A study of a key epoch in the transition of jazz from a distinctively American music to an international art form.
Braggs (Africana Studies/Williams Univ.) uses the lives of jazz musicians largely as a way to study race relations in Paris from the 1940s through the 1970s. Sidney Bechet and Kenny Clarke, two major African-American figures, are featured in the first and final chapters. The lesser-known vocalist Inez Cavanaugh also gets a chapter. Such French musicians as clarinetist Claude Luter and pianist René Urtreger receive a fair share of attention, as do critics Hughes Panassié and Charles Delaunay. Farther afield, Braggs looks at James Baldwin, who spent much of his career writing about America from Paris, and French musician/novelist Boris Vian, who assumed a black identity for one of his novels and played jazz trumpet in a Paris club. Jazz lovers who expect new insights into the music are likely to be disappointed. Braggs is mainly interested in the adaptations they made to launch their careers in France, where initially racism appeared to be off the table. Black jazzmen certainly found fewer barriers, either professionally or socially, in France than in America. French critics and audiences considered African-Americans naturally superior to European musicians, at least as far as playing jazz. Bechet, undeniably a master, attained far greater acceptance in France than he ever did in America, and Clarke, one of the founders of bebop, became the first-call drummer for Parisian jazz sessions. Braggs provides interesting perspective on the “jazz wars” of the postwar era, when fans of traditional and modern styles fought it out. There is perhaps too much repetition—e.g., the author mentions at least three times Clarke’s role in getting Miles Davis to record a French film soundtrack. Also, while Braggs draws on a wealth of material, much of it in French, the book is necessarily dependent on secondary and tertiary sources.
A fascinating look into an important chapter in cultural history. Braggs should return to the subject in more depth.