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Musical Exchanges
By David at 05/11/2009 - 05:07

Musical Exchanges

In 1918, after four excruciatingly painful years of war, France discovered a royal remedy for the "blues": Black American music.

Chief Sergeant Noble Sissle, better known as a violinist than the drum Major of the 369th United States infantry unit, wrote this inspired description of the arrival of jazz in France: "Lt. Europe, before raising his baton, twitched his shoulders, apparently to be sure his tight-fitting military uniform would stand the strain, each musician shifted his feet, the players of brass horns blew the saliva from their instruments, the drummers tightened their drumheads, everyone settled back in their seats, and when the baton came down with a swoop, both the director and musicians seemed to forget their surroundings; they were lost in scenes and memories. Cornet and clarinet players began to manipulate notes in that typical rhythm (which no artist has ever been able to put down on paper); as the drummers struck their stride, their shoulders began shaking in time to their syncopated raps. Then, it seemed, the whole audience began to sway, dignified French officers began to tap their feet along with the American general, who, temporarily, had lost his style and grace. Lt. Europe was no longer the Lt. Europe of a moment ago, but once more Jim Europe who, a few months ago, rocked New York with his syncopated baton. He turned to the trombone players, who sat impatiently waiting for their cue to have a "jazz spasm" and they drew their slides out and jerked them back with that characteristic "crack". The audience could stand it no longer; the "jazz germ" hit them. "There now, I said to myself, Colonel Hayward has brought his band over here and started "rag-timeitis" in France ; ain’t this an awful thing to visit upon a nation with so many burdens! But when the band had finished and the people were roaring with laughter, I was forced to say that this is Just what France needs at this moment. But the thing that capped the climax happened up in Northern France: we were playing in a little village. Among the crowd, listening to that band, was an old lady about 60 years of age. To everyone’s surprise, all of a sudden, she started doing a dance that resembled "Walking the Dog". Then I was cured, and satisfied that American music would some day be the world’s music."

In the Twenties, France chased the blues of the Great War to the rhythms of ragtime and the Charleston. The "Zazous" of 1946 tried to forge the Occupation with be-bop. By 1946, "jass" had become jazz, and it was still the best remedy for the blues. Saint-Germain-des-Pres, that "little kingdom whose borders are marked by three cafes and a church,"whose Prince, Boris Vian when he wasn’t Vernon Sullivan, the pseudonym he assumed when he published scandalous books that he claimed he had translated from the American-became after the War what Montparnasse had been in the "crazy years" between the wars. It was a mecca for artists from around the world, especially Americans, and above all if they were musicians. The list of "guest stars" at the jazz clubs the Tabou the Saint-Germain, where young Parisians, so long deprived of simple freedoms and pleasure, danced and drank with joyful abandon. These clubs featured a "Who’s Who" list of Jazz greats: Duke Ellington, Errol Garner, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Max Roach… The audience was also part of the show. The best known among the regular crowd were philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, father figure of the philosophy soon known as existentialism-writers Albert Camus and Richard Wright and singer Juliette Greco. In his Manual for Saint-Germain, Vian wrote, "Every night, fashion designers, models, 50 or 60 photographers, journalists, students, musicians, Americans, Swedes, English, Brazilians. It was a court of miracles or a tower of Babel, your choice…"


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