A black cobbled street slick with recent rain and shining like glass. A dim glow down the street and around the corner, the sign with its thousands of bulbs all lit up and alive, throwing a stark contrast against a clouded inkwell of sky. You can already hear a faint noise of the band that’s been playing its heart across the floor for the past hour. You’re late again, but that makes for the best entrances. You and your company’s brogues and heels clacking echo throughout the narrow and winding streets of Montmartre, and although it’s well into the night (and more likely than not, the wee hours of the morning) it feels like there is no one in this city that is asleep at this very moment.
The influx of jazz into French culture was inevitable, with French and American soldiers sharing the same soil in the time of the first great war and for a time after. It became known that African Americans received a much kinder welcome in Europe than in America, with the racial divides decidedly slimmer on that side of the ocean. French officers and soldiers (and likely the French populace in general) held an open disdain for American’s segregation of blacks and whites. They made excellent points, like if America is so hellbent on leading the world to democracy, shouldn’t it try to exhibit a little more of it at home? Soldiers often spent time destroying American literature that promoted and advocated segregation and discrimination, probably one of the only book burning ceremonies I approve of.
So it came as no surprise that the French excitedly embraced this new American music, more so African American music, as something new and brilliant. Most of the soldiers who stayed on after WWI were the African Americans, and why wouldn’t they be? As implied before, the social climate was much warmer to them, and they found liberties and friendly welcomes they had been unaccustomed to in the States. Paris quickly became populated with young, unmarried black men. It wasn’t just the soldiers who stayed on, even men who hadn’t fought in the war heard tell of how great it was, packed up their things and shipped out to be a part of the new Harlem in Montmartre, as it came to be known to some. Columnist Joel A. Roger, illustrated this perfectly when he wrote:
“The Boulevard de Clichy is the 42nd and Broadway of Paris. Most of the night life of Paris centers around it, and most of the colored folks from the States, too. If you hear that some friend from the States is in Paris, just circulate around this boulevard from the Moulin Rouge down Rue Pigalle as far as the Flea Pit. And it is a hundred to one shot that you’ll encounter him or her, at least twice during the night. Most of the colored folk live in this neighborhood. There is a surprising number of them, and it is increasing every year. Just now with the “Blackbirds” at the Moulin Rouge, this section reminds you more of Harlem than ever.”
Referred to as Les Années Folles (The Crazy Years), its verve seething at the heart of the right and left bank districts of Paris, Montmartre and Montparnasse. These districts are still known to this day as the artist neighborhoods, as the several artists and poets and writers all seemed to end up in one or the other (more so Montparnasse). Back in those days, the rent was cheap and the nightlife was quick becoming a booming industry. Night clubs had always been around, but now more than ever they were enjoying extreme profit and popularity as American expatriates flooded their properties with nothing but money burning holes in their pockets and a thirst for drinking and dancing and loud music. As the Parisian government caught wind, taxes on nightclubs skyrocketed, at one point reaching as much as twenty-five percent. Even if someone received a complimentary ticket to an event, they still had to pay that 25% tax on what it would’ve cost. But even that didn’t quell the explosion. People still went out, still spent the money, still had the times of their lives. Famed musician Sidney Bechet at one point says:
“Any time you walked down the streets you’d run into four or five people you knew – performers, entertainers, all kinds of people who had real talent in them…you’d start to go home, and you’d never get there. There was always some singer to hear, or someone who was playing. You’d run into some friends and they were off to hear this or do that and you just went along. It seemed like you just couldn’t get home before ten or eleven in the morning.”
People were desperate to overcome the hardships and heartache of the war. They danced and danced and laughed and sang to forget all the blood that had spilled on the soil. Even the native French musicians took to the jazz with grappling hands, taking traditional French songs and setting them to the syncopated beats and modern attitude. As musician Eduoard Marguliès was first learning jazz, he received some very uncomplicated and unadorned advice from his brother: “…Above all, make lots of noise and laugh a lot.”
If you’re interested in learning more, we here at the Grand Rapids Public Library would love to help you feed your new obsession, come check out a few of these items (if you click on the images it will take you to the entry in the library catalog in a new window):