrast, was not that jazz was the product of a dialectical synthesis between primitive African elements and modern, rational Western ones. His assertion was that the West, under the impetus of the developments of machine-age modernity, was itself reverting to a primitive state. In this sense, primitivism was not opposed to Western reason; rather, the industrialized West's increasing rationalization and mechanization were themselves taken to culminate in a form of primitivism. Jazz, in Schaeffner's account, thus became both an expression of and a powerful figure for the West's own tendencies toward primitivism, for the reshaping of bodies and affects in machine-age modernity. Dancing to jazz and living in the machine age were both provoking what Schaeffner termed "un déhanchement général," a "general lop-sidedness" or, literally, a "general un-hipping," evident in the "constrained postures" and "violent contortions" required of dancers' bodies (1926, 33). Such transformations were, however, entirely salutary, sweeping away staid Western conventions, so that art might no longer atrophy in its separate autonomous sphere but be reintegrated into the praxis of everyday life, thus "transforming modern life into a genuine substitute for art."


Excerpted from Jazz and Machine-Age Imperialism by Jeremy F. Lane. Copyright © 2013 University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Meet the Author

Jeremy F. Lane is Associate Professor in the Department of French and Francophone Studies, The University of Nottingham, UK.

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