Jazz in France during the Second World War

In this extract from his book, After Django: Making Jazz in Postwar France  (University of Michigan Press) , Tom Perchard looks at the ways that jazz was “made French” in the 1930s by the most celebrated of all European jazz musicians, Django Reinhardt – and how the music fared during the dark days of war that soon followed.

In 1933 the young founders of a soon-to-be important jazz fan society, the Hot-club de France, decided to form an orchestra which would tour and promote both the music and the organization. An early formation featured the Paris-resident Americans Arthur Briggs on trumpet and Freddy Johnson on piano. But the club directors leading these efforts soon resolved to concentrate on promoting local musicians instead. In spring 1934 they set about forming a French group, and by the end of that year a line-up had begun to cohere. Two recording sessions were arranged featuring violinist Grappelly, guitarists Roger Chaput, Jungo Reinhardt, his brother Joseph, and bassist Louis Vola (Grappelly and Jungo would, sooner or later, become Grappelli and Django). The recordings released on Ultraphone in February 1935 bore the group’s definitive name, Le Quintette du Hot-club de France.

Though Grappelli and Reinhardt vied for leader status, in truth the guitarist rendered his colleague undistinguished: despite having famously lost most use of the third and fourth fingers of his left hand in a 1928 caravan fire, Reinhardt had cultivated a mastery of style and thought which, in contrast to the violinist’s babbling linework, was always articulated in the clearest terms. Playing the banjo-guitar with musette and tango groups long before he discovered jazz, the young Reinhardt’s taste and technique had been formed by exposure to cultures of gestural virtuosity that, in those two musical styles as in early-century New Orleans jazz, likely owed as much to European concert music as they did folk improvisation of whatever kind. But by the time of his first recordings in 1934, the trills, octaves and note showers with which the guitarist embellished his melodic invention often recalled Fats Waller’s pianism; Louis Armstrong’s clarion arpeggios and deft vocal feints were just as present.

As much as his technical excellence and fluidity, it was Reinhardt’s play of ideas that set him apart from his bandmates, and from the preponderance of jazz musicians at home or abroad: the motifs that were stated and then restated, subject to surprising rhythmic shifts each time, or the lines and patterns that, seeming to head for a certain point, continued on to a destination more unlikely but much better. This looping detail stood in relief to the solid motion which the Quintette had perfected by the time it recorded for Decca in London and Paris during 1938-9 (the group would essentially dissolve at the outbreak of war). In feel, instrumentation and repertoire this was an absolutely local jazz style, and though in the postwar period musicians and critics routinely pondered how a truly French jazz might be reached, the Quintette had provided one answer early on. A number of groups soon began to work in the same territory, Michel Warlop and André Ekyan’s various ensembles prominent among them, and numerous musical and familial associates of Reinhardt’s would continue to work in the style that would eventually become classicized as jazz manouche, or gypsy jazz (among them Joseph Reinhardt, and later Django’s son Babik).

Following the outbreak of war in September 1939 and France’s capitulation to the German army in June the following year, the country was divided in two: a German-administered occupied zone in the north and along the Atlantic coast, and in the south a free zone governed by Maréchal Pétain’s Vichy regime (which was itself subordinate to German interests). Until the country’s progressive liberation by Allied forces from mid-to-late 1944, the French were subject to the diktats and whims of Nazi rule and its local interpretation. Hardly the most serious of these was the assertion of control over the performing arts, and it has often been assumed that in France, jazz, a music associated with the Nazis’ various American bêtes noires, was subject to a blanket ban. In fact the situation was more complex. Jazz was never prohibited outright in France, though Nazi limitations on jazz’s diffusion, and measures against the performance of work by American and British songwriters – especially if Jewish – certainly had serious effects on the way the music was played, written about and enjoyed. But some Nazi edicts were ambiguous, and others were not. If titles of works to be played during public performances were often required to be submitted to local authorities, and all English-language titles replaced by French approximations, then the performances themselves were still largely permissible; if one of the leaders of the Hot-club de Marseille was sent to a Silesian concentration camp never to return, it wasn’t because he was fond of jazz, but because he was Jewish.

The few black American musicians who had not left Paris as war loomed found themselves interned as Americans rather than non-Aryans. French Caribbean and African musicians like Robert Mavounzy and Freddy Jumbo – and the Rom Django Reinhardt – could still perform and tour. The American-born but naturalized French trumpeter Harry Cooper was able to negotiate his release from prison, and went on to perform regularly on the German-run Radio Paris, recording for the jazz label Swing in 1943 even after the introduction of a requirement that all such activity had to be approved by the Propaganda Staffel. Hugues Panassié was able to broadcast a jazz radio series on the national Radiodiffusion français in mid-1942, and though subsequent complaints led to the Vichy prohibition of such programming, jazz remained accessible via British and Swiss stations. Members of the German army and occupying government were often no less partial to the music than were the people they policed.

Nevertheless those involved with jazz and its promotion proceeded with caution. Charles Delaunay, de facto head of the Hot-club during the occupation, acted to suppress the organization’s public activity, not least because a small resistance network had formed around the club’s headquarters: Delaunay and his fellow club member Jacques Bureau were arrested, and several members of the extended network were eventually caught and executed. Still Delaunay was able to organize events and festivals in wartime Paris, sometimes making a concerted effort to frame the music offered in terms that would quell Vichy and Nazi anxieties. Before a “Festival de jazz français” at the Salle Gaveau in December 1940, Delaunay distributed to the press a pamphlet that underscored the French cultural heritage of this New Orleans music, and the native excellence demonstrated by the Quintette. “I intended to create a fiction, a sort of myth for better or worse capable of protecting our little concern,” Delaunay wrote in a postwar apologia. As Andy Fry has suggested, this was one of the acts of accommodation that, committed yet not fully resistant, cooperative yet not fully acquiescent, characterized French life during the occupation.

But jazz was also the instrument of more dogged and openly articulated positions. Several prominent collaborators wrote on the music during the war, among them Lucien Rebatet and André Cœuroy. The latter’s Histoire générale du jazz, published in 1942, is an aggressive version of the defensive Frenchification of jazz that Delaunay and others practiced, one which begins with orthography – Cœuroy insists on referring not to the blues, but the blouze – and widens to claim the music for France and Europe. “Jazz is not an isolated island forever cut off from the continent of music,” the author writes, instead a “peninsula” jutting off from that continent, one essentially European.


We have long believed that jazz was specifically negro. The present thesis is quite contrary. Jazz has been black only by accident. The principal elements of which it is comprised are owed to the whites, and to the whites of Europe. In its history, in its materials, jazz is ours; its future is in our hands.


The argument continues throughout Cœuroy’s book: whatever the mooted etymologies of the word “jazz,” “in reality” it comes from the French word jaser, to gossip, which is what a jazz ensemble does; the music reflects far less its African heritage than it does the old European folk music found in the once-French colonies of the south; rhythmic superimpositions thought characteristic of black music could be found in Chopin and even Mozart as well as African sources. The Hot-club Quintette, Cœuroy concluded, had recently won “a victory for the whites in the raging quarrel of jazz”. For those 21st-century writers seeking to develop an appreciation of jazz’s global dimensions, the book is intriguing – and deeply disturbing, since the author’s intelligent if impressionistic attempt to expand upon jazz’s African/American origins is so tainted by the nationalism and racialism of the moment.

The Histoire générale presented jazz in terms that satisfied the Vichy regime’s Franco-folkloric obsessions, but the music was also being instrumentalized by a youth “subculture” much more oppositional in attitude. The zazous were so-called because of their identification, sartorial as well as musical, with Cab Calloway’s well-known vocalization style and stage act. These were lovers of swing music, and the popular, music hall adaptations of jazz made by singing stars like Charles Trenet and Johnny Hess; their dandyism, long hair and hep-cat manners were taken as announcing a threat to Vichy and the country. Regime newspapers featured cartoon zazous alongside hook-nosed Jews and other caricatured figures of decadent France, and Pétainistes were encouraged to scalp dangerously coiffed swing fans in the street. The zazous were shown only marginally less contempt by the fans of hot jazz, who disdained the commercialism and strut of what they saw as an inauthentic music and movement.


This is the story of jazz in France up to the end of World War II. You can read about what followed in After Django: Making Jazz in Postwar France.

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