Paris BluesAfrican American Music and French Popular Culture, 1920-1960

Paris BluesAfrican American Music and French Popular Culture, 1920-1960

Andy Fry

Print publication date: 2015

ISBN: 9780226138787

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


France has long been credited with welcoming African Americans and their music: into its venues, into its compositions, into its writing. Yet the reception of jazz is much more complicated than that narrative suggests, embedded in ongoing debates about race, nation and culture. Paris Blues provides an alternative history, one that looks beyond a few familiar personalities and well-rehearsed stories. It does not dismiss these images, from Josephine Baker in her banana skirt to Django Reinhardt in his caravan. But it asks how they came to be so iconic, and what they hide as well as what they preserve. Its five chapters move broadly chronologically, beginning with two forgotten traditions of the 1920s and ‘30s, revues nègres (black musical theatre) and white show bands; continuing through Josephine Baker’s shows and films of the 30s; and concluding with studies of jazz’s fortunes during the occupation and post-war years. Despite extending as far as 1960, the book’s focus is early jazz and swing: its last chapter considers the revival – reinvention – of these musics alongside modern jazz, and its historiographical consequences. Familiar figures feature prominently, but in unfamiliar contexts: Josephine Baker singing Offenbach; Django Reinhardt in occupied Paris; Sidney Bechet swinging through the fifties. In sum, Paris Blues presents a challenging new account of the African-American presence – one that celebrates achievement but does not shirk to point out the complex interplay of race, writing and power in the construction of history.