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6/18/2015 Le Jazz Hot by Adam Shatz | The New York Review of Books

 

Le Jazz Hot

Jean-­Philippe Charbonnier/Gamma-­Rapho/Getty Images

Adam Shatz

JULY 9, 2015 ISSUE


After Django: Making Jazz in Postwar France
by Tom Perchard
University of Michigan Press, 297 pp., $80.00;; $39.95 (paper)


Jazz/Black Power
by Philippe Carles and Jean-­Louis Comolli, translated from the French by Grégory Pierrot
University Press of Mississippi, 256 pp., $65.00
Juliette Gréco and Miles Davis at the Salle Pleyel, Paris, 1949




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Jazz is an art that inspires possessive devotion, and nowhere more so than in
France. That proud sense of ownership is understandable: Paris opened its arms to
jazz when it was a motherless child back home, a music associated with brothels,
race mixing, and other vices. The American clarinetist Sidney Bechet was
declared a genius when he came to Paris in 1919 with Will Marion Cook’s
Southern Syncopated Orchestra. Darius Milhaud was so fascinated by what he
heard in Harlem that he composed music for a ballet rich in jazz rhythms, La
Création du monde, in 1923. A year later, a black American combat aviator,
Eugene Bullard, who had fought with the French at Verdun and earned a Croix de
Guerre, opened a club on rue Pigalle, Le Grand Duc, where other black expatriates
mingled with French jazz fans. “Harlem in Montmartre” was so full of musicians
that, as Bechet recalled, “it seemed like you just couldn’t get home before ten or
eleven in the morning.”


Even Miles Davis, who abhorred sentimentality, allowed himself to become
nostalgic about his first trip to Paris in 1949. “I loved being in Paris and loved the
way I was treated,” he wrote in his autobiography. “The band and the music we
played sounded better over there. Even the smells were different.” Davis met
Jean-­Paul Sartre and the jazz critic Boris Vian, who also played trumpet, and fell
in love with the singer Juliette Gréco. Walking along the Seine with Gréco, he felt
as if he were “in some kind of trance…. It was April in Paris. Yeah, and I was in
love.” In the dream life of black American musicians, Paris has long been the
closest thing to heaven: a place where they were recognized as artists;; where they
wouldn’t be beaten up by cops or stripped of their cabaret cards;; where they could
walk arm and arm with a white woman without attracting hostile stares.
It wasn’t always so. From the 1920s until the end of World War II, jazz set off
ferocious opposition in France, particularly in extreme right-­wing circles where it
was vilified as a “black peril.” It was only after the Liberation that jazz was fully
accepted in France. By then it had acquired an aura of antifascist resistance, an
honor it did not entirely merit. The young jazz fans known as zazous or swings
were celebrated for their anti-­Nazi sympathies, but neither the music nor the clubs
were suppressed during the Occupation, though blacks and Jews were banned, and
all the players were white. The owner of the Hot Club, Charles Delaunay, a
member of the Resistance, protected the music he presented by passing it off as a
uniquely French jazz, not the “Judeo-­Negroid” abomination the Führer reviled.
Delaunay’s fiction satisfied the German soldiers who frequented his club more
than it did French supporters of Vichy, who assailed jazz in the press and
assaulted the zazous in the streets. That jazz had long been controversial among
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the French was forgotten after 1945, when the love of jazz was woven into the
Gaullist myth of a nation united against fascism.
The ambiguity of France’s attraction to Afro-­America was surely what James
Baldwin had in mind when, in 1960, he suggested that “someone, some day,
should do a study in depth of the role of the American Negro in the mind and life
of Europe, and the extraordinary perils, different from those of America but not
less grave, which the American Negro encounters in the Old World.” Baldwin’s
challenge has been taken up in recent years by a group of jazz historians working
on France. Tom Perchard’s After Django is the latest addition to an impressive
body of scholarship that includes Ludovic Tournès’s magisterial New Orleans sur
Seine (1999), Jeffrey Jackson’s Making Jazz French (2003), Matthew Jordan’s Le
Jazz (2010), and Andy Fry’s Paris Blues (2014).
What these histories have shown is that when the French talked about jazz, they
invariably talked about their own reactions: their relationship to modern culture
and American power, racial diversity, and, above all, national identity. The
disproportionate contribution that African-­Americans made to the creation of jazz
beguiled the French, but also caused them concern. Could French musicians play
jazz with authority? Could the music be “assimilated” and made French (or
“universal,” a word French critics sometimes used interchangeably) or did its
vernacular roots make it irremediably foreign?
s Tom Perchard argues in his illuminating study, the most persuasive case for a
distinctively French jazz was made in the mid-­1930s by a French Gypsy guitarist,
Django Reinhardt, who, with the violinist Stéphane Grappelli, led the Quintette du
Hot-­club de France. Born in 1910, Reinhardt, who had lost the use of the third and
fourth fingers of his left hand in a fire, was a breathtaking improviser with a flair
for improbable but inspired rhythmic shifts, and a harmonic approach that
prefigured the chord substitutions of bebop. His lilting, whimsical jazz manouche,
or gypsy jazz, evoked the world of Parisian working-­class bars and cafés where,
as a teenager, Reinhardt had played banjo guitar in bal-­musette and tango groups.
Reinhardt also performed with Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, and Duke
Ellington, and seems never to have fretted over the nationality of his style: jazz
was a country without borders, and he felt entirely at home in it.
Reinhardt’s serenity about jazz’s origins was not widely shared among critics who
felt “culturally and geographically distanced from the music’s perceived source,”
as Perchard puts it. Some of the music’s earliest French admirers attempted to
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bridge this distance by claiming that the word “jazz” derived from jaser, to gossip
or chatter, and that, as one critic put it, it was “black only by accident.” Krikor
Kelekian, an Armenian émigré who went by the name Grégor and led a popular
Parisian band called “Grégor et ses grégoriens” in the 1920s, insisted that he
played a “Latin,” rather than American or “nègre,” style of jazz.
French musicians were so afraid of competition from American musicians that the
National Assembly passed a law in 1922 that limited the number of foreign
musicians employed in a club to 10 percent of the French musicians. By 1934,
there were more black American musicians in Shanghai than in Paris. In the 1930s
and 1940s, the face of jazz in Paris dance halls was white, its dominant genre a
symphonic swing closer to the popular chanson than to the blues, or for that
matter to Django’s jazz manouche, which was “only moderately successful”
before the war. This was the music that a young critic named Hugues Panassié
pilloried as “straight” or “fake” jazz.
Panassié, who did more to spread the gospel of black American jazz than anyone
in France, was a right-­wing monarchist who worshiped negritude. Born in 1912,
he was the son of an engineer who had made his fortune in Russian manganese,
and grew up in a castle in the south of France. He discovered jazz when he was
fourteen years old, while recovering from a bout of polio that left him paralyzed in
one of his legs and forced him to use a walking stick. Like most of his
countrymen, he first stumbled on jazz through the work of white bandleaders like
Paul Whiteman and Jack Hylton. But when he heard Louis Armstrong, he became
a fervent partisan of black American jazz, which he called “le jazz hot.”
In 1932, he created the Hot Club Association with Charles Delaunay, the son of
the painters Robert and Sonia. The goal of the Hot Club, which organized concerts
and radio programs, and published a magazine, Le Jazz Hot, was to “defend the
interests of the music and its amateurs.” It was a cross between a fan club and a
political party, and Panassié was its chief ideologue. He pursued his mission with
inexhaustible zeal, notably in the “conférence-­audition,” a lecture illustrated with
musical excerpts where, as one witness remembered, “Mr Panassié went into a
frenzy of movement, jerking his whole body in time to the records, playing every
solo in pantomime.”
Panassié’s most famous book was his first, Le Jazz hot, published in 1934, when
he was twenty-­two. What defined hot jazz, he argued, was the presence of “Negro
swing,” the “essential element, the element one does not find in any other music.”
He attributed to jazz something like magical properties. His belief in the musical
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superiority of blacks was shaped by his friend Mezz Mezzrow, a Jewish-­American
clarinetist who passed as a black man, and who introduced Panassié to the
pleasures of Harlem nightlife. Whites could learn to play “hot,” and even help to
“perfect the form,” but blacks, he wrote, would always be “more naturally
inclined.” To Panassié it was no wonder that Django Reinhardt was “one of the
rare white musicians comparable to the Negroes”: after all, the Gypsy guitarist
belonged to “a race which has remained very primitive.”
Panassié was a primitivist, but his celebration of the hot style, as Perchard notes,
drew upon ideas that were more eccentric than the ephemeral wave of Negrophilia
that swept Paris when Josephine Baker did her banana dance at the Revue Nègre
in the 1920s. Panassié was an admirer of Charles Maurras, and moved in circles
close to Maurras’s far-­right Catholic movement Action Française. In the 1930s he
published a jazz column in an extreme right-­wing magazine, L’Insurgé. It was a
peculiar venue for a jazz enthusiast: most Maurassians despised jazz as a
corrupting force of modern America, a music associated with blacks, Jews, and
the “noise of the machine.” (Maurras himself was deaf.)
But as Ludovic Tournès points out in New Orleans sur Seine, Panassié was one of
a number of young Maurrassians in the 1930s who were captivated by the avant-­
garde, from jazz to Surrealism and Soviet cinema. Panassié saw no contradiction
between his love of jazz and his political convictions. On the contrary, he heard
echoes in jazz of a “primitive musical conception [that] had arisen many centuries
ago among the people of Europe.” He believed, or persuaded himself, that jazz
embodied the transcendent values threatened by secularism, rationalism, and other
republican ills. His faith was reinvigorated on a trip to Harlem in 1939, when he
heard the Chick Webb Orchestra at the Savoy Ballroom and experienced what he
called “the love of God.”
s Perchard notes, Panassié makes for very strange reading today, because his
praise of jazz is couched in Maurassian ideas about racial purity and civilizational
decline. Yet what is even more striking today is how Panassié turned those ideas
on their head: Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong were not exactly icons of the
French nationalist right. What he could not abide was the possibility that his
musical heroes might try (in his words) to “reason and to ‘improve’ their music.”
He considered the idea of artistic evolution to be “a great farce”: there were only
“fertile…and decadent periods.” Bebop represented decadence of the worst sort:
the corruption of a noble, primitive art by “white” influences. Like the “moldy
figs” in the United States who championed the Dixieland revival, he ended up
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William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Django Reinhardt at the Aquarium, New York
City, 1946
praising white musicians who simulated antiquarian black styles as more authentic
representatives of jazz than Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. Bebop’s
supporters reminded him of the left-­wing Catholic “progressistes” whom the
Vatican had condemned in 1947 for their attempt to reconcile Christianity and
socialism. For the remainder of his career, Panassié stood at the gates of the jazz
church, warding off the incursions of bop, free jazz, and other “traitors to the true
black music.” In his weekly jazz column for Combat, Boris Vian made a sport of
mocking Panassié as the “pope” of jazz.
Panassié’s opposition to bop provoked a
schism with Charles Delaunay, his partner at
the Hot Club, shortly after the Liberation. In
the war over the future of jazz in France,
Panassié, who had retreated to his estate in
Montauban and played records for German
soldiers, didn’t stand a chance against
Delaunay, a veteran of the Resistance. The Hot
Club split into Panassié’s Hot Club de France
and Delaunay’s Federation of French Hot
Clubs. Delaunay allied himself with a former
Panassié disciple, the young critic André
Hodeir, who took over Le Jazz Hot.
In his first book, Le Jazz, cet inconnu (1945),
published when he was twenty-­four, Hodeir echoed Panassié in describing jazz as
“the image of the black man: simple, naive, dynamic, sensual, sometimes comic,
always brimming with a fervent sensibility that reveals all of a sudden an
unsuspected profundity.” But Hodeir repudiated both Panassié’s racialism and his
breathless fandom, and emerged as a sharp analyst of the harmonic innovations in
the music of Parker and Monk. As ardent a modernist as Panassié was a
reactionary, Hodeir saw jazz as an exemplary modern music, and sprinkled his
cool, erudite essays with allusions to Debussy and Stravinsky, Klee and Husserl.
Unlike Panassié, Hodeir was no mere fan, but a composer who had studied at the
Conservatoire under Olivier Messiaen, and who dabbled in serialism and musique
concrète. He was also an accomplished jazz musician, a violinist who performed
under the stage name “Claude Laurence” and recorded with Kenny Clarke.
Hodeir understood that if jazz was to be established in France as an art worthy of
serious attention, it had to be rescued from Panassié’s amateurism. “What do I
care if some self-­styled oracle thinks such-­and-­such a musician is ‘terrific’ or
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such-­and-­such a chorus ‘awful?’” he wrote, in an obvious reference to his mentor.
“Either I am capable of recognizing these things or I am not. And if I am not, why
should I go to swell the ranks of a congregation, persuading myself that the God-­
given word is right?” Miles Davis praised Hodeir as the “only…critic [in France]
who understood what I was doing.”
Yet as discerning as Hodeir was, he remained a prisoner of classical assumptions
about musical progress. Like Panassié, he preferred black American jazz—the so-­
called école noire—to the cooler, white styles, such as the West Coast jazz of
Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, and Stan Getz. Yet he worried that the vernacular
features of jazz made it less than “universal.” And though he admitted, somewhat
grudgingly, that “the essence of jazz lies partially in a certain Negro spirit,” he
insisted that blues feeling and improvisation were “inessential.” The destiny of
jazz was to outgrow its humble roots.
Hodeir’s prediction was tinged with melancholy over the decline of the things he
loved about black American jazz. Yet he also spotted an opportunity in the
“prospect of a form of jazz in which its origins are but a memory.” Although he
praised Monk as “the first jazzman who has had a feeling for specifically modern
values,” he doubted that a musician without conservatory training could realize
the “all-­encompassing formal concept implicit in his ideas.” Only “that foreign
species, the composer,” could introduce jazz to the “splendors of form” and
supply it with a “true balance between freedom and restraint.” This was the role
Hodeir envisioned for himself. Alas, he was a much better critic than a composer
of jazz. His attempt to fuse classical modernism and big band music in what he
called “simulated improvisation” was a French cousin of the American “Third
Stream” of composers, such as Gunther Schuller and George Russell, and the
results were even more ersatz and mannered. Hodeir eventually gave up jazz
criticism to write novels for children. His last composition was entitled “Bitter
Ending.”
he French writer who came closest to the spirit of jazz in the 1940s and 1950s
was Boris Vian. Vian, who died in 1959 at age thirty-­nine, is discussed only in
passing in After Django, perhaps because he was a bohemian chronicler of the
Paris scene rather than a systematic thinker. But his importance can scarcely be
overstated, particularly as a liaison between black American musicians and the
Left Bank intelligentsia. It was Vian who shepherded Parker and Ellington around
Paris, introducing them to everyone from Sartre and Beauvoir to Gaston
Gallimard and the editors of Présence africaine. He also wrote the liner notes for
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Miles Davis’s only studio session in Paris, when he made the mesmerizing
soundtrack for Louis Malle’s 1957 noir, Elevator to the Gallows.
That film helped set off a trend: Jean-­Luc Godard, Jean-­Pierre Melville, and
François Truffaut all used jazz to create a mood of urbane sophistication and
moral ambiguity. Davis’s score was recorded in a single night in a studio lit by
three standing lamps. As Malle screened the film, Davis improvised on a set of
themes, along with the drummer Kenny Clarke and a trio of superb French
musicians: the pianist René Urtreger, the bassist Pierre Michelot, and the tenor
saxophonist Barney Wilen. Malle claimed that Davis made up the music on the
spot, one of several myths about the session that Perchard elegantly dissects. The
crepuscular music on Elevator to the Gallows speaks for itself: it is one of Davis’s
most poetic performances, and a harbinger of the modal jazz he perfected two
years later on Kind of Blue.
By the mid-­1960s, the noir jazz of Elevator to the Gallows had given way to a
rather different kind of noir, with the birth of free jazz and its deepening
association with black militancy. The rebellious jazz of Ornette Coleman, Cecil
Taylor, and Albert Ayler seemed to require an analysis that looked beyond music
to the transformations inside black America. A younger generation of French jazz
critics attached themselves to various radical styles of will, particularly Marxism
and the insurrectionary Third Worldism of Frantz Fanon.
The most influential of these critics, Jean-­Louis Comolli, was a Parisian born in
Algiers in 1941. A member of the Cahiers du Cinéma editorial board, Comolli
had fallen under the spell of LeRoi Jones’s 1963 study Blues People, which
described jazz as an expression of black alienation and revolt. In a 1966 essay
entitled “Voyage au bout de la new thing,” he characterized free jazz as a “music
of combat,” part of a global struggle against the capitalist West. It made little
sense, he argued, to judge free jazz according to European aesthetic criteria of
beauty and form, as Hodeir had done, because it was based precisely on “the
refusal of our canons, our criteria, the values of our civilization.”
After May 1968, Hodeir’s Le Jazz Hot was taken over by young Marxists, just as
the Cahiers du Cinema had been. Well through the 1970s, its pages were filled
with exaltations of free jazz as the soundtrack of Black Power, expressed with a
passion that had seldom been extended to Algerians or Vietnamese fighting
French rule. New Left jazz critics reserved particular scorn for Hugues Panassié,
who, as Comolli and Philippe Carles put it in their 1971 manifesto Free
Jazz/Black Power—just published for the first time in English—“did not really
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see blacks any differently from colonizers.”
Yet the old man’s ghost had never been entirely exorcised. Where Panassié
distinguished between real and fake jazz, New Left critics drew rigid lines
between “revolutionary” and “bourgeois” jazz. Their coverage of LeRoi Jones
(who had since renamed himself Amiri Baraka) and of militant jazz musicians like
the saxophonist Archie Shepp was no less reverential than Panassié’s writing on
Armstrong. They also tended to celebrate earthy and raucous styles of free jazz,
and to disparage more cerebral ones as inauthentic.
When a group of avant-­garde jazz musicians from Chicago settled in France in
1969, Paris soon made its preferences clear. The Art Ensemble of Chicago, whose
performances included “sun” percussion, recitations of poetry, and African
costumes, were an immediate sensation. “They are black,” read the program note
for one of their concerts. “When you venture into their cave at the Lucernaire, rue
Odessa, you believe that you are at a magical rite. Meditative and serious, four
men explore a jungle of Baroque instruments: brass, strings, and all kinds of
percussion.” (The Art Ensemble’s tricksterish humor was mostly lost on their
French listeners, who imagined themselves at an updated version of the Revue
Nègre.)
By contrast, the saxophonist Anthony Braxton, who moved to Paris the same year
with the Creative Construction Company, met with a chillier reception because of
his interest in Stockhausen and Cage. “We were not acceptable African-­
Americans,” Braxton recalled. “Our music was viewed as cold, intellectual,
borrowing from Europe or something.”
he new radical criticism sought to liberate jazz, but its unintended effect, as
Hodeir noted, was to ghettoize it, and to deprive it of independent aesthetic value:
“Anybody can take an instrument, anyone can attach the title ‘Ode to Malcolm’ to
the sounds that he extracts from his instrument, to the music—good or bad—that
he makes.” Anybody could, in principle, but white French musicians did so at the
risk of engaging in minstrelsy. Not surprisingly, some began to wonder if they had
any right to play free jazz. “The trouble is that we’re playing a stolen music,” the
reedman Michel Portal said. “Le noir person has something that condenses
everything against which he can revolt: the white American and his culture. What
is it that we fight against?” Portal never entirely abandoned jazz, but he devoted
more of his energy to performing modern classical music, and to devising a
synthesis of free improvisation and the Basque music of his childhood.
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In their search for an indigenous style or “imaginary folklore,” some musicians
plunged into radical regionalist movements fighting the French government;;
others took part in “animation,” a kind of collaborative education conducted with
poor and disabled children. Even Barney Wilen, one of the most effective French
interpreters of the école noire, briefly quit playing jazz in favor of “primitive free
rock,” a music he claimed to have discovered while distributing medicine to
Congolese pygmies. As Perchard writes, “the ghost of an old jazz primitivism
haunted the mission.”
Yet for all their efforts to emancipate themselves from jazz, the music of French
free improvisers was not so far removed from the work of their African-­American
peers as they might have imagined. Musicians like Braxton, Wadada, Leo Smith,
and Roscoe Mitchell were building highly personal idioms out of a marriage of
jazz and avant-­garde classical sources. The “imaginary folklore” of Michel Portal
and Barney Wilen found echoes in the work of the trumpeter Don Cherry, who
virtually invented “world music” on his travels in North Africa. The music of
black American innovators was no less cosmopolitan, or introspective, than the
work of their French peers. It was also less self-­conscious, perhaps because it was
less afflicted by the anxiety of influence.
Most French jazz musicians, of course, have never allowed such anxieties to
discourage them from playing jazz. The pianist Martial Solal, who was born to a
Jewish family in Algiers in 1927, has produced a particularly rich body of work,
and is rightly admired as an improvisor of wit and invention, an heir of Art Tatum
and Bud Powell. Yet no major innovators have emerged in France since Django
Reinhardt, an absence implicitly acknowledged by Perchard’s title. And though
the audience for jazz in Paris remains strong, its jazz scene can scarcely compete
with New York. When Miles Davis left Paris in 1949, Kenny Clarke told him he
was “a fool to go back.” In New York, Davis succumbed to a heroin addiction it
would take him four years to beat, but he never regretted leaving Paris. “I didn’t
think the music could or would happen for me over there. Plus, the musicians who
moved over there seemed to me to lose something, an energy, an edge, that living
in the States gave them.”
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