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.


The neighborhoods around Montmartre, Montparnasse, Champs-Élysées and Saint-Germain-des-Prés were all home to clubs frequented by American musicians in the early 1900s. An American jazz singer and club owner, Ada Louise Smith, performed in 1920s Paris as "Bricktop," a nickname attributed to her read hair. By 1926, she had opened the Music Box where she acted as everything from performer to bouncer. It was one of the venues that Bechet played along with Cricket Smith, Django Reinhardt, and Stephane Grappelli. Bricktop's appeal was in her mastery of the Charleston, a dance that was the rage of Paris in the mid-1920s and her club attracted a diverse collection of celebrities from F. Scott Fitzgerald to the Aga Khan. At the same time, it became the center of black socializing in Paris. It was here that Bechet engaged in an infamous sidewalk gun fight that resulted in his arrest and deportation. The Music Box remained open until 1961. Josephine Baker opened her own Montmartre club, Chez Josephine's, in 1926 at 40 Rue Fontaine. A close friend of Bricktop, the venues shared acts but Baker herself continued to perform at other venues, leaving the club's day-to-day management in other hands. Chez Josephine's was an immediate success, its cliental more "high end" and its shows more decadent, in comparison to Bricktop's. Chez Josephine's remains open 2018, but at a different location and no longer featuring jazz. Le Boeuf sur le Toit (The Ox on the Roof) is a renowned Parisian cabaret founded in 1921 and it was a frequent stop for Benny Carter. Hôtel Ritz Paris, founded in 1898, has played host to dignitaries and celebrities from its outset. In the 1920s, Bechet, George Gershwin and Cole Porter mixed with Ernest Hemingway, Fitzgerald and other leading Jazz Age figures.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers were the debut act at New Morning in Paris in April, 1981. Among others, it has hosted George Russell, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden, Dizzy Gillespie, Arturo Sandoval, Dexter Gordon, Roy Hargrove, and Kenny Clarke. Le Caveau de la Huchette is in the Latin Quarter of Paris, housed in a 16th century structure. The club opened in 1949 and early on featured Americans such as Bechet, Lionel Hampton and Blakey, and French jazz musicians like Claude Luter and Claude Bolling. Performances at Le Caveau de la Huchette are often broadcast on Mezzo, a French television channel that features classical, jazz and world music and shares content in a dozen other countries in Europe and Asia. Les Disquaires at 4-6 Rue des Taillandiers in Paris is known for experimental jazz performances. Artists mix jazz with hip-hop, M-Base and rock in the minimal setting.


On the north side of the English Channel, black American performers initially brought spirituals and gospel music to British audiences around 1903. Beginning in the late 1890s, ragtime sheet music was being published for piano and player-piano rolls, encouraging the British to re-discover the music for themselves. The availability of the phonograph, or gramophone in Britain, closely coincided with the release of the Original Dixieland Jass Band's recording of "Livery Stable Blues," the first "jazz" recording, and it caught fire with listeners. However, where Americans in France could open their own clubs and performing freely, the situation in Britain was considerably different.

The Amalgamated Musicians' Union (MU) was founded in 1893 and was a powerful force in Britain with membership in the hundreds of thousands and full support from the Ministry of Labour. When Paul Whiteman's Orchestra arrived in London in 1923, membership was already sounding alarms about an American invasion taking jobs from local musicians. A series of restrictions imposed a type of quota system on Americans, making it difficult for them to obtain work permits. At the same time, what the Americans were bringing in was dance music and the demand for bands was growing exponentially. The MU's ranks were heavily skewed toward classical and theater musicians and remained so until late in the 1930s. The substitution of British-for-American musicians in jazz performances was easier said than done.

American violinist Paul Specht was a popular bandleader who had signed with Columbia Records in 1922. That same year he toured in Britain and encountered permit problems that played out over four years and resulted in his filing a lawsuit against the British union. As a result of the MU and Ministry rules, even the Original Dixieland Jass Band was required to swap out their pianist for a British player—a critical personnel role in ragtime and an impractical face to put on the band. The ODJB faced another unforeseen—but serious—credibility issue as a result of playing outside the US. In Circular Breathing (Duke University Press, 2005) George McKay explains that ODJB publically and overtly denied an obvious truth—that their style was based on that of black ragtime bands. The claim generated a backlash in Britain, where the opposite reality seemed evident to many.



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