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Culture Clubs: Part IV: When Jazz Met Europe

Karl Ackermann By

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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.


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