American Jazz in Paris

by Kelly Wilkens

Even though jazz originated in the United States, it had a significant impact on Europe.  Especially in Paris, jazz was highly appreciated and musicians typically had an easier time finding jobs.  Jazz became popular in Paris during 1920s, and it reached its height with Sidney Bechet in the late 1940s and 1950s.  However, the genre did not die with Bechet in 1959.  It continued to flourish in both the old and new forms.  Jazz still lives on in Paris and around the world today.

Jazz originated in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1900.  The style formed during this time was later seen as the traditional style that many musicians practiced.  The “swing” beat and solo breaks of the style kept it popular for many years.  In 1919, the Southern Syncopated Orchestra began its European tour with Bechet as a key member of its ensemble (Henderson 1).  He initially popularized jazz in France, and swept through the country becoming one of the first famous American jazz musicians in Paris.  As other early recordings made their way into Paris, the genre became more and more popular (Holmes 1).  The locals received jazz musicians positively, and they had a much easier time finding jobs in Paris.

While jazz was popular in many parts of Paris, Montmartre and Montparnasse were the artistic centers where the style came alive.  Both areas housed a variety of artists: painters, writers, and musicians were commonly seen around both quarters.  Montparnasse was a favorite of many painters and writers in the 1920s.  The area was full of cafes, cabarets, and nightclubs that were packed around the clock.  Waiters were even told not to disturb regulars if they fell asleep at tables for long periods of time (Stovall 35).  Famous French and American artists found their inspiration in Montparnasse, and looked especially to jazz musicians who performed at night.  The well-known Club Bobino, home to Josephine Baker and Bechet, was a particular favorite of many.  Jazz flourished in Montparnasse under the inspiration of the artistic community until the beginning of World War II when the community collapsed under the pressure of the war.

Parisian jazz in the 1930s saw many visiting artists, but the movement saw fleeting popularity.  The beginning of the Second World War led to an artistic decline in Paris (Roberts 1).  For many years, musicians such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Coleman Hawkins toured Europe in hopes of reviving the jazz culture.  While they were only semi-successful, their legacies lived on in Paris.  At the end of the war, Charles de Gaulle took control of France.  Under his leadership, economic prosperity allowed for the return of many artists to Paris (Roberts 1).  They could once again find work with high pay and locals were more than willing to listen.  The style remained similar to that of the 1920s and early 1930s: traditional New Orleans jazz and swing music dominated.

The height of jazz and Bechet reached Paris at the same time.  After many European tours and a number of years in the United States, Bechet returned to France in 1949.  After a fantastic reception at the Paris Jazz Festival, he decided to make a permanent residence just outside the city.  He played a variety of styles during this time, unlike many other artists, and even branched out into the more radical genres like bebop.  During the time in the United States where civil rights issues were so prominent, many African American artists found salvation in Paris.  Here, they were accepted into society without prejudice, and locals were more friendly and relaxed than they were in the American music scene.  Bechet especially prospered, finding much success and happiness until his death in 1959.

Jazz music did not die with Bechet, however.  The 1960s saw many visiting artists who played customary New Orleans jazz as well as newer styles.  Traditionalists such as Duke Ellington, Paul Newman, and Louis Armstrong continued to frequent the Parisian jazz scene.  While this style was still appreciated by many, free jazz was also making a splash.  Popular American musicians such as Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane brought free jazz to Paris, which prospered with the locals.  Jazz continues to flourish in Paris today, and Bechet along with many other artists were responsible for the long-term appeal of the music in Paris.

Works Cited

Roberts, William J. “France in the post-World War II era.” France: A Reference Guide from the Renaissance to the Present, European Nations. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2004. Modern World History Online. Facts On File, Inc.  13 Oct. 2010.

“Bechet, Sidney (1897-1959).” Encyclopedia of World Biography. Ed. Andrea Kovacs Henderson. 2nd ed. Vol. 22. Detroit: Gale Group, 2002. Discovering Collection. Web. 19 Oct. 2010.

Holmes, Thom. “jazz.” Carlin, Richard, gen. ed. Jazz, American Popular Music. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2006. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. 19 Oct. 2010.

Stovall, Tyler. Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light. Mariner Books, 1998. Print.

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