French Jazz Travellers

by Tom Perchard

It’s hard to imagine from the perspective of today’s hyper-connected, everything-everywhere world. But, for the early European jazz lovers, knowledge of what was happening in the US – the distant and often mythical source of the music they loved – was hard to come by.

Imported jazz journals, snatched conversations with visiting musicians, letters from fellow jazz fans: these were the principal ways that news was received, and European ideas about jazz’s current direction were formed.

Another, though, was through what might be thought of as a micro-genre of travel writing. Here, a respected local jazz figure – usually a critic, but sometimes a musician – would travel to the States and report back, these reports from the cutting edge being serialised in jazz publications like Melody Maker (in the UK) and Jazz hot (in France), and sometimes extending to form whole books.

In previous posts, we’ve been thinking about the ways that jazz, and by extension, forms of US cultural power, were brought to France by Americans. In this article, I’m going to look at something like a reverse process, and what happened when Europeans travelled to the US with the purpose of encountering jazz amid its nurturing American culture.

As we’ll see, there was more at stake here than the discovery of nuggets of jazz news. Instead, these letters from America documented the ways that Europeans were coming to terms with an America that was quickly becoming the world’s dominant cultural, political and economic force.

I’ll focus on the US reportage of Hugues Panassié, the French writer and organiser who was, then as now, widely regarded as the most important European jazz critic and tastemaker of the 1930s and 40s. Panassié played an important role in the 1932 establishment of the important fan society, the Hot-club de France – the club’s founding declaration included the pledge to ‘pressure recording companies to regularly release the major American discs’ – and in 1934 he became club president, holding the position until his death forty years later. That same year, Panassié published Le Jazz hot, one of the most important early books on the music in any language; the long-running, Panassié-edited magazine Jazz hot began in 1935. In 1937, he founded the record label Swing with his fellow French critic, Charles Delaunay.

That was one of the reasons that, in autumn 1938, Panassié sailed to New York City. There, he passed every available hour in search his beloved jazz, organising recording sessions for Swing and documenting – often with an almost-anthropological attention to context and detail – the world in which he found himself.

These reports were published in Jazz hot, and were later collated into the books Histoire des disques Swing (1944) and Cinq mois à New-York (1947). But Panassié was working in an old tradition: this genre of travel writing, in which a Frenchman relays reports of America back to a bedazzled and perhaps bewildered European readership, was established by Chateaubriand and Tocqueville in the 19th century. In decades closer to Panassié’s own journey, the form had yielded several different books bearing the title under which the jazz critic published his own magazine dispatches, ‘Impressions d’Amerique’ (that title would also be taken by another writer, the humourist, surrealist, musician and record producer Boris Vian, for his 1946 parody of the genre). And most recently, the cultural commentator Georges Duhamel had published an influential study of US life, Scènes de la vie future (1930). As that book’s title indicated, this report on the American modernity that had given rise to mass-production, mass-consumption, and the overturning of tradition of all kinds, was framed as a warning as to what was inevitably coming to France. As I’ll show in a moment, these themes were central to Panassié’s own jazz travelogue.

In these writings, Panassié described in tremendous detail the working practices of those musicians, almost always black, who for him played ‘real jazz’, a New Orleans-style music the purity of which was in stark contrast to the commercialism of contemporary swing style – the latter plainly identified with white musicians and an American mainstream.

The critic’s experiences in the recording studio are documented in Histoire des disques Swing. That Panassié could hope to satisfy his audience with over 100 pages of itemisation of the recording process is a pretty good indication of the French jazz fans’ intense interest not just in jazz, but in this contemporary technology and production. Panassié describes the positioning of musicians and microphones in the studio (drawing diagrams of each set up), gives take-by-take descriptions of studio rehearsals and performances, describes the musicians’ often-fraught creative and collaborative processes, and then, having visited the RCA plant in Camden, NJ to collect test pressings, recounts the musicians’ animated reaction to their work.

What’s fascinating is how Panassié’s blow-by-blow account of these sessions is full of racial tension, this often latent or delivered in code; it seems as though he doesn’t fully understand what he is observing. At the end of a date that has fallen apart after trumpeter Tommy Ladnier and pianist James P. Johnson have availed themselves of several bottles of whisky, a conciliatory Panassié asks Ladnier to come and see him in New York when he is free. ‘I’m always free’, Ladnier responds ‘with concentrated rage’. ‘I’m a free man, ever since the Constitution of the US proclaimed freedom for all its citizens’. Ladnier, Panassié writes,

accompanied these words with vehement but uncoordinated gestures. After several seconds of silence, during which he fixed me with a stare, he suddenly shouted, ‘Vive la France!’ It was one of the few things I heard him say in French. I looked around: Milton [Mezzrow, clarinet] was looking at Tommy worriedly, while Zutty [Singleton, drums], in a corner, abandoned himself to a hilarity that seemed to me a bit mocking.

Panassié is a fish out of water in this troubled American encounter between blacks and whites, and his responses to these encounters of race and power – unfamiliar and evidently only partly intelligible to him, if not the musicians present – betray almost continual confusion.

Panassié describes several episodes of American racism in action, as when he hears a child shouting ‘look, a dirty negro!’ Panassié is outraged by these incidents, but his analysis of them is in its own way troubling, if not simply deluded:

How do the blacks react in front of this shameful treatment? The suffer terribly in the moment but are absolutely not embittered, as they have a natural ‘joie de vivre’, a happy, carefree attitude that stops them from being worn down internally.

Racial stereotypes are much in play here, and these reflect not just American racism, but that of Europe too. It might be surprising, but Panassié’s politics were entirely of the right, and, with the long-gathering clouds of European fascism about to break, his writing reinforced the prejudices that were fundamental to that project.

In one account of the often-farcical recording sessions that Panassié supervised, the critic draws a grotesque picture of producer Eli Oberstein. Presented as an ignorant and intransigent character, Oberstein’s supposed grubby commercialism and double-dealing offends Panassié’s sensibilities constantly: ‘we’ll be lucky to sell three copies of a record like this!’, the producer shouts at one point. The image of the philistine entertainment industry Jew is outlined by Panassié and left for the reader to colour according to the degree of their own anti-Semitism.

To the Jewish Oberstein is added the union man, the two eventually shown to be somehow in league; a Jewish boss-class and leftist organised labour were – then as now – the twin evils of many right-wing imaginations. The union man continually interrupts and attempts to stop the sessions, clarinettist Mezz Mezzrow having failed to submit his union membership papers on time, Panassié’s employment as a foreigner called into question. These tales do entirely political work: their aim is to persuade French readers of the existence of Jewish philistinism, of the evils the unions, and of a resultant, hollow American culture more generally.

In contrast – but doing just as political a job – Panassié presents African Americans as a folk whose talents, proclivities and ways of being in the world are unique, and in some ways ideal: the critic genuinely (and perhaps presciently) believed that African American expression would revivify a European culture that had become time-worn and debased. In these reports from the US, Panassié describes numerous exceptional musicians, but their talent he also recognises in the audiences to whom they perform. This is a kind of sociological writing on music that was genuinely new. ‘The audience of the Apollo’, Panassié recalled,

was no less talented than the artists, and it was fantastic to see their receptivity, the speed with which they responded … If a dancer made a particularly subtle step, all the hall felt it at the same time, and from every breast escaped a cry of enthusiasm, because they externalise everything they feel.

The problem lay in that idealism, though. Public responses to this or that musician are invoked, but only when the audience is in agreement with Panassié’s own taste. When they are at odds, those listeners are allowed no free will whatsoever: having watched Louis Armstrong’s vocalist Sonny Woods, ‘a commercial, caramelish singer’, get a rave reception at the Harlem Apollo, Panassié speculates that ‘the taste of the blacks must have been corrupted by the whites for an awful shouter like this to be given such an ovation by an exclusively black audience’.

That theme, of the ‘white’ corruption of ‘black’ music and culture, is a constant. Where blackness is elegant and real, whiteness is blunt and artificial. The jazz that Panassié is in town to hear is, of course, the real thing when informal and black, and artificial when commercial and white (such a racially tinged distinction had long been present in Panassié’s work). Panassié repeatedly focuses on the lives of white Americans and what he sees as a game of appearances – a false and empty consumerism still largely foreign to Europe, but likely on its way.

Several times, in sitting down at the table of some people who had invited me, I was overjoyed to see a superb bowl of fruit. But everyone would leave the table without touching it. Having asked for an explanation from a friend, he told me that bowls of fruit were considered part of the ‘décor’, that they were solely for the eye.

As ever, it is upon homecoming that the real meaning of the journey becomes apparent. Panassié fell gravely ill, and, having been given up for dead at a white hospital, his life (he maintained) was saved by a black doctor. Panassié left for France in February 1939. On board his return boat, surrounded by his compatriots for the first time in months, he writes of viewing the French with new eyes: they make gestures that seem to ‘of extraordinary vivacity’ to one accustomed to the behaviour ‘wooden’ white Americans. Panassié concludes that his native country is a place with much more joie de vivre than can be found in the US – except, of course, among its black citizens.

Bodily, gestural vivacity is one of the aspects of black American life and music performance that Panassié idealises, and the association of black American and native French behaviours – an association that pointedly circumvents white America, the supposed bastion of debased modernity – is no accident. Panassié’s interest in blackness, and in jazz more generally, often seems like a way of articulating ideas of what whiteness, or Europeanness, could be. His unstated project in these travel writings is not to report on jazz and black America, but to speculate what that music and that culture could mean for France.


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