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Culture Clubs: Part IV: When Jazz Met Europe

Culture Clubs: Part IV: When Jazz Met Europe
Karl Ackermann By

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The Geography of Jazz—When Jazz Met Europe

In 2004 Maureen Anderson, a researcher at Illinois State University contributed a dissertation to the journal, African American Review, titled The White Reception of Jazz in America. Ostensibly, her article deals with stories published in high profile periodicals and journals from 1917 and into the 1930s, written by white arts critics and academics, describing jazz in the most hysterical, racist, demeaning and inflammatory terms. A well-known newspaper columnist in the early 1900s, George Ade, went so far as to emphatically state that if the white musician Paul Whiteman were playing jazz, it was "agreeable" music; if a black musician played the same music, it was objectionable noise. Based on the critics of that time, it is difficult to know if the aberrance toward jazz was based on anything more than its African roots. In Western Europe, racial discrimination was less prevalent; reactions to the new music, more thoughtful, balanced and analytical.

Jazz, broadly viewed as a genre that was fully realized in America, had traversed the Atlantic while it was still in its embryonic stage. Innovative rhythms in the form of ragtime, cakewalk, foxtrot and the Charleston entered the lexicon of dance music and many in Europe were electrified at the prospect of a musical revolution. The panic-stricken reaction of numerous conventional classical musicians and patrons—on both sides of the Atlantic—helped fuel a counter-insurgency among open-minded segments of the European population who refused to project the end of an enlightened culture. Well before Louis Armstrong had ushered in the age of modern improvised jazz in the U.S., the music was well on its way to popularity in Europe. At the turn of the twentieth century Western Europe was experiencing an insatiable hunger for American culture and few things stirred European interest more than music that was familiar and distant at the same time. Early on, countries like France, England and Germany were incorporating regional influences into primary jazz forms.

Marches, jigs and polkas were among the most influential of the European styles that fed into the development of ragtime. In the U.S. it was John Philip Sousa who first popularized many of these genres as well as the cakewalk. Originated on slave plantations, the cakewalk's primary origins are believed to be a combination of "The Chalk Line Walk" (about 1850) and the "Ring Shout"; the first derived by Florida slaves from a Seminole Indian processional, the second from the West African Circle Dance, dating back to the 1700s. Some of the mannerisms of the cakewalk dance were related to the quadrille, a European dance from the late 1700s and 1800s that had a structure common with American square dancing. Over time, the slave version of the cakewalk developed into a satire of the mannerisms of Southern white gentry. The parody was lost on white performers whose black-face minstrel shows burlesqued what they thought was an apolitical plantation dance. Context aside, the cakewalk remained popular for decades but unlike the present-day connotation for the word, the dance was hardly simple. Distinct from more urbane ragtime, cakewalk—with its oompah rhythm—was meant for dancing and was more likely to be played by a small ensemble.

In bringing the cakewalk and ragtime to Europe, the importance of black bandleader/pianist James Reese Europe cannot be overstated. The ragtime and early roots-jazz composer, Europe had launched Harlem's Clef Club when he was barely out of his twenties. The club was not a performance venue but a booking agency and union shop. Europe was born the son of slaves in Mobile, Alabama. After the Civil War his family made their way to Washington, D.C. where all four siblings successfully pursued careers in music, in and out of school. Europe moved up to the Tin Pan Alley neighborhood of New York City in 1902, taking advantage of the local music publishing companies and music venues such as John B. Nail's Saloon, Ike Hine's Professional Club and Barron Wilkin's Little Savoy, playing what was termed "Popular Black Music" and ragtime piano, and here, in New York, he established his namesake Society Orchestra.

In 1913, his band became the first black orchestra to record their music. With the start of World War I, Europe joined the army and rose to the rank of lieutenant, becoming the first black officer in the U.S. to lead combat troops on foreign soil. His military jazz orchestra, the Hellfighters, officially designated as the 369th New York Regimental Band, began performing in France in 1918 and immediately influenced some French musicians who requested his scores. About the same time, the Original Dixieland Jass Band was touring England and inspiring that country's more adventurous artists. In the early 1920s, Sidney Bechet toured throughout Western Europe and as far to the east as Russia. Later, in the 1960s and 70s, the European continent would become the home base for many black American musicians such as Dexter Gordon, Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, and Don Byas.

Early European Venues

As in urban U.S. locations, the first European venues for ragtime and early jazz were theaters and dancehalls. France, and to a lesser extent England, were largely influential in shaping modern jazz outside the states. Both countries were more welcoming of black American musicians and recognized the greater influence of West Africa in the development of jazz. The African-American drummer and bandleader Louis A. Mitchell established his Southern Symphonists' Quartet in New York City in 1912 and later played drums in James Reese Europe's group. His second group, Louis Mitchell's Jazz Kings, toured throughout the UK and France in 1919 and later played with Sidney Bechet and recorded for the French label Pathé. Mitchell's Jazz Kings were the first jazz group to play the Casino de Paris. The venue was built in the 1700s and transformed from an ice skating rink to a music hall in the 1880s. It remains as a functioning entertainment venue in 2018. Mitchell's Jazz Kings became the house band in 1918 and remained so for five years.

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