Harlem in Montmartre
Historian Tyler Stovall on Montmartre

Tyler Stovall explains the African American community centered around Montmartre outside of Paris, a community filled with key players in black literature and music. Next: Watch and listen to Tyler Stovall recall the days of Bricktop’s.

Tyler Stovall: Paris was a tremendous amount of fun in the 1920s. I mean, after all, this is the decade of the Lost Generation, of, you know, mostly white artists and writers who, you know, gave up everything to come to France and live the good life.

And so, African-Americans when they came to Paris – if they met other black Americans – they would be told generally, “Well, the only place where there really is a concentration of our people is in Montmartre. And that is because of the jazz clubs. So if you want to meet other black Americans, wait until the sun goes down and then go to these jazz clubs and stay there basically until the sun comes up.”

Ok, Montmartre was and is to this day a distinctive Parisian community. It was as early as the early 19th century a place where because it lay beyond the city walls, alcohol was cheaper there because it didn’t have to pay the tax to go into Paris itself. So there were lots of speakeasy- lots of speakeasies, and lots of bars and cafes there. So it had- by the time African-Americans came in there- came there in the 1920s it had a tradition of over- almost a century of being a place where one went to enjoy good times.

There were tales of a so-called shoeshine boy, an African-American man who worked with the American Express outside Paris, who whenever he met African-Americans coming through would tell them – “Go up to Montmartre. That’s where our people are.”

Ok, these writers- people- the writers that came from America. Writers like Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay – basically the cream of the crop of the Harlem Renaissance who came during the 1920s were attracted to Paris for several reasons. They were attracted because of its literary prominence, above all. They were attracted by the fact that it was one of the greatest cities in Europe. And increasingly, they were attracted by the fact that so many of their colleagues also seemed to be coming to Paris in the summer.

So, they did represent something different. And yet at the same time, there was a strand of the writing of Harlem Renaissance writers – and you find this especially in Claude McKay – that celebrated a certain kind of primitivism. Claude McKay writes his groundbreaking novel Banjo – actually it’s set in Marseilles in the late 1920s – and it really celebrates the primitive, the idea of the non-intellectual. And it’s full of contradictions, of course, because it’s written by an intellectual. And it includes a self-portrait of Claude McKay as one of the primary characters.

Josephine Baker also falls into the whole primitivist narrative. In fact, there’s an interesting little piece by a woman named Paulette Nardal. Paulette Nardal was one of the famous Nardal sisters who really helped create the Negritude movement and brought together African-American, African and Caribbean writers. And at one point she called- she wrote an essay called Exotic Puppets, which was basically a hatchet job on Josephine Baker. And she talked about this little half case from St. Louis shaking her butt on the Paris stage.

  • polly harrell

    Is there any way that I can purchase Harlem in Montmartre Paris for my French classes?

  • Ellyse Adele Vitiello

    Dear Tyler, did your interests carry over to post WWII Paris? Do you know of Honey Johnson & Herbert Gentry in Paris from 1946 – 1956? Thanks. EAV

  • George

    What is the name of the group playing the music in the current clips? Are they recording?

  • maggie

    Who were the musicians recreating the music? Their names went by in a flash. What an oversight!

  • Irving M. Koenig

    Both my wife and I enjoyed the program very much. The musicians recreating the music were great. Who did the commentary? Her voice was very familiar to me.

  • Leatrice Schacht

    No way to read the credits and find out about the wonderful musicians

  • Annette

    Please provide a place where we can read the credits. I’d love to dig deeper into some of the books and music.
    Otherwise: Great program. I enjoyed it immensely.

  • Judith

    Loved the program.Loved it! Credits should honor the people who worked on this production and allow the viewing public to know them and honor them. No way we could honor them with that speeding lines at the end.Give us that information. This is why I came here this a.m. to find out.Commentary sounded like S. Epatha Merkerson but that could be that I am Law and Order Junkie when jazz is not playing.

  • tom

    Who were the musicians?

  • Frank

    As everbody says, where can we read the credits? In particular, who was the jaw-dropping modern day Django Reinhart?

  • mercy

    Thanks so much for putting this program together!! It was mesmerizing, entertaining and informative. Pls post how this program can be purchased.

  • Patrick Lang

    I would like to purchase the DVD of this program.

  • greta gonzalez

    i loved this program! it gave me the chills. i’d love to know more information on this subject or if there is going to be a companion cd

  • Avon

    The program was scheduled for Wednesday evening on KCET Los Angeles, CA. It was dropped without any explaination nor was there any announcement as to when the program will be scheduled again. I especially wanted to see it because I visited Paris quite often when I was stationed in France with the Air Force from 1959 – 1962. The Left Bank near Place Ste. Michelle was the place to go to see and hear Jazz of that era.

  • Hans Apisaloma

    When will Great Performances: Harlem in Montmarte be shown? It was supposed to be aired Wed. 8/26/09 at 8 pm in Honolulu PBS Hawaii.was dropped with no explanation. Please Bring it on!

  • Maureen Chamberlain

    I thoroughly enjoyed this program and would like a second viewing. Are there plans to package it for sale?

  • Carol Beck

    Will this program be repeated and when in the Washington DC area on PBS 22 or 26? Thank you, Carol Beck

  • Kirby Milton

    5 stars does not give this program enough credit.
    the music is outstanding. Can it be purchased?

  • Rowland Gosling

    Wow! That was cool! Thank you! I love the Django Reinhardt/Gypsy Jazz thing but never got the American black jazz connection until now. This was excellent!

  • Robert Tsukayama

    I, too, would like to purchase this show. It was outstanding and I want my grandchildren to see it.

  • Joan C. Browning

    Fabulous. It was on WV PBS this morning at 3 am — didn’t air last Thursday as scheduled — couldn’t read credits — is DVD available?

  • charles wizen

    Most of your program was very enjoyable but for the guitarist and violinist really not up to par;why not use Bireli Lagrene on guitar and Florin Niculescu on violin they are at the present the best players in this style;sorry.

  • Troy Wheeler

    Caught the program early this morning. Was familiar with much of the history regarding jazz. Can’t wait to purchase the dvd when it becomes available. I highly recommend Michael Dregni’s “Django” The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend. It is a fantastic book.

  • tom

    Does anyone @ PBS read this #*$%^ page? fifty people asked about the musicians, & nada. They suck.

  • Nick Viggiano

    Excellent program. Would like to purchase the DVD. Please reply and tell me how I can do so. Thanks.

  • sheila kay

    Please forward when the Harlem in Mountmartre will be shown again. Would like to purchase the DVD. Please reply and tell me how I can do so. Thanks.

  • Marie B. Allen

    Can I purchase this? It is Excellent!!

  • Judith

    It is S. Epatha Merkerson doing the commentary. Still cannot find out about the jazz men.When is anyone going to give us this information?

  • Eileen

    Missed the program, but would like a dvd. Where can I buy the program?

  • Judith Culmer

    How can I buy the DVD of this program and will it be aired again (and not dropped).

  • Dan

    Hey, those who want to know the cast – don’t hold your breath for an answer: PBS only cares about you during Pledge days.

    But… IMDB has some of the cast here:


    Keep checking the page, as they add cast members over time.

    Also, there’s a book with historical details:



  • Liz Muench

    Please. please let us all know how to purchase this DVD. Want to share it with whole family-all early jazz buffs. My dad played with a few of them.Thanks so much for the total enjoyment Well done

  • Charlie

    Saw this today (late to the party) and I have to ask PBS: this excellent documentary is STILL not available on DVD???


    I’m ready to buy NOW, and can’t!

    You guys dropped the ball!!

  • Lauren

    PBS!!!!! Why won’t you air this again, tell us who the phenomenal musicians are, or put it on DVD? Please throw us a bone? Pretty please? With cherries and whip cream and sprinkles on top?

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