Jeffrey H. Jackson
Making Jazz French: Music and Modern Life in Interwar Paris

(Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2003)

Review by Jacques Protat

Jazz is arguably as culturally potent in France today as it is in the United States, albeit in different ways. It accounts for an equally poor share of record sales in the two countries (about 3%) and there have been parallel trends towards official acknowledgement of its artistic value. However, the two avenues of this common recognition reveal divergent understandings of the importance of jazz: as national heritage in the USA (Jazz at Lincoln Center), as a creative and evolving performing art in France (the Orchestre National de Jazz). One reason why jazz has different meanings now in France and in its native country is that it was received differently from the very beginning. What Americans viewed as an indigenous popular art form mostly developed by African-Americans, the French mistakenly understood as a more generally Black ‘primitive’ art form. Still, the American public also frequently associated jazz with the primitive and felt threatened by the influence of Black dance music on American mores: bleached productions like Paul Whiteman’s ‘symphonic jazz’ were instrumental in the dissemination of jazz throughout American society, as was the integration of romantic Tin Pan Alley songs into the repertoire.

Historian Jeffrey Jackson’s essay explains how similar processes of meaning-making and adaptation led to the concept of ‘French jazz’. Social and economic factors are also taken into account. French music halls featured jazz as ‘nègre’ music, and jazz was widely believed to be an ethnic artifact that could only be produced by Blacks, so French musicians had to convince audiences and promoters that jazz was also a French artifact that could be produced by French musicians: “Musicians who played French chansons in a jazz style suggested that jazz was not a break with the past but merely a way to update France’s heritage” (p. 8). The French did not merely incorporate jazz into their popular and serious avant-garde culture, they also constructed a French meaning for jazz by integrating it into the wider concept of ‘art nègre’, and quickly veered from imitation to emulation and on to the development of a specifically French jazz, rooted in the chanson tradition. Jackson analyses French reactions to jazz in terms of resistance to and acceptance of foreign influence on French culture, but also in terms of its impact on show business and French musicians’ careers.

The Duke series American Encounters / Global Interactions “aims to stimulate critical perspectives and fresh interpretive frameworks for scholarship on the history of the imposing global presence of the United States” (p. i). This book meets the general agenda of the series by examining the shift in the meaning of jazz for French aficionados and the general public from one World War to the next. Jackson provides a consistent and extensive contextualization of the ‘acculturation’ of jazz, though the term is hardly used in the book, except to refer to Ludovic Tournès’s 1999 New Orleans sur Seine (p. 206)—an excellent study on the same subject which focuses more on Franco-French debates and extends through the end of the millennium. To my knowledge, no study of such scope and depth had been published in English, and Jackson makes an important contribution to our understanding of how and why jazz was adopted and adapted by the French, investigating the cultural context in which this integration was operated. The whole is underpinned by thorough scholarly research evident in the numerous notes.

To reconstruct French reception of jazz and the social context of its Frenchifying, Jackson has made extensive use of contemporary literature: “by drawing on a variety of printed sources from the 1920s and 1930s, this book pays attention to the active interpreters of jazz” (p. 2). The ubiquitous short quotes provide a solid sense of reality, as they give us access to the material Jackson uses to substantiate his claims, with a historian’s reverence for the data collected. The long strings of quotations, introductory clauses and source references do get cumbersome though, and they are a hindrance to fluid reading: this reader often felt like he was facing an assembled jigsaw puzzle of accounts (e.g. p. 120), rather than a flowing argument. The latter is thankfully provided in the opening and closing parts of each chapter, and of the book. Though the overall impression is of an excellent analysis of contemporary French views of jazz in France from the vantage point of a cultural historian, Jackson seems to have lacked the confidence that would have allowed him to rely less on other people’s words, and more on his own. He is at his very best making the synthetic analyses that follow his accumulative developments, as in the final cultural studies-oriented “coda” (pp. 197-203).

Another problem with quotes is that many are too literally translated from the French: the author acknowledges help when his “own language skills still fell a bit short” (p. x), but must have relied on the latter for roughly the first half of the work: hence the presence of a few misspellings and Gallicisms, as when jazz records are said to “‘sell like little loaves of bread’” (p. 38): the set phrase used in the original 1928 Radio Magazine article must have been “comme des petits pains”, which is usually translated “like hot cakes”; translating it word for word turns a dead metaphor into an active one, giving much more weight to these bread loaves than they deserve. Sometimes the very meaning of the original sentence is slanted, as when a French journalist is said to have written in 1929 that “‘Jazz is not made for us [...]. Everything in it rejects it: spirit and tradition’” (p. 79). The original French probably read “Le jazz n’est pas fait pour nous”, which in no way implies the producing process of ‘making’ jazz, but simply means “Jazz is not for us”. The contamination of French even reaches such unacknowledged mistranslated quotes as “a black cup of coffee” (p. 76, for “a cup of black coffee”, taking “une tasse de café noir” to be “une tasse de café noire”). Granted, each of these examples is arguable and would require access to the original, but there are just too many of those.

The right method may be at times to refrain from translating: integrating untranslated French words or phrases into English discourse on French culture makes perfect sense, since a concept such as ‘l’art nègre’ is culturally determined and simply does not translate. However, even a contemporary French writer would have to use italics or inverted commas when referring to what is now called l’art africain, les arts premiers… Jeffrey Jackson has opted for unmarked integration, which is all the more troubling when the two languages’ syntaxes get mixed up, as in “La musique nègre was frequently seen as part of a more general l’art nègre”, where two articles conflict. I would suggest “La musique nègre was frequently seen as part of a more general art nègre”, with italics differentiating the French from the English, and possibly even inverted commas insisting on the historically determined usage of the phrases.

Jackson’s use of recent scholarship is discerning and does not distract him from his chosen avenue: his concise bibliographic essay (pp. 205-209) is a well-balanced, accurate and fair panorama of recent French and American scholarship. From the narrative (Shack’s 2001 Harlem in Montmartre) to the philosophical (Gendron’s 2002 Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club) through material that is much closer to Jackson’s subject and approach (Tournès), no major source has been left untapped as far as I can tell. Finally, and because this is a book on jazz, my major disappointment stems from the focus of the book, in that the music itself is hardly discussed, other than to dismiss the simplistic argument that the French ‘made jazz French’ by using more strings and less brass and drums. There is more to it in the ‘French-making’ of jazz music than economic stakes and personal stories of (Hugues Panassié’s) love for ‘hot’ music. Jackson does not attempt to explain how Django’s and Grappelli’s musical roots and earlier trainings influenced their reception and transformation of the jazz idiom, or exactly how a Belgian Gypsy and the son of an Italian immigrant can be said to have made jazz French.

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