Beloved American jazz singer and bandleader Cab Calloway once said, “You hear about the Duke Ellingtons, the Jimmy Luncefords, the Fletcher Hendersons, but people sometimes forget that jazz was not only built in the minds of the great ones, but on the backs of the ordinary ones.” While far from ordinary, Harlem in Montmartre tells the story of the long-forgotten “extraordinary ones,” who left America to create the jazz age in Paris between the First and Second World Wars. After peace was signed at Versailles, many black Americans remained in Europe rather than return to the brutal segregation and racism of America. Over the next two decades, they formed an expatriate community of musicians, entertainers and entrepreneurs, primarily congregating in Paris’ hilly Montmartre neighborhood. Some achieved enduring fame, while others faded into history.
Harlem in Montmartre airs as part of PBS’ Great Performances series on THIRTEEN Wednesday, August 26th at 8 p.m. EST (check local listings). The documentary is a co-production of THIRTEEN for WNET.ORG, Vanguard Documentaries, Inc., Ideale Audience SAS, ARTE France and Independent Television Service (ITVS).
Watch a preview of Harlem in Montmartre:
Inspired by the book Harlem in Montmartre: a Paris Jazz Story (University of California Press) by historian William A. Shack and utilizing rare archival material from both France and America, this remarkable performance- driven documentary features the stories and music of such key figures as James Reese Europe, Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, Bricktop, Eugene Bullard, Django Reinhardt and more. “The film explores a fascinating, yet often neglected, era in African-American cultural history” says producer Margaret Smilow. “It is a colorful, musical, poignant look at the contributions of a select group of black Americans, without whom the collective voice of jazz music around the world would sound entirely different.” Vanguard Documentaries Executive Producer Charles Hobson reveals, “The French were the first people in the world to respect jazz as serious art form, and it all began in Paris with the arrival of the Harlem Hellfighters, a military band.” Directed by Dante J. James, with performance sequences directed by Olivier Simmonet, and written by James and Simmonet with Allan Miller, the production was co-produced by Smilow with Hobson and Helene Le Coeur; S. Epatha Merkerson narrates.
GREAT PERFORMANCES is funded by the Irene Diamond Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, Vivian Milstein, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, public television viewers and PBS. Harlem in Montmartre has been made possible, in part, by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Because democracy demands wisdom. Major funding was also provided by the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, Hugh M. Hefner, Rolf and Elizabeth Rosenthal, the Vital Projects Fund, the Grand Marnier Foundation, The Paula Vial Fund, the Price Family Foundation and Ann Phillips.