Jean-Philippe Charbonnier/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Juliette Gréco and Miles Davis at the Salle Pleyel, Paris, 1949

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 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?

As 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 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 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.”

As 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 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.


William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress

Django Reinhardt at the Aquarium, New York City, 1946

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 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.”

The 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 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 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.”

The 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.

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.”