Tenth Emeritus Lecture Honoring William A. Shack

In Press from William A. Shack

Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story Between the Great Wars

Excerpt from the Unedited Manuscript:
"I have come back from France more firmly convinced than ever that Negroes should write Negro music. We have our own racial feeling and if we try to copy whites we will make bad copies.... We won France by playing music which was ours and not a pale imitation of others, and if we are to develop in America we must develop along our own lines."
- James Reese Europe, "A Negro Explains 'Jazz'." Literary Digest, 1919.

I come from that generation of African Americans who, as youths, first derived images of France from stories told by fathers who had served in that country with the American Expeditionary Forces, during the Great War. Images were often colored by broken verses of that popular tune American soldiers sang with great delight: "Mademoiselle from Armentiere, parlez vous." Not infrequently, this verse served as a preamble to descriptions my father recited of the hospitality French citizens displayed toward black American soldiers. He made sharp comparisons with the racial hostility they experienced in the company of white American soldiers. A constant refrain were his words, often bitterly expressed, that a "colored man" in America had to travel and study in France or England to be recognized as "equal" to a "white man." And he could cite examples of such "colored" men to make the case.

Years later, my opportunity came to experience my father's "theories" on comparative racial relations in the United States and England, and in France. It was 1957; I was traveling to Ethiopia to conduct doctoral research in anthropology. Later, I was to complete studies at the University of London. This was the year when the Little Rock, Arkansas, school incident dominated newspaper headlines across the nation. And in Chicago, in Bridgeport, the neighborhood of the city's mayor, a black man had been stoned to death. On a Sunday morning, after attending church services, the victim of this brutality had entered a white tavern, and ordered a drink. It was an innocent act; he aroused violent hostility from white customers merely by his presence.

London was "No Green Pastures," to borrow the title of Roi Ottley's study of race relations in post-war Europe. I found the city socially cold, as well as climatically uncomfortable. Londoners appeared to express indifference to strangers, especially black strangers, though perhaps I assumed wrongly. I did not, I believe, misconstrue reasons for the difficulty experienced in obtaining accommodations, even in cheap bed and breakfast hotels in Bloomsbury. Viewing the famous historical sites of London failed to satiate my appetite for Paris.

On my first day of arrival in The City of Light, I met Ollie Stewart. A former war correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American, Stewart remained in Paris after its liberation from four years of German occupation. He gained the reputation of being the person African American visitors to Paris sought to meet, if he had not first sought you, on one of his daily visits for that purpose, at the American Express, on rue Scribe. It was where we met on that first day. As hospitable as his reputation characterized him, Stewart booked me, a stranger, in a small hotel on rue Amsterdam, in Montmartre. This quarter on Paris' Right Bank would be central to the study of African American musicians and entertainers who, after World War I, shaped the Harlem-style culture in Paris, about which I would write forty years later. With Stewart's guidance, I came to appreciate the charm of the city and understood better why France had stamped such an indelible impression on my father.

When I returned from Ethiopia to Paris in 1959, I was fortunate to see Josephine Baker, still the toast of Paris, in her review at the Olympia Theatre, Paris, mes amours, that marked her return to the musical world from retirement. The review raised funds for the several children she had adopted into her multi-ethnic "Rainbow Tribe."

Years later, a radio broadcast by Lynn Terry, then Paris correspondent for National Public Radio, in Washington, DC, set me on the literary path that resulted in this book. An avid fan of black American jazz and its influence on the French jazz scene, Terry frequently broadcast interviews featuring French or American jazz personalities who played a prominent role in shaping the Paris musical scene. On this occasion she interviewed Jim Gurley, a white jazz saxophonist from Chicago. Before immigrating to Paris in the early 1960s, when jazz clubs had begun to take root after World War II, Gurley played in several black nightclubs on Chicago's Southside. Many black musicians and blues singers gained their reputation performing in Southside jazz clubs, a tradition beginning with the Ragtime Era; during the Jazz Age, not a few of them immigrated to Paris after World War I. Terry's interview of Gurley revealed, that he played at the Mars Club in Paris, then located near the Champs-Elysees, which I had visited on several occasions in 1959. It was one of the many post-World War II nightclubs that featured African American musicians, who were instrumental in resurrecting Paris jazz after its glory days in Montmartre. In the shadow of the Sacre-Coeur, African American musicians and entertainers created in Montmartre the Harlem-style jazz culture that is the subject of this book.

In the pages that follow, I focus on some of the principle actors who played critical roles in shaping the jazz scene in Montmartre, between the Great Wars. To capture the spirit of the times, and particular events, the style of narration frequently resorts to what anthropologists refer to as "thick description" of social situations in time and place. I leave to others to write a musicological study of the era covered in these pages, which witnessed the transformation of black American popular music through the periods of ragtime, jazz, and swing.

Of the African American jazz musicians, who figured prominently in the Paris jazz scene that flourished for two decades between 1919 and 1939, few were alive when this study was undertaken. None is known to be alive today. The last of the French contingent of leading jazz musicians, violinist, Stephan Grappelli, died in 1998.

Writing a story of Jazz Away From Home, as Chris Goddard characterized the scene of the Harlem-style musical culture that thrived in Paris after the Great War, is rather like sketching colorful must see images for a tourist brochure. The Champs-Elysees takes on a life in words that can be experienced vicariously by strolling down Paris' most famous boulevard. But descriptive words do not easily convey the characteristics of a jazz nightclub and its swinging, sounds that once attracted Parisians out for an evening soiree in Montmartre. Harlem in Montmartre, the Paris jazz scene this study encapsulates, no longer exists; it is a casualty of the German occupation of the City of Light, from 1940 to 1 944.

Today, historical memories of Paris jazz performed by African American and French musicians in the early days are kept alive by Maurice and Vonette Cullaz, and Jacques Bureaux. The Cullaz' reservoir of invaluable knowledge, as demonstrated to me when we met in Paris in June 1998, derives from their personal association with the Montmartre jazz scene. Maurice was jazz critic for Radio Paris. Bureaux's link to the old Paris jazz scene is of even longer historical vintage: he was one of the five young founding members of the Hot Club of France. In 1928, they "discovered Jazz," as he put it to me, while attending the Lycee Carnot, in Paris. None of the five young men knew the then popular musicians or their music by name; they simply "liked jazz," and went on to encourage its acceptance in France. The Hot Club of France became a racial and musical integrating force, an instrument for bringing together black American and French musicians. Assisting in this promotion of racial and musical harmony was Lucien Levy, who had modernized the transmission of his Radio LL, which, during Paris' Golden Age of Radio, became Radio Cite.

This book is a chapter in the long history of relations between African Americans and France, in the first half of the twentieth century. Between World Wars I and II, Paris became the center for the diffusion in all of Europe of that emerging popular musical genre called jazz. Introduced to France by African American soldiers during World War I, jazz captivated the French, sustaining a despotic hold over them throughout the second Great War. France's fascination with jazz continues to this day. This study turns on the rise and decline of the African American community in Paris.

"Black Manhattan," as the writer James Weldon Johnson called New York's Harlem, became the crucible molding black American literary, artistic, and musical talent, that gathered from all comers of the United States, attracted through the call of Charles Johnson and Alain Locke, under the banner of the Harlem Renaissance. Musicians came and filled New York's speakeasies and dives with the fast, rippling, sounds of ragtime music, the precursor of jazz. Harlem's black-owned nightclubs were the training ground for musicians who later became prominent entertainers on the Parisian nightclub scene. They transformed the Montmartre quarter in Paris, which Parisians called La Butte, into the jazz capital of Paris, after the armistice. La Butte took other forms of cultural transformation. Street life, soul food, strolling, clothing, and hair styles, all familiar signs of a slice of Harlem, gave the quarter the name Harlem in Montmartre, or Black Broadway in Black Paris. Commonly referred to in the Negro Press as the "Race Colony," the musicians and other entertainers comprised, after the first world war, a community that thrived for two decades, until the occupation of the City of Light by German troops, on 18 June 1940.

Harlem's patriotic response to America's entry into World War I was to volunteer its men to serve in New York's Fifteenth Heavy Foot Infantry Regiment. In Harlem, they were best known by the French designation, the Harlem Hell Fighters. As a fighting unit, the Fifteenths record of valor earned them the distinction of being the most highly decorated American combat unit in the Great War. Experiencing France's version of liberty, equality, and fraternity shaped the decision of many of the Fifteenth's soldiers to remain in France, after mustering out of the service. Other ex-soldiers, especially former members of James Reese Europe's military band, returned to France. Better employment opportunities and the chance to live in a race-free environment prompted expatriation. In Paris, demand was high for black musicians to fill the bandstands of the small nightclubs featuring hot jazz that began to proliferate along the narrow streets of Montmartre.

Musicians answering the call settled in Montmartre's cheap hotels, close to the nightclubs in which they worked. An African American community soon formed on the right bank of the Seine; it featured none of the cultural institutions associated with the Black Metropolises from which its inhabitants came. It was a community that consisted mainly of itinerant musicians: young unmarried males. There were few women and, in 1929, perhaps less than one dozen children. The pillar of black communities, the Negro Church, was never established in the Race Colony. Spirituals and choirs were not evident on the Montmartre musical scene.

Harlem-style nightclub culture rapidly paved the streets of Montmartre. Like missionaries of jazz, black American musicians spread the gospel of hot sounds in tiny cafes and a few sumptuous settings that attracted rich and famous British and American tourists, and French socialites. In the Parisian music idiom, this era of the Roaring Twenties was often called the era of Le Jazz hot. Paris, in the twenties, witnessed the rise to stardom of black American Josephine Baker in her musical La Revue Negre; she later became the toast of the City of Light. Ada Smith, better known as "Bricktop,'' brought to Paris her experience of nightclub life gained in the cabaret worlds of Chicago and Harlem. Eugene Jacques Bullard, the United States first black combat pilot, who flew for France during World War I, held forth at his nightclub, Le Grand Duc, where he served up jazz and soul food, in equal proportions. These developments in the Montmartre jazz scene coincided with the making of the Harlem Renaissance, which shaped the professional and personal lives of black American musicians, composers, writers, and artists. In Paris, their interactions among themselves and with the wider Parisian society molded the day-to-day character of Harlem in Montmartre.

Le Tumulte noir, "the black noise" of Harlem in Montmartre, provided less than complete musical respite from the discomforts of racialism and job insecurity that black Americans sought to escape in Paris. In the decade of the twenties, Jim Crow took flight across the Atlantic. Ku Klux Klan members arrived in Paris intent upon shoring up the racial barriers that many white Americans viewed as having been weakened by French tolerance of black men becoming intimately involved with white women. The next decade, the nineteen thirties, witnessed the rise and decline of the jazz-based economy of Montmartre. A shallow "Negromania" arose, fostering racial posturing over good music in the jazz nightclubs. Because of their sheer numbers on the Montmartre scene, black American musicians were most affected by the law to regulate their numbers in resident bands. And when combined with the Great Depression, the law hampered the once vibrant jazz-based economy of Harlem in Montmartre. New venues for nightclub bookings were sought in a market that stretched from the low countries, and Eastern Europe, to North Africa and the Orient.

The Hot Club of France, a creation of French jazz lovers, restored much of the glitter to the tarnished Golden Age of Jazz in Paris. Hot Clubs, founded throughout France and Western Europe, promoted jazz through sales of the latest gramophone records, featuring black American musicians. Jazz concerts, organized by Hot Clubs, invited the best Harlem talent to Paris. The formation of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, featuring guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli, further enhanced the French contribution to spreading the gospel of jazz, through the collaboration of French and black American jazzmen. In 1939, as war with Germany seemed inevitable, the vast majority of the Race Colony returned to America. German troops occupied Paris on 18 June 1940. Harlem in Montmartre ceased to exist forever.

The Occupation profoundly affected the jazz culture of Paris. A series of Nazi-imposed laws and regulations intended to create a new moral order, were aimed at cleansing France of the perceived decadence accumulated in the years after World War I. High on the list of moral cleansing were French youth, who, like their German youth counterparts, had acquired a passion for jazz-swing music. Condemned by Nazis as "degenerate negro-jewish" music, it was deemed the principal source of cultural pollution. Jazz was not altogether banned; it was American jazz, with its black American and Jewish influence, that was banned from the airways and nightclubs. French youths, who came to be known as zazous, organized resistance to the Nazi ban on jazz by adopting bizarre clothing styles, and chanting songs that defiantly mocked the repression. At the risk of persecution, they openly expressed sympathy to Jews.

As black American musicians in James Reese Europe's band brought the citizens of Aix-Les-Bains to their feet, screaming to hear more of their first sounds of jazz in 1918, one-half century later, black American soldiers in the liberation army raised the curtain on jazz. The Nazi ban on black American jazz had ceased; "Black jazz returns to Paris," is how the French and Negro Press acclaimed the joy of old favorite tunes being savored in Left Bank bars and cafes.

Black American Gl clubs, with black American Gl bands, welcomed Parisians to experience a new wave of black American musical sounds, which continues to make itself to this day.

The Paris jazz story begins in Harlem.

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