And All That Jazz

Paris Style



It has been said that the American south gave birth to jazz, but it was Paris who nourished it, made it grow and hailed it as art. Jazz became unique to each country that welcomed it, and Paris was the first in Europe to embrace it and make it her own.

This must have been an unpleasant jolt to wealthy Paris society who, before the advent of WW I, flourished in the era known as the Belle Epoque, or “Beautiful Era.” It overlapped the Victorian Era in England and the Gilded Age in America, all sharing the same sense of “noblesse oblige,” thus perpetuating the established class system. Their life style was reflected in elaborate homes, romantic literature, music and high fashion.

France’s Belle Epoque Age ended abruptly with the outbreak of WW I, crushed by the reality and horror of war. In 1918, Paris was still reeling from the ravages of war, which the French had believed would quickly end with a glorious victory. Instead, at the end of the four year struggle, they saw only devastation, loss and poverty.  People were angry, disillusioned and felt betrayed by their leaders and the arrogant politics of war.

French writers and artists led a revolt in literary, art and musical satire, rebelling against the insanity, horror and stupidity of war. They held spirited public meetings and seminars. Finally, the French government forbade them to hold secret meetings or even meet secretly among themselves since they always seemed to stir up trouble. The creative artists solved that problem by openly meeting in little sidewalk cafes, a move that served them well and became a tradition for future generations of writers and artists.

During the Belle Epoque’s final years, European literature, music and art began to undergo a major transformation, introducing stark realism that developed into modernism.  Romantic operettas and Strauss waltzes gave way to the unfamiliar, discordant sounds of Stravinsky. The elegant, corseted high fashion gowns were replaced with the unencumbered, boyish dress designs of Coco Chanel, including (gasp!) trousers for women! Romantic adventure novels were nudged aside by the in-your-face realism of Joseph Conrad, Proust, Kafka, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot and James Joyce.

Out of their discontent grew one of the strangest, most controversial artistic protests yet seen. In 1919, Darius Milhaud, Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie, Poulenc and Picasso were among the prominent artists and writers in Paris who joined the Dada movement, an informal international anti-war movement launching a protest against everything traditional. They declared that everything was nonsense: literature, art, morality, and civilization. They ridiculed the lack of purpose and shallowness of the modern world.

The word, “dada” is baby talk for the French word “hobbyhorse,” the kind with a horse’s head on a stick that a child pretends to ride but goes nowhere! The Dada movement spread into other countries, including the United States. Dadaism began to fade into surrealism by 1924, and some theorists argue that Dada was the beginning of postmodern art.

Speaking of surreal—I had my own crazy Dada moment a few years ago while driving home from work tuned into PBS. The narrator discussed the 1920’s Dadaist movement and its meaning (or lack thereof), then played a CD of a woman reading a Dada poem—two full minutes of this woman’s melodious voice reading nothing but “dada-dada-dada” over and over again. The word never changed, only the emotion and cadence of her voice changed, as if she was reading something very deep and meaningful.  I grinned through the first minute, gritted my teeth through the second and almost ran off the road at the heart wrenching dadas that ended the saga!

Guess what the most amazing part was? The woman reading the Dada poem was (drum roll, please) Marie Osmond!  Honest! I grinned the rest of the way home. The Dadaists would have loved it. I mean, how damn surreal can you get?  Here was this little Mormon girl from Utah, almost one hundred years later, reading the iconic Dada poem about nothing!

This leads us back to why Paris was so quick to embrace the Jazz Age and its hordes of artists, writers, musicians, entertainers and other “expats” who were eager to make Paris their home. Jazz in Paris, as well as America, represented not only an anti-war sentiment, but a rebellion against the stuffiness and rigidity of the Belle Epoque, Victorian era and old fashioned classicism. Jazz flourished among the rich and poor alike, and became a musical language all could understand regardless of class.

Paris was introduced to jazz during the difficult days of WW I, when American soldiers came with their marching bands and jazzy music. War weary Parisians jumped on the jazz bandwagon like starving people looking for life support. The happy, syncopated music boosted moral and helped them forget for awhile the ravages of war.

Word of the artistic and racial freedom in Paris (and their love of jazz)  spread quickly and, after the war, African-American jazz musicians flocked to Paris for work and the racial equality and freedom they were denied in their own country. The music became a cultural tidal wave that had the power to cross racial barriers. Soon, Paris boasted the top names in jazz musicians as well as the best known African-American cabaret stars in the world. In addition, many American soldiers remained in Paris after the war, which prompted the popular 1918 song, “How Ya’ Gonna’ Keep Them Down on the Farm, After They’ve Seen Paree?”

Paris already boasted its own impressive community of avant-garde artists. Leaders in the fields of literature, music, dance and theatre were an integral part of Paris culture before WW I. They were the artistic hub, the beacon that drew other artists to Paris after the war. However, sometimes Paris could be a devious, sexy Lorelie whose entrancing song lures and distracts the creative muses, as F. Scott Fitzgerald and others discovered when they failed to heed the danger hidden in her siren song.

Among these expatriates were the cream of America’s writers, musicians and artists: F. Scott Fitzgerald, who coined the words “Jazz Age,” Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach and her Shakespeare Co., Ezra Pound, Henry James, Sherwood Anderson, Charles McArthur, Langston Hughes, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Aaron Copeland, Rogers and Hart, Man Ray and so many others. They became an integral part of the burgeoning American expatriate community who had moved to Paris for the artistic freedom it nourished.

Others came to Paris just because they loved the life style. Among these were Gerald and Sara Murphy, wealthy Americans who befriended many of America’s artists and writers at their home in Cap d’ Antibes. Their biography is titled, “Living Well is the Best Revenge.”

Living in Paris was cheaper and there was no Prohibition!  They could drink, enjoy wild dancing, visit brothels and other dens of iniquity without fearing arrest. Socialites, adventurers, artists and tourists from around the world converged upon the famous Parisian nightclubs and cabarets, like Café du Dome, Chez Florence, le Boeuf Sur le Toit, le Grand Duc, the Moulin Rouge, Maxims and others. The back ally cabarets, bordellos and opium parlors existed in tandem with the more sophisticated clubs, whose patrons were not shy about visiting both.

Perhaps composer, George Antheil put it best when he said “Jazz was a marvelous antidote to 20th Century boredom and nervous tension—a subtle combination of narcotic and stimulant!”

The Jazz Age reigned until it came crashing down with America’s Wall Street, and all the American expatriates had to rush back home to pick up the pieces. Some mourned the end of the Jazz Age, others said good riddance!

The Jazz age was over, but jazz was here to stay! Over the years, jazz has given birth to the blues, rock and roll, ragtime, folk, bluegrass, scat, rhythm and blues and a host of other genres.

This came home to me a few years ago, when I was spent the night in Carcassonne, a small 14th century medieval city in southern France. The ancient, walled city had a sad Cather/Crusader history that permeated the old stone walls. I felt its pervasive sadness as I walked along the ancient cobbled, narrow streets. Suddenly, I heard live music. The jazzy sound was so out of context with my medieval musings, I was momentarily disoriented.

I rounded a corner and was astonished to see three young musicians wailing away on trumpet, bass and tenor sax. Jazz! Right here in Medieval City! I listened until the sun went down, and hoped the joyful vibes bouncing off the old walls helped chase away the centuries old sorrow lingering in the shadows. I thanked the musicians and headed back to my eight hundred year old room, which felt just as surreal as the jazz in the ancient courtyard!

Yes, Jazz is here to stay and can be found in the most surprising places!

Ernest Hemingway captured the feelings of many of the expatriates in 1920’s Paris with his famous quote:

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris in the 1920’s as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

A feast that continues to intrigue and fascinate us today!