Jazz as Response

Along with propelling modernization, ideological upheaval, and artistic renewal, World War I facilitated an unprecedented level of interaction between French and American citizens. Significantly, the American soldiers pouring into France during this era included approximately two hundred thousand African Americans. These black soldiers met far better treatment and a higher level of racial equality in France than in the United States, causing many to stay in the country. Though through John Philip Sousa France already had familiarity with stereotypically African-American forms of entertainment, such as the cakewalk and minstrel shows, it was World War I and black American soldiers that introduced France to its longtime affair with jazz music.

James Reese Europe, an African American soldier and leader of the military band “HellFighters,” acted as an important agent in the popularization of jazz music in France. At a performance at Nantes opera house in celebration of Lincoln’s birthday, Europe’s band performed a jazz version of the French national anthem- signaling the unique interplay that would continue to exist between jazz and French culture. French bandleaders were so surprised by the sound of the HellFighters that they asked to examine their instruments. Other iconic performers that increased the visibility of jazz in France included Louis Mitchell, Sidney Bechet, Ada “Bricktop” Smith, Florence Jones, and Josephine Baker.

The newness of jazz’s polyrhythmic and improvisational musical style acted as only part of its appeal to French audiences. The performers, as well as the music itself, were made to fit into preconceived notions of black culture that were gaining popularity in the aftermath of World War I. Blackness- whether inspired by African sculpture or African American music- became viewed in French advertisements, fashion, interior design, and in the popular imagination as simultaneously primitive and modern. Josephine Baker in particular capitalized on the French fetishism for savagery and primitivism; her sexually charged performances, banana skirt, and pet leopard all fed into the French obsession with the exotic. France provided an infinitely more liberated atmosphere for its black residents than the United States, and the country denounced American racism and segregationist policies. Nonetheless, while French citizens used jazz to reexamine and refigure what it meant to be French, they forced African American performers to operate under cultural assumptions about what it meant to be black.

The brutality of the Great War challenged the validity of French conceptions of tradition and civility, creating a nation grappling for a new, more modern identity. In response, French citizens of all classes fled to Montmartre, a neighborhood where the jazz scene offered an electrifying and innately urban alternative to conventional Western music and culture. While the race of the performers originally played a large part in the appeal of the music, by the late 1920s French groups and artists such as “the Quintet of the Hot Club of France” and jazz publications such as “Le Jazz Hot” insisted on claiming jazz for themselves. Instead of existing as an exotic alternative to an outdated French identity, over time France incorporated jazz into its musical culture and embraced it as part of the nation’s tradition. Other than lingering images of Josephine Baker in a banana skirt, today’s French jazz music scene is disassociated from its African American history.