“My Identity and Musical Roots Are in Guadeloupe”

Jacques Schwarz-Bart has a very special place in the jazz world. Originally from Guadeloupe, he is the son of two famous writers and graduated from both Sciences Po in Paris and the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Since 2016, he has taught at the prestigious American school and continues to put out albums infused with Afro-Caribbean, soul, and funk influences, such as Soné Ka-La 2: Odyssey and recently The Harlem Suite. The saxophonist will be a guest of honor at the gala of New York University’s Maison Française hosted by Villa Albertine on October 3.
© Marc Chesneau

France-Amérique: Before going to Berklee, you were a parliamentary assistant at the Senate in Paris. That is quite a change in direction! Could you tell us more?

Jacques Schwarz-Bart: I was cursed with always trying to be a model student. As I was top of my class in Guadeloupe, my teachers pushed me to continue my education at the Paris-Panthéon-Assas law school, followed by Sciences Po. But my only real passion was jazz, which I had played since the age of four using makeshift instruments. I was especially drawn to gwoka jazz, a Guadeloupean style with percussion instruments and influenced by voodoo sounds from Africa by way of Haiti. I still hadn’t learned about this genre’s long history; I was just happy playing music with my friends.

Do you regret spending so much time at Sciences Po?

I have fond memories of my studies. I learned to understand the world we live in, to interpret current affairs, and express myself in a concise manner.

You started playing the saxophone quite late, and by chance, at the age of 24. How did you discover this instrument?

After Sciences Po, I was on vacation in Guadeloupe and I discovered a disassembled saxophone at a friend’s place. She told me how it worked, and I spontaneously started playing all the saxophone jazz melodies I had listened to since I was a child. When I got back to Paris, I spent my nights in the jazz clubs of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where I would listen to the music and sometimes do some improvising myself. One evening, I was spotted by a great musician, American trombonist Phil Wilson, who convinced me to enroll at Berklee. I spent four years studying every type of jazz and contemporary music. And now I teach there!

© Hervé Pinel

Jazz is an infinitely varied genre and you add to this diversity by using African rhythms in your compositions…

Jazz is and always has been Creole, open to every single culture. It was born in New Orleans through the meeting of slaves from Africa, Haiti, and the West Indies. Nothing is more open to the world than jazz.

Does that mean you support what Martinican poet Edouard Glissant called the “creolization of the world,” which opposed the current identity politics movement?

I agree with Edouard Glissant, of course – just like all other musicians. The celebration of identity, whether cultural, ethnic, or national, is a political stance that produces no music whatsoever. However, I understand the retreat into identity by those affected by our constantly changing world and social norms.

No interview would be complete without discussing your parents, the equally renowned André and Simone Schwarz-Bart. How much did they influence you?

When I was a child, my mother Simone introduced me to blues, gospel, Guadeloupean music like gwoka, and all kinds of jazz. Things were more complicated with my father. The incredible success of his novel The Last of the Just, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1959, caused a scandal that he tried to run away from. At the time, no one talked about the Holocaust. People stayed silent and the Jews interiorized their tragedy, they didn’t share it. His book broke down this wall of silence, while also accusing the Catholic Church of being the leading cause of antisemitism for the last thousand years. My father also made enemies among the Jewish community, as the heroes in his book are the Just, who embody truth and morality, instead of armed fighters. To escape the controversy, my parents fled to a Swiss village, then to Dakar, before returning to Guadeloupe. When I became a famous musician in my own right, my relationship with my father opened up and we were able to discuss art and ethics. I owe him my artistic and moral discipline.

Are you Jewish?

There are a thousand ways to answer that question. I consider myself to be Jewish because I think critically and I regularly call myself into question. The Torah invites Jews to doubt everything – including the existence of God.

Where do you feel you come from, if this question of identity means anything to you?

I spent 20 years in New York City and I feel like a New Yorker. I loved the cosmopolitanism, the confrontations, and the humor – things I have not found in Boston, where I live now. But deep down, I’m Guadeloupean. If I had to define my roots, both for identity and music, that is where they would be.

The Harlem Suite
by Jacques Schwarz-Bart, Ropeadope Records, 2023.

Interview published in the July-August 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.