During World War I, Afro-American musicians posted to France popularized a new form of music. This “syncopated ragtime” was the beginning of jazz. An exhibition organized at the New Orleans Jazz Museum through November 15, 2018, takes a look back over this period.
“Here, on February 12, 1918, the first jazz concert was played on European soil.” This declaration is etched onto a plaque presented on stage at the Theatre Graslin in Nantes last February to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the event. And yet, on the evening of February 1918, the 53 musicians from the 15th New York National Guard Regiment* were playing anything but jazz. The playlist included “La Marseillaise” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” along with a few military marches, pieces by Verdi and Wagner, and several negro spirituals and plantation songs arranged by conductor James Reese Europe.
None of the 25 Afro-American military orchestras stationed in France during World War I played jazz. The professional musicians followed their sheet music note by note, and there was no room for improvisation. The sounds they made, however, were certainly new. The French were enchanted by the shrill clarinets, the low roar of the sousaphone, and the lamenting of the slide trombone.
The 5th New York National Guard Regiment band plays a concert for the Red Cross in Paris © Michael Ochs Archives
“What really excited the people listening to these orchestras was the rhythmic method, the abundance of syncopation, the stylistic inflections, and the growls and glissandi that were applied to every piece, even the military marches,” says Daniel Vernhettes, a jazz historian who helped create the exhibition in New Orleans. What’s more, the attitude adopted by the orchestras — which often featured some 100 musicians in uniform — was in keeping with the tradition of New Orleans marching bands.
The Influence of Amateur Groups
Black U.S. military brass bands left a mark on the French imagination, but they had a modest musical influence according the Daniel Vernhettes. The bands played at official ceremonies and in towns near the front, and were only heard by a small percentage of the population. It was actually the rise of smaller, amateur bands made up of black soldiers that really popularized “instrumental ragtime” in France.
Far from the front, black recruits posted to harbors, train stations, and supply depots spent their spare time playing and listening to music. Small, informal bands of amateur and often illiterate musicians began appearing in Le Havre, Saint-Nazaire, Brest, Bordeaux, and Le Mans. Their members played the popular hits of the time such as “Livery Stable Blues” by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, recorded in New York in February 1917 and today considered the very first jazz recording. In November 1918, nine soldiers from a pioneer regiment in the port of Marseille founded the Receiving Station Jazz Band. The ensemble featured drums, a trombone, two trumpets, a clarinet, a violin, a banjo, a guitar, and double bass. The core of any modern jazz band.
The Birth of a Jazz Culture in France
The black regiments were the last to return to the United States after the armistice. Some remained in France until fall 1919, helping to rebuild the country and bury the dead. The small bands were closer to the civilian population than the military brass bands, and the French were quickly drawn in by this “kind of crazy music that played with harmonic rules,” says Claus Walkstein, a jazz specialist and researcher at the university of Nantes who also contributed to the exhibition at the New Orleans Jazz Museum. The French began appropriating the genre, and four musicians founded the Popol Jazz Band in Les Arcs-sur-Argens, in the Var département. In a photo taken in 1919, they are even seen posing in the brown uniform worn by American soldiers!
The Popol Jazz Band — a French orchestra! — in 1919.
The 1,000 to 1,200 Afro-American musicians who came through France between 1918 and 1919 introduced the French to syncopated rhythms and soaring notes, according to Claus Walkstein. “Without them, American musical culture would never have taken hold in the same way in France. These small, black bands paved the way for leading jazz names who arrived in France from 1925 onwards such as Sydney Bechet and Josephine Baker.”
*The 15th New York National Guard Regiment became the 369th infantry regiment in March 1918 and, for their bravery on the battlefield, was nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters” upon their return to the United States in February 1919.