Historian Tyler Stovall on WWII, Post-War, and Bebop

Tyler Stovall describes Arthur Briggs’ role during World War II in the Montmartre jazz scene, the role of jazz during and after the war, and the origins of Bebop.
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Tyler Stovall: Arthur Briggs was somebody- he had come to Paris in the mid-‘20s with the first wave of African-American musicians. He had married a Frenchwoman, he had settled down. By 1939, he was French in all but name. He was also one of these musicians, by the way, that had bought a country house for himself. Actually in the same neighborhood as Josephine Baker in the 1930’s. This is the ultimate dream of every Parisian, by the way, to have a country house. And doing this showed just how Parisian he had become.

So, when the Germans arrived, Arthur Briggs simply refused to leave and continued to play until he was arrested by the German army and placed in an internment camp in Saint Denis. Saint Denis is a suburban city just outside Paris itself. And he spent four years there in the camp. He actually organized a jazz orchestra that the German commandant liked. And permitted him to play jazz while he was there.

So I think that listening to jazz was one way in which you could resist Nazi ideology. By the way you had the same phenomenon in Germany itself – the whole phenomenon of the swing kids in the late 1930s. Of young people that also embraced jazz as a way of resisting ideology. Meant that this was not just a French phenomenon, but really a European-wide phenomenon, so that music became a kind of politics of resistance in this period. And I think that continued to inform the popularity of jazz after the liberation in 1944 because it was very much linked to resistance.

And they looked at jazz as a symbol of resistance to totalitarianism, but also to American [unintell]. To the American- to the increasingly Americanization aspect, the impact of American culture in France. Until the early 1960s, for example, Paris was full of American soldiers.

And many Parisians looked at them as an effective new army of occupation in the years after the Second World War. Whereas they could look at jazz as a kind of symbol of another kind of America. Now the irony of this is one of the main ways that many Parisians listened to jazz in the post-World War II era was through Armed Forces Radio. So the American Army, just as it had in the First World War was a major transmitter of jazz culture to France.

Ok, bebop is very interesting in France because it’s something that develops in the United States during the war and because of the German occupation of France, French exposure to it is somewhat delayed. And this is one example where the German occupation created a sort of cut-off between France and trans-Atlantic cultural development. So by the time bebop comes to France in the late 1940s, it’s already very well-developed in New York, Kansas City, Chicago, other places.

France is becoming close to the United States. The world is becoming smaller. It is easier for African-Americans to travel back and forth between Paris and America. Or to travel to Paris for a while then go to a jazz festival in Montreaux or Nice or other places throughout Europe. So you have this whole jazz performance circuit in the 1950s- ‘40s and ‘50s. It really didn’t exist, it was only starting to come into existence in the 1930s.

And creates a whole different image of jazz. So you have this paradox. On the one hand, jazz is seen as a kind of political music, as a kind of rejection and an embrace of Americanism at the same time. On the other hand, jazz is also becoming more respectable in and of itself. You know, leading to the point where you can have now Wall Street editorial- Wall Street Journal editorials about different kinds of jazz and which is the best kind to go to. Something that would have been completely unimaginable in the 1920s.