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.