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235 France and African American music have had a relationship whose beginning has generally been placed at the end of World War I with the arrival of James Reese Europe and his military band, the Harlem Hellfighters.1 During that war, France had acquired a reputation of freedom from racial prejudice among African American troops2 and many of the soldiers in New York’s 15th Heavy Foot Infantry Regiment “decided to remain . . . after mustering out of the service. Other former soldiers, especially those who had been members of James Reese Europe’s military band, returned” to Paris to meet the demand “for black musicians to fill the bandstands of the small nightclubs” in the Right Bank district of Montmartre.3 It was this small yet significant community of expatriates that durably exposed France to African American syncopated sounds and ultimately paved the way for a genuine appreciation of jazz and blues. For the two genres, at least initially, were almost inextricably linked in the minds of French audiences, if not of the few early connoisseurs . The French, like other Europeans, discovered the blues through jazz, the former being viewed as the initial wellspring of the latter. This article is 14 —ROBERT SPRINGER The Blues in France 236 ROBERT SPRINGER an attempt to trace the circumstances that made it possible for blues appreciation to take root in France; it will conclude with an examination of blues reception from the musicians’ point of view.4 The Gradual Rise of Blues Appreciation in France before World War II The earliest exposure of Europeans to the blues came through a small number of performers in concert and, mainly, club appearances. While England was fortunate enough to see jazz and blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson, who came over with a musical revue in 19175 and may have played blues on that occasion , the first blues performer ever to reach France was probably Alberta Hunter in 1927.6 She was at the Palace Hotel in Nice late in the year, where she presumably sang the repertoire of vaudeville and blues songs she was used to offering in Harlem, remaining on the Riviera in early 1928 to sing in Monte Carlo, before traveling to England to perform at the London Pavilion, and going back to Paris in 1929 for engagements in Montmartre clubs like the Grand Ecart, Chez Florence, and the newly opened and soon to close (local) Cotton Club.7 After returning to Harlem, she was in Paris again from 1933 to 1934, singing at Le Boeuf sur le Toit, and The Little Club, and even replacing Josephine Baker at the Casino de Paris. Also performing in Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy, Hunter sailed back to New York for good when tensions in Europe seemed to be clearly edging toward war.8 In the same decade, American blues and jazz records became available via Columbia, when it acquired the French Pathé-Frères recording company in 1929.9 The first encounter of French record buyers with a “classic blues singer” came the following year, though ironically Clara Smith sang no blues on “Get on Board”/“Livin’ Humble.”10 This early exposure was complemented at the end of that year by the release of a film which was to have a lasting impact in France. King Vidor’s Hallelujah acquainted Parisian moviegoers with blues singer Victoria Spivey though here again no blues songs were offered. After the Great War, the blues had already begun to be defined and analyzed in French-language publications. As early as 1919, Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet had singled out the blues as the genre where “the genius of 237 THE BLUES IN FRANCE the race is at its most powerful.”11 In 1926, the first book on jazz published in France, simply titled Le Jazz, contained a short section on blues in which one of the authors, ethnomusicologist André Schaeffner, quite correctly characterized the genre as the secular counterpart of the spirituals.12 Radio exposure to jazz and blues came later and was probably initiated by a program hosted weekly on Radio L.L. (the initials of owner Lucien Lévy) in 1931 and 1932 by Jacques Bureau, a future founding member of the Hot Club de France.13 After this promising start, the airwaves, unfortunately, were rarely graced by the sounds of African American music. It was probably the paucity of jazz-related activity in those early years of the Depression that led to the advent of an association...


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