The Double Life of French Jazz

Jazz was introduced to Paris during World War I, when US army regiments brought African-American soldiers to serve in France. Between the wars, jazz remained popular as a symbol of opposition to colonialism, and jazz singers such as Josephine Baker rose to fame. In 1932, guitarist Django Reinhardt set up the Hot Club de France and two years later established a quintet together with violinist Stéphane Grappelli. In 1935, the Revue Jazz Hot magazine was established with Charles Delaunay as its head.

With the outbreak of war, jazz floundered. Many key musicians were called up to fight or left for the safer shores of the US (such as Ray Ventura and Jean Sablon). Grappelli and Reinhardt were in Britain; Grappelli decided to wait out the war, but Reinhardt returned to Paris before being forced to flee with the invasion of France. On 16 December 1940, however, Delaunay organised a jazz festival to revive the genre in France. The event sold out in 24 hours. Three days later the concert was repeated, and in total 80 further concerts were organised before the liberation.

This is not to say that jazz survived without a fight. Initially, the Nazis were highly suspicious. Even before Hitler came to power, conservative Germans had banned foreign music, of which jazz was the epitome. When the United States entered the war in 1941, all American music was banned, although this was difficult to enforce, and some radio programmes continued to broadcast it. In general, Germans were tolerant to jazz because it was believed that Nazi propaganda would be better received if it was surrounded by popular music programmes.

French jazz enthusiasts helped to further this general positivity towards jazz by creating an elaborate myth that it was a French creation. Delaunay organised conferences exploring its French history and showing it to be an outgrowth of Debussy. The Hot Club circulated brochures in 1940, echoing this. In 1942 André Coeuroy published Histoire Générale du Jazz (A General History of Jazz) in which he affirmed that jazz was French, and explained how it could be annexed to the Nazi cultural project as proof of the emergence of a new European culture under German influence. In 1943 Hugues Panassié followed up with La Musique de Jazz (The Music of Jazz) which refuted the Vichy fear that jazz could not carry the French patriotic message, and claimed that jazz so far had been misunderstood. He cleverly mixed Bible quotations, Catholic idioms, and Pétainist phrases into his book, so that it was more palatable to Vichy readers, in the hope that this would make them more amenable to the genre. Jazz performers supported these initiatives by Frenchifying American titles. For example, 'St Louis Blues' became 'Tristesses de St Louis', and 'In the mood' became 'Dans l'Ambiance'. Composers' names were omitted or altered to French ones; Louis Armstrong's songs, for example, were attributed to Jean Sablon. Whether or not the Germans were taken in by this is perhaps immaterial; ultimately, the depoliticisation made it easier for jazz to survive.

And jazz thrived. By the end of 1939, over a quarter of the Radio-Paris music programmes were jazz. A particular favourite was Raymond Legrand, whose jazz orchestra played on 520 radio shows between August 1940 and March 1942. Disk sales also went up – in the case of Reinhardt's ensemble, to nearly eight times what they had been in 1937. Jazz influences also infiltrated variety music. 125 new cabarets opened in Paris after the signing of the Armistice, and performers such as Charles Trenet and Yves Montand became popular for their swinging style. Jazz was not confined to the big cities either: Delaunay supervised the expansion to smaller areas in the occupied zone, and two other jazz enthusiasts (Michel Ellia and Paul de Rocca-Serra) controlled the free zone. They founded official clubs, started competitions to find new talent, and patronised up-and-coming groups. Jazz even spread to camps, such as the prisoner of war camp Stalag VI B which had a Hot Club of 300 members by April 1942, directed by Claude Briac. The Parisian Hot Club sent disks, music and food to the musicians. Only the forbidden zones did not witness the full force of the jazz craze. But even in certain annexed sections, such as Strasbourg and Nancy, clandestine clubs appeared. Jazz suffered after the Nazis took over all of France in 1942. In April 1943, Reinhardt sent clandestine messages to members of the Hot Club asking them to hide from the Service de Travail Obligatoire (Forced Labour Service) and avoid insignificant meetings in order that they not be called away.

In reality, jazz led something of a double life. Despite the fact that the Germans were led to see jazz as an unthreatening form, many French people saw it in quite the opposite way. A 1946 article in the American jazz magazine Down Beat claimed that jazz, 'became the symbol of, or the last tie with, the outside free world'. Because of its unrestrained style and foreign influences, jazz was the antithesis of fascist values. On one level, musicians saw themselves as restoring pride in France and asserting themselves against German rule. On another level, jazz came to be seen as a covert reference to America, especially after the US joined the war. This became epitomised by the word 'zazou'. The origins of this word are vague, but it appeared in a 1938 song by Johnny Hess titled 'Je Suis Swing' (I Am Swing), and it came to represent youths who refused to conform with Nazi occupation. Male zazous frequently dressed in thigh-length jackets, dark narrow trousers, heavy, unpolished shoes, a thick tie and lumber jacket. Women wore turtle-neck jumpers, short pleated skirts, striped stockings, heavy shoes, and carried large, folded umbrellas, whatever the weather. The term 'swing', which was generally avoided because of its American connotations, became, for the zazou, slang for anything cool. From 1942, when the Nazis made it obligatory for Jews to wear a yellow star, zazou protesters sported one with the word 'swing' or 'zazou' in the middle. In Saint-Germain in 1943, one group staged a silent protest wearing cut-up cardboard stars before being arrested by the Gestapo. There was even a violent newspaper campaign amongst collaborationists in 1942 entitled the 'chasse au zazou' (hunt for zazous). In this way, both swing and zazou became symbols of resistance.

Jazz also embodied a form of protest through its Gypsy influences. Django Reinhardt became a figurehead because he dared to combine traditional Gypsy style with American jazz rhythms. However, this also made his position especially precarious, and it is something of a miracle that he survived the war. On one occasion, he fled Paris after being tipped off that the Nazis were gassing Gypsies. But he was captured crossing the Swiss border, and only released because the commander happened to be a fan of his. A few days later he was turned away again, attempting to flee.

Jazz became a front for some remarkable resistance activities. Delaunay was contacted by members of the Resistance in 1941, and joined forces with them in starting up the network ‘Carte’, named after the saxophonist Benny Carter. Under the pseudonym ‘Benny’, Delaunay used the conferences he established as a front for conveying information and documents. Along with fellow Hot Club members, he also carried papers across the demarcation line, and the Hot Club headquarters in Paris became a venue for Resistance meetings. Unfortunately the musicians’ lack of experience meant that the club soon became seen as a risky venue, and fans began to abandon performances. Some performers, such as the violinist Georges Effrosse, disappeared; it later transpired that he had been deported to Dora, from where he never returned. In October 1943, the network was uncovered and the Gestapo raided the headquarters. Delaunay and several others, including fellow Hot Club founder and radio technician Jacques Bureau, the secretary Madeleine Germaine, the sisters Germaine and Annette Tambour, and several British agents, were arrested. The Tambours died during deportation and Germaine in a gas chamber, and Bureau remained imprisoned until the liberation. Delaunay was released in November 1943, but spent the rest of the war fearing for his safety, fleeing in 1944.

With the end of the war, many jazz musicians who had fled Paris returned. Jazz remained the dominant style for several more years, creating a certain continuity amidst the chaos that followed the liberation.

By Daisy Fancourt


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