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…
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