The History of Jazz in Paris

Written by on July 3, 2013 in French Music

Jazz in Paris

The sound of summer in France is definitely sweeter with jazz. Those melodies energize music-lovers from open-back stages overlooking the Mediterranean, waft over crowded terraces near Les Halles, or mellow out cool clubs in Normandy. Jazz has become an international language, influencing many cultures. It was introduced first in France by African American soldiers. Julia Browne Founder and CEO of Walking The Spirit Tours – Black Paris & Beyond tells the story…

During World War 1, segregated troops of black soldiers marched their lively music through 2,000 miles of tiny farm villages and big concert halls across France. Their leader was Lt. James Reese Europe, a well-respected New York bandleader. Everywhere he led his 369th Harlem Infantry Regiment band and they created an exciting musical revolution. The story is still repeatedly told how the first time the French heard jazz they couldn’t fathom what kind of music it was, or how the instruments were making those unheard-of sounds.

After the war, many musicians, as well as dancers and entertainers, returned, settled and delighted cabarets and club audiences in Paris’ Lower Montmartre, which became known as Black Montmartre. Club owners and club-goers from all over the world couldn’t get enough of the syncopated rhythms. Numerous local musicians, on the other hand, weren’t thrilled to be pressured into learning this foreign American music.

jazz in parisFortunately there were insightful fans who saw the future of French music in jazz and began the quest of elevating this so-called American ‘pop’ music to an art form. Two jazz lovers, Hughes Panassié and Charles Delauney, formed the groundbreaking Jazz Hot Club to promote the acceptance of jazz in France and abroad. They went on to launch the first Jazz Magazine in Europe. From their locale near Rue Pigalle, they invited eager young musicians into their workshop space where they could try out the new sounds and meet the American masters. It didn’t take long for two of their protégés, Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli, to form the first real French jazz band, the Jazz Hot Quintet, and tour the regions in the 30s, spreading the jazz gospel.

But the Nazi occupation of Paris forced the American jazzmen and entertainers back home and outlawed the playing of what they called ‘degenerate Negro music’ on the airwaves and in public places. The Parisian fans however, weren’t about to let go of their newfound passion. They simply took their well-worn New Orleans-style records and set up clandestine clubs in the soundproof underground cellars of St.Germain-des-Pres and the Latin Quarter.

But with no Americans around to show them the chops, and no new records being pressed and distributed, the young French musicians resorted to imitating their precious Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway records.

The Soundtrack of St.Germain-des-Pres

After WWII, thousands of French youth flocked to Paris. They gathered by day in the smoky literary cafés – Le Café Flore, Les Deux Magots – then around midnight headed for the jazz clubs.

jazz in paris

Leading the pack was a lanky, balding, ambitious engineer, writer and poet Boris Vian. His nickname became The White Negro for his obsession with Black music and culture. Not surprising he was the one, in April 1947, to open the most infamous of the area’s clubs – The Tabou Club, on rue Dauphine.

Return of the Masters

jazz in paris

African American musicians blazed a triumphant return to Paris, picking up where their 1920s predecessors had left off. Invited to perform in the first Festival International de Jazz in Paris, which began in1948, were luminaries like Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, and Kenny Clarke. The following year, fans and amateurs jammed the venues to hear their idols Sidney Bechet, Charlie Parker Quintet with Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, and Mary Lou Williams. The fanatical reaction of their fans at these concerts and club dates brought the jazzmen a whole new perspective on the appreciation of their music and their fans.

Bechet, a New Orleans native, became one of the legends who got little recognition in the U.S. but enjoyed superstar status in France. He was admired for the melodiousness of his compositions and for his mastery of the saxophone and clarinet. But he was especially appreciated for being the only Black musician at the time to take young French musicians under his mentorship and nurturing the first generation of French jazzmen.

jazz in parisMiles Davis, too, stole the French public’s heart. A resident of the Hotel Louisiane rooming house made famous by Bertrand Tavernier’s film ‘Round Midnight’, Davis lent his Bebop genius to French film soundtracks including ‘Ascenceur pour l’Echaufaud’. But the celebrity press also adored him because he and iconic singer Juliet Greco were the Paris ‘it’ couple of the 1950s.

Jazz festivals this summer will feature the biggest names in jazz of all nationalities. Among them will be a strong contingent of musical descendants of those soldiers who made this music an international language.


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