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Race, Music, and Migration in Postâ"World War II Paris
By Rashida K. Braggs
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Performing Jazz Diaspora with Sidney Bechet
I once stumbled on an amazing photograph of Sidney Bechet (fig. 1). Uncredited, undated, it could easily have gone unnoticed in the Charles Delaunay archives of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The head-and-shoulders shot features a gray-haired Bechet simultaneously playing a clarinet and soprano saxophone. Lights, as if from a nearby street corner, sparkle through the darkness and caress his shoulders in the black-and-white photo. His shirt is crisscrossed with a pattern of Moravian-reminiscent stars that shine in their own way as well. To me the stars symbolize his success in France. Though his younger self had been dismissed, the veteran Bechet attained national stardom. Staring straight at the camera, Bechet's focused and confident regard dare the viewer not to listen. French jazz critic, promoter, and producer Charles Delaunay once called Bechet "une force de la nature" (Delaunay's 187). Even the mediation of this photographic form could not douse Bechet's forceful regard and impact.
Although his gaze intrigued me, the two horns caught my eye the most. They silently hinted at his intent to groove. The clarinet and the saxophone jockey for space between his ballooned jaws and angle outward from his lips. Their conjoined presence is a quick citation of his early start with the clarinet and his addition of the saxophone in his first trip abroad. They also hint at Bechet's accomplishment as the first musician to create a multitrack recording as he played six instruments to be overdubbed in his rendition of "Sheik of Araby." Bechet's fingers grasp both instruments strongly but not tightly. If photos could move, his fingers would skip across the keys. Back and forth, simultaneously, he would play multiplicity — just as he did in his life. By performing multiple subjectivities of Frenchness, Americanness, and African descent, Sidney Bechet played to the racialized expectations of French critics and fans and made a place for himself in France. Bechet's life and music created a fluid jazz diaspora, in which he continually shifted between subjectivities to achieve stardom in post–World War II France.
Of all the case studies Jazz Diasporas explores, Sidney Bechet is the most discussed in jazz scholarship. From British author John Chilton to French jazz scholar Christian Béthune, Europeans have paid due interest with book-length studies of the star. Before them all, Bechet captured his own story in Treat It Gentle. Other scholars have focused on key moments of his work or life, too. African American literature scholar Jürgen Grandt investigated the literary improvisatory aspects of Treat It Gentle. Musicologist Andy Fry critiqued the oft-mentioned review and perspective of Ernest Ansermet that acted as proof for Bechet's rise to fame after World War II.
Some authors have stated that Bechet "became" a French star. French studies scholar Colin Nettelbeck writes, "Bechet became a French national treasure. He enjoyed his stardom and cultivated it with good-natured diligence" (69). French historian Tyler Stovall also states, "The French loved Sidney Bechet because to a certain extent he became one of them. His French last name and Créole heritage helped, of course" (Paris Noir 174). Stovall notes that Bechet "became" French but only "to a certain extent," suggesting that Bechet was incorporated into French society and culture but not fully. Stovall points to Bechet's actions as the secret to his success rather than falling back on his natural connections to the French (his Creole name, language, and heritage). Stovall underscores how Bechet interacted with the French and positioned jazz music in France. By emphasizing Bechet's actions, Stovall suggests that Bechet actively created his success.
I would add to Stovall's discussion that Bechet did more than "become" French; he "performed" Frenchness by drawing on his Creole heritage. Bechet's attainment of stardom in post–World War II France was not inevitable but rather deliberately achieved through a conscious performance of multiple subjectivities. Like identities, subjectivities are shaped by one's personal experiences and opinions, but they are also influenced by external forces. Bechet played on several: his Creole background connected him to Frenchness, and his autobiography and memories of his ancestry constructed an African (and African-descended) subjectivity. Despite this, however, he never lost attachment to his New Orleans home and music. In this enduring attachment he performed Americanness.
"Becoming" and "performing" differ in several critical ways. Becoming suggests a natural, even somewhat passive, transformation. But Bechet's change was not passive but rather deliberately performed. His personality alone suggests that he never unknowingly fell into anything. His own accounts and interviews with bandmates demonstrate how meticulous he was about the quality of music he played and the level of musicianship his band showed. Several French band members were torturé by Bechet's rigorous, perfectionist rehearsals (J. Chilton 40; Horricks 1–9; Delaunay, Delaunay's 187). So, why would he pay any less consideration to the social roles he performed? Becoming also implies that he transformed into something new. But Bechet did not alter his identity. He consistently changed how he portrayed himself instead. This type of performative reading stresses the deconstruction of social roles and cultural interaction rather than accepting them as natural. It positions Bechet as active in the construction of his significations.
In "Remembrance of Jazz Past: Sidney Bechet in France" Andy Fry states that Bechet actively portrays his hybrid heritage through a diverse repertoire. Fry explains that Bechet "achieved a careful balancing act: He was a New Orleans jazzman [spinning the tale of having played with the earliest jazz musicians like Buddy Bolden] but also a Creole who had, in a sense, come 'home' to France and was happy to play a Gallic-inflected repertoire" (316). Fry's analysis pinpoints the ambiguity of Bechet's cultural performances, implying that he shifted his personas and his repertoire to best fit in with his French environment.
Fry's point underscores my own, that Bechet's ambiguous performances were influenced and fueled by his Creole heritage. Postcolonial theorist Édouard Glissant has written about characteristics and experiences of creolization, starting from his own Caribbean background. Though the ethnic experiences differ, Bechet's Creole body and culture similarly weave together various cultures, obfuscating pure essence and clear division between parts in the process. Glissant writes that "the poetics of métissage is the poetics of Relation" (Le discours 251; my translation). These different interwoven parts, what I have called subjectivities, relate in important ways. For Bechet's distinct subjectivities inevitably tangled together in an ambiguous fashion, leading to an unsettled assimilation into French society. Rather than laying claim to one home, Bechet's restless, mobile subjectivities were part of a jazz diaspora that emphasized individualism while relating to and depending on multiple communities.
Bechet's jazz travels further tested and prompted the instability of the subjectivities he performed. It was not just the hybrid nature of métissage and creolization, but movement to and from subjectivities, which shaped Bechet's (and jazz's) diasporic experience. His movement threatened a potential disavowal of his American roots, his Louisiana heritage. His music and his life disdained (yet also played with) national and racial rootedness.
Bechet's unsettled assimilation in French jazz culture illustrates the kind of "in-betweenness" that Homi Bhabha theorizes in Location of Culture. According to Bhabha, the possibilities for identity formation resist an "essential way of being" and promote fluidity. With his concept of the "in- between" Bhabha presents a space for these unfixed identities and privileges "movement back and forth" (3). He writes, "It is in the emergence of the interstices — the overlap and the displacement of domains of difference — that the intersubjective and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated" (2). Bechet's jazz diaspora is the only space, an interstice if you will, that creates a "fit" and a place of survival. It is a space of "complex, ongoing" negotiation. For just as Bechet played up multiple subjectivities in ongoing negotiations, so did the jazz that traveled with him complicate its reading as singularly African American music.
Paul Gilroy expands this racialized signification of jazz in his seminal work, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. He describes black music as creolized in its origin, since often it draws on multiple influences (75). Gilroy recognizes the impossibility of a pure black music, since as it is exchanged, disseminated, critiqued, and shaped, black music resists sameness (80). He makes a similar case for people of African descent, one that frames well the subjectivities that Bechet performs: "The history of the black Atlantic yields a course of lessons as to the instability and mutability of racial identities which are always unfinished, always being remade" (Gilroy xi). Gilroy's black Atlantic resists categorizing identities into pure essences such as all black or all white and to recognize that identities are hybrid.
Bechet's subjectivities, rather than states of being, were processes that could be "remade"; they could be performed and functional. Racialized significations, national expectations — these were multiple roles he played rather than an immutable notion of self. Yet Bechet's roles rarely escaped ambiguous signification. Bechet makes the perfect case study to investigate the evolving racial and national identities of jazz in France because both grew out of the hybrid, creolized culture of New Orleans.
Born in 1897 New Orleans, Sidney Joseph Bechet mirrored the birth of jazz in the early twentieth century. New Orleans was a prominent site in the creation and early development of jazz. At the age of six Bechet borrowed his brother's clarinet and rushed out to hear and study the sounds of Buddy Bolden and Bunk Johnson (Bechet, Sidney Bechet; J. Chilton 5). He may have grown up playing among legends in the red-light district of Storyville, but like jazz he soon found himself on the road. In 1916 Bechet left New Orleans to play in Texas. He headed all the way to Chicago by 1917, bringing his style of blues and jazz to the North. Jazz historian Ted Gioia discusses the larger phenomenon that Bechet's migration represented:
Well before the middle of the decade, a large cadre of major New Orleans jazz musicians were making their reputations in other locales — Jelly Roll Morton left New Orleans around 1908; Freddie Keppard departed in 1914 (if not earlier); Sidney Bechet in 1916, Jimmie Noone in 1917, King Oliver in 1918, Kid Ory in 1919, Johnny Dodds around that same time, Baby Dodds in 1921, and Louis Armstrong in 1922. These moves may have begun as brief stints on the road, but in the end proved all but permanent. The vast majority of the New Orleans diaspora never returned to their home state except for brief visits. This exodus was anything but a purely musical phenomenon. Between the years 1916–1919, a half-million African Americans left the South for more tolerant communities in the North, with almost one million more following in their wake in the 1920s. This vast population shift, which has since come to be known as the Great Migration, encompassed the whole range of black society, from doctors and lawyers to musicians and ministers, from teachers and merchants to artisans and manual laborers. (43)
Gioia connects Bechet to others, and not just musicians. He shows how Bechet was not singular in his desire to move but exemplified part of a mass migration. In 1941 New York, African American painter Jacob Lawrence encapsulated the motivations, emotions, and results of these waves of migration of African Americans, most prominently between 1900 and 1930. Lawrence exhibited a series of paintings called The Migration of the Negro, consisting of sixty panels accompanied by statements about the experience of migration and assimilation into the northern and western regions of the United States. "His text, which he carefully researched and wrote before he ever made an image, clearly explained why people needed to leave and were still leaving. It described their hopes for something better, depicted the violence and disease they endured, pointed out their strengths and their potential for political power," writes curator Elizabeth Turner in her introduction to the Phillips Collection's catalog of the series (Turner 13). Lawrence's panels vividly illustrate migratory experiences in expressionistic fashion, and his statements clarify multiple reasons for moving: lynching, white supremacy–influenced legislation, unreasonable and unpredictable arrests, unfair treatment of tenant farmers, child labor, and lack of opportunities for education. The hopes and dreams that prompted the Great Migration also influenced migration outside the country. The international migration of jazz musicians like Bechet and the motivations to find more equality in Paris extended the hopes and dreams of the Great Migration.
Considering Sidney Bechet's individual migration, and his music with it, as part of this larger diasporic movement points to the interwoven nature of individual, collective, and musically shared aspects of diasporic experience. In Blues People: Negro Music in White America, Amiri Baraka traces the connections among slave songs, blues, jazz, and R&B and links their development and dissemination with the migration of African Americans from South to North, from countryside to urban center, from minority to mainstream culture. But the contributions of nonblacks and non-Americans to "black music" do not fit as well in Baraka's concept of African diaspora. Sidney Bechet's migrations demonstrate the racial and national hybridization of jazz that migration prompted.
Bechet was one of the first musicians to play jazz internationally. He performed with Will Marion Cook's Southern Syncopated Orchestra in England and France in 1919. The band was impressed by the invitation to play for the Prince of Wales in London. Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet was equally impressed by Bechet, singling him out as "an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso" and "artist of genius" in the first jazz review ever written (Ansermet 177). Bechet was recognized as a groundbreaking soloist in jazz (Teachout). His ability to improvise and his powerful vibrato-led delivery distinguished him from other musicians. Jazz Hot critic Maxime Saury found Bechet distinctive from contemporaries like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie because of his pure melodic line, which never faltered, his leadership in guiding the band's improvisational choices, and his force of will that consistently marked the sound as his no matter his accompaniment (22). Ellington himself captured the emotional impact and improvisatory genius of Sidney Bechet: "He had a wonderful clarinet tone — all wood, a sound you don't hear anymore. ... I consider Bechet the foundation. His things were all soul, all from the inside. It was very, very difficult to find anyone who could really keep up with him" (Ellington and Dance 15). Bechet had a way of strutting into one's heart with his meandering style. His horn tone wavered and wandered in its vibrato. His sound wobbled with a fierce and confident whining as it wandered to the next unexpected phrase — much like he wandered in his life.
In 1925 Bechet journeyed to Europe again, visiting France, Germany, and Russia — to name some of the countries on his itinerary. In Paris he played clarinet in the jazz orchestra of Claude Hopkins's show La revue nègre. Trouble soon followed the quick-tempered, gun-toting Bechet. Packing protective weaponry may have been the way to survive in Storyville, but it got him into big trouble again while he was traveling. In 1928 he served nearly a year in a French prison for participating in a shoot-out in Montmartre, Paris. In a disagreement with his drummer, Mike McKendrick, Bechet mistakenly shot a French woman and also wounded two passersby instead of his bandmate; upon his release from jail he was permanently banned from entering France. Luckily, with the help of Charles Delaunay, the ban was temporarily removed in 1949 for the Paris International Jazz Festival and permanently in 1951 (Bechet, Treat 152–54; J. Chilton 83–84; Béthune 129).
Excerpted from Jazz Diasporas by Rashida K. Braggs. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations Preface
Migrating Jazz People and Identities
1. Performing Jazz Diaspora With Sidney Bechet
2. Jazz At Home In France: French Jazz Musicians on the Warpath To "Authentic" Jazz
3. Inez Cavanaugh: Creating And Complicating Jazz Community
4. Boris Vian And James Baldwin In Paris: Are We A Blues People, Too?
5. Kenny Clarke’s Journey Between "Black" And "Universal" Music
Coda: Beyond Color-Blind Narratives: Reading Behind The Scenes Of Paris Blues