Jazz History – The Music of Harlem Finds A Home In Paris, France During Wartime

During World War I, American soldiers carried jazz music from the United States to the villages and cities of the nation of France. Segregated black American marching regiments proudly paraded their own bands, which took the sounds and jazz music of Harlem, New York into the streets of Paris and beyond.

The French took to jazz music with an unstoppable fervor. Jazz flourished with the opening of French jazz clubs and international jazz festivals. American musicians of the 30s and 40s flocked to Paris in droves, fueled by warm receptions in France and increasing race tensions back home. Today, songs like “April in Paris” have become essential standards in the history of jazz, and Paris remains one of the enduring world centers of jazz music.  Here is the world famous Count Basie version.

The Introduction of Jazz in Paris

When the United States entered World War I, thousands of American soldiers were sent overseas to help the war efforts in France. This included the 369th Harlem Infantry Regiment, led by New York bandleader Lt. James Reese. As they marched, they brought the sounds, energy, and never-before-heard innovations of jazz music into the French nation.

By the time the war had come to a close, Reese and his musicians had gained international fame, and jazz music had begun to filter into Parisian night clubs and dance halls. American masters thrilled the people of Paris with wild, swinging tunes long into the night. Although local musicians attempted to resist the intrusion of jazz into their clubrooms and venues, French artists and music critics welcomed jazz with open arms.

Before long, French jazz clubs were taking over the city of Paris, and young French musicians were turning to American jazz artists to learn new avenues of creative expression. From these early years came Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, who not only became masters in their own right, but also pioneered new instrumentation and technique throughout their years of musicianship.

Though jazz was alight in Paris, world events caused the first generation of American jazz musicians to return to the United States shortly after the close of World War I. France fell once again to German occupation, this time to the Nazi soldiers of World War II, and American jazz was banned from Paris. The Americans returned home, and for a short time, the music was silenced.

The Triumphant Return

Jazz would not be so easily silenced in France. Café and club owners continued to turn precious jazz records in underground, soundproof cellars throughout the city. While musicians in the United States continued to push jazz to new heights, Parisians played the familiar swing records until the vinyl had worn down to a whisper. They clung to the jazz that they knew, and for a while, it sustained them.

Then came the end of World War II. Thousands of native French youth came back to the cafés and night clubs of Paris, and they weren’t alone. With the end of the war, and after news of jazz’s warm welcome in the City of Lights, great American jazz musicians also flocked to France. The most creative minds in the history of jazz—Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis—all came to Paris and unleashed a new wave of jazz music onto the Parisian peoples.

Some found a permanent home in France, and if not in France, then in other nations across Europe that came to embrace jazz music. Early pioneers of bebop like Don Byas faded into relative obscurity in the United States but lived out the rest of their lives like celebrities among the European nations. Jazz had found a permanent home in western Europe, even as it thrived and continued to grow in the United States.

From wartime march rallies to the intimate cafes and night clubs of Paris, jazz became far more than just an American popular music form. Its universal appeal struck a new chord with the people of Paris and has become interwoven with the tapestry of French art and culture.

Capturing A Great Day In Harlem – A Portrait of New York Jazz

If you lived and played jazz in New York, Harlem was a part of you and you were a part of it. It didn’t matter what style or era of jazz you were a part of—there were legends behind you and future giants ahead. Harlem was the home of jazz, the crucible for jazz, and the story of jazz fleshed out through its music, language, fashion, art, literature, and just about every aspect of culture throughout the early to mid-century.

They called it the Harlem renaissance. At the fore of the nation’s free black community were the jazz musicians, who experienced both international fame and domestic racial inequity. They worked their passions until they bled, and knew that their celebrity standing didn’t make them exempt to police brutality and hate crimes.

By the year 1958, Harlem had long established and upheld its reputation as the Cultural Capital of Black America. Esquire magazine was planning a huge issue on jazz music, and in the true spirit of jazz, one small-time freelancer improvised a contribution that would make history and capture the Harlem Renaissance forever.

The Great Eras of Jazz

Throughout the 1950s, Harlem housed so many eras of jazz musicians that pioneers born before the turn of the 20th century were playing just down the street from established, extremely talented musicians born as late as 1930. From that 30-year spread in musicians’ births, the swing era lived and died, the bebop movement surfaced, hot jazz and cool jazz had been played and retired in dance halls and night clubs.

Art Kane was a small-time magazine art director when he came up with the idea of bringing out as many jazz musicians as possible for a single photo shoot. The act had never been done before. Kane knew that he wanted it to be in Harlem, where these people lived and created. He understood that in order to capture the spirit of jazz as a driving cultural force, he would need to capture life in Harlem.

Kane scouted a location for the shoot and chose a random building on 126th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues. In his mind, anyone could have lived in that building, and little did he know that his photograph would make that building famous. He put out the call the only way he possibly could have, shoving it through as many channels as he could and then waiting to see who would come.

The Nighthawks in Broad Daylight

Kane’s plan had one major hiccup for jazz musicians: call time was set at 10 o’clock in the morning. Though the time was ideal for photography, with ideal lighting and atmosphere, it was a challenge for photograph subjects who regularly worked until (and often well past) 4 o’clock in the morning.

The brutal call time threatened to limit or even prevent a large crowd from turning up. One musician is reported to have said that they didn’t realize that there were two 10 o’clocks in the same day. Yet the call to action was strong, and everyone realized that what Kane was suggesting had never been done before.

Jazz musicians are in the business of doing things that have never been done before. Spurred on by one another, and interested in the sheer novelty of the act, 57 prominent jazz musicians showed up for Kane’s photograph.

Bebop veterans Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk showed up and chatted with swing legends Count Basie and Gene Krupa. Young skyrocketing tenor saxophone players Sonny Rollins and Benny Golson showed up to stand alongside Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, who pioneered the instrument in jazz.

Kane’s attempts to direct and structure the 57 musicians for the photograph fell mostly by the wayside. In the end, he did what any good jazz musician would have done. He incorporated the lives, the conversations, the energies, and the chaos of everything happening in front of him.

The result is a single, cohesive effort that has since become the most famous and historically celebrated portrait of jazz artists of all time.

The Newport Jazz Festival – A Brief History

In 1954, Newport, Rhode Island hosted the “First Annual American Jazz Festival.” It was the first time that live acts travelled and gathered in one place to perform live jazz music for an audience. An estimated 12,000 people packed themselves into the Newport Casino to see the world’s biggest names in jazz of the day: Dizzy Gillespie, Teddy Wilson, Stan Kenton, Gene Krupa, Lester Young, and Billie Holiday to name a few.

For over three decades, the Newport Jazz Festival featured new and tenured jazz musicians who all came together for once-in-a-lifetime performances. From the very start in 1954, the festival set itself up for meetings and performances that impacted the jazz world. During Billie Holiday’s performance, Lester Young walked onstage and joined her. Their performance ended years of estrangement between them, and brought many in the audience to joyful tears.

Although billed as the first American ‘jazz’ festival, it stands out today as it was the first ever American music festival. Newport occured fifteen years before the first Woodstock, and drew a bigger crowd than the first Coachella, Glastonbury, Lollapalooza, and Bonnaroo. It set the stage for all future music festivals and epitomized the spirit of music and performance.

The Rise of a Festival

The story is simple: crowds flocked by the thousands to sit on a lawn in Newport, Rhode Island, and listen to some of the world’s best musicians come together around jazz. After the first year on the casino lawn, the festival sought larger outdoor venues, settling upon Freebody Park for a majority of the first decade of performances.

The third annual festival put Newport on the map. Crowds watched as Paul Gonsalves began soloing over “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” backed by the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He would continue to solo for 27 choruses, transforming the audience from peacefully seated spectators to wild and crazed dancers. The effort is credited for revitalizing Ellington’s career, and made the Newport Jazz Festival an annual destination.

The festival grew in popularity with each passing year. A documentary of the festival was filmed in 1958, and in 1960, a few musicians staged a separate festival mere blocks away, angry at not being offered a high-paying slot. In 1965, Frank Sinatra entered by helicopter and performed with the Count Basie Orchestra. In 1970, the entire festival was dedicated to Louis Armstrong’s 70th birthday. The legendary jazz pioneer made an appearance, singing and performing with other acts.

Every year, the venues were pushed to the limit of what they could handle. All of the energy, excitement, and emotion began to create problems for the municipalities and government of Rhode Island. Starting in 1969, crowds became too out of control for any of the venues in Newport to properly handle. By 1971, extreme fans were storming the stages and destroyed equipment. Unable to continue forward, the festival left Newport in search of a new home.

Newport Jazz in New York

The following year, 1972, saw Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and 59 other big-name musicians playing over 30 concerts at Yankee Stadium and Radio City Music Hall, among other venues. The outdoor, jazz festival environment fused with the adrenaline laced pulse of the big city. And it continued to grow.

Throughout the 70s, the Newport Jazz Festival would become a title attached to festivals held everywhere from New York, to New England, to Japan. Corporate sponsors began lending financial weight to expansions and improvements of the annual festivals. By 1973 the festival had expanded to Carnegie Hall, where Ella Fitzgerald gave on of the more famous performances of the history of the festival.

Yet festival producer George Wein began to feel that festival had lost some of the classic magic of the outdoor venue. Though expanding and successful, the festival began to lose the focus on music. Wein felt that this was symbolized in the use of ‘Newport Jazz’ as a brand, and decided to protect the legacy of the festival.

The Return to Newport & The Future

The festival moved back to Newport, Rhode Island in 1981, where it remains today. Dave Brubeck and Dizzy Gillespie returned for the third evolution of the festival, and other prominent musicians such as Wynton Marsalis, Ray Charles, Diana Krall, and Harry Connick Jr. have made multiple appearances.

Wein retired from directing the festival and passed the torch to Christian McBride, an extremely talented bassist and big band bandleader. Today, the festival remains a balance of tradition and innovation, resisting labelling and branding, and maintaining its roots as a purely improvised and expressive performance art show.

Art Tatum – Striding Through Life

art_tatum

Some artists are born for their craft. Perhaps the greatest among musicians—whose very name has become synonymous with virtuosity and genius—is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This towering, Classical era composer demonstrated a capacity for musical genius at an extremely young age, and in a radical, almost supernatural way.

young mozart

The legend regarding Mozart’s transcription of Allegri’s Miserere runs something like this: at 14 years of age, young Mozart is taken to St. Peter’s cathedral at the Vatican for Easter Sunday. Mozart hears Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere for the first time—a sacred and closely guarded hymn reserved solely for performance during Easter. After hearing it only once, Mozart transcribes the entire piece by ear and from memory, making only minor corrections after hearing it once more a few days later.

Next to none have ever come close to the level of musical mastery that Mozart demonstrated at age 14. Still, there are many musicians who have risen above their contemporaries, who rest forever in their legacies and in their contributions to the history of music.

art tatum

Art Tatum is one of these. His is most likely not the name that comes first in the mind, at least not before other, more memorable players like Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk. Sitting humbly, squarely at the fore of prominent jazz piano players, Art Tatum is almost universally recognized by both critics and fellow musicians as the greatest jazz pianist to have ever lived.

Art Tatum – Born to Play

Not much is known about Art Tatum’s life, but one thing that we know for certain about Art Tatum is that he was blind for most of his life. This does not make him the first or last piano player to achieve fame and virtuosity despite being blind—Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles come easily to mind.

The cornerstone of Tatum’s abilities lies in another sensory augmentation. It is said that one day, while Tatum’s mother was cooking, hymns began drifting through the house on the Tatum’s old piano. Thinking that someone from the church had come over, she went into the parlor to greet them. She was stunned upon discovering that it was her son, a young Arthur Tatum, performing the hymns by ear, from memory.

About one in 10,000 people is born with the ability to discern and replicate pitches or lines of music without any external reference point. Even among those born with the ability—called absolute pitch, or perfect pitch—there are different levels of cultivation and ability.

Art Tatum is one of the gifted, a musical anomaly who could listen to a piece once and have it memorized forever, like Mozart before him. When Tatum went to school to study music, he would read braille sheet music with one hand, and play the piece from memory immediately thereafter. These abilities created the potential for musical achievement that the jazz world had not yet, and would not ever see again.

Striding Through Life

There are more legends surrounding Tatum’s character than almost any other jazz musician in history. Other players demonstrated a certain reverence for the Toledo based performer whenever he took the stage.

Tatum’s preferred style of play is known as stride piano, which borrowed structure from the form of ragtime, and then abandoning that structure in favor of improvisation and a wider range of motion. It is said even to this day that Tatum sounds like he is playing two pianos at once. He is known for having the fastest left hand of any pianist before or since.

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Even the founding father of stride piano, James P. Johnson, said that he had never truly heard stride piano until the day he heard Art Tatum perform. Though Tatum’s style was stride first and foremost, he tried to encapsulate all areas of jazz into his performance, often resulting in wildly complicated, fast, and intelligent performances.

Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Tatum’s playing is in his performance. While playing faster than anyone else in the world, Tatum retained a calm and cool posture. He never made faces, and never made a show of performing. In this, he demonstrates the innate, born to play style of performance that makes jazz so interesting. It is a feeling that jazz, no matter where it comes from or where it goes, is directly of the soul.