Part 3: Jazz in Europe

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Join us for Part 3 of our Black History Month series where we explore how jazz made its way to the major cities of Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

It has been almost a century since jazz found its way to these shores, when The Original Dixieland Jazz Band were invited to play for King George V in 1919.

In fact, 1919 saw the arrival of two groups from America, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) and the Southern Syncopated Orchestra (SSO), who both brought jazz to public attention shortly after the end of WWI. Jazz continued to arrive in Europe in the early 1920’s, despite British fans generally preferring to call the sound “hot” or “straight” dance music rather than “jazz”.

Part 3: Jazz in Europe
Southern Syncopated Orchestra at a London venue around 1920.

Will Marion Cook’s Syncopated Orchestra were another group among the first wave of touring American ensembles to bring early jazz to the continent; and it wasn’t long before its leading clarinettist, a young Sidney Bechet, became a sensation. His sophisticated approach born out of the New Orleans tradition (see part 1) produced a sound never heard in Europe up to that point and changed the way music fans appreciated the American import.

Bechet would return to Europe many times throughout his career in various ensembles and productions, including a stint in Russia in 1926. One of the most famous opportunities for black musicians of the time was at ‘Le Revue Negre’ – a musical show created in 1925 in Paris – that featured singer and all-round entertainer Joséphine Baker. Through its success and the personality of Joséphine Baker, its leading star, it was this revue that offered a wider dissemination of jazz music and black culture in Europe during this period. Bechet was one of the early pioneers of the music at this time and would eventually becoming a household name in Roaring 20’s of the French capital.

Bechet plays “I’ve Got a New Baby” at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes, 1958.

Radio Days  

By the early 1920’s commercial radio had become a popular form of home entertainment, which allowed jazz to flourish, not just in the United States, but all over the world. It was live performances like Duke Ellington’s Jazz Orchestra directly from the Cotton Club that had a new generation of music fans eagerly gathered around their sets.

Duke Ellington – “Cotton Club Stomp”

By the power and popularity of their music, some black bandleaders began to breakdown the racial barriers via the gift of radio. Along with white bands of Benny GoodmanPaul Whiteman, Glenn Miller, and the Casa Loma Orchestra, the bands of Cab CallowayCount BasieLouis ArmstrongFats Waller and Duke Ellington were becoming known the world over.

Jazz in England 

The appetite for jazz in Europe soared and tours by Ellington and Louis Armstrong inspired generations of musicians across the continent. In England, inspired by the sounds broadcast into their homes, bandleaders like Spike Hughes, Nat Gonella, Jack Hylton began to establish their own dance bands. 

Nat Gonella and his Georgians. Footage from the 30’s British dance era.

More American artists began to travel across the pond to Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, many of them doing so to earn money from their craft whilst avoiding the violent encounters that were incredibly common for black musicians to experience – most notably in the Jim Crow south. Multi-instrumentalist and arranger Benny Carter and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins were two figures that began to feature regularly at this time. Carter in fact, spent two years arranging scores for the BBC radio orchestra in the mid 1930s. He also travelled to France and the Netherlands recording with local musicians and performing with his own bands. 

Coleman Hawkins had made his name as the star soloist of Fletcher Henderson’s Jazz Orchestra in New York. He would make frequent trips to Europe in the 1930s. The first was by invitation of English bandleader Jack Hylton. Hawkins was the featured artist in Hylton’s Jazz Orchestra and in 1939 he recorded tracks such as ‘My Melancholy Baby’ with the band in London before returning to New York.

Coleman Hawkins & Jack Hylton & His Orchestra – “My Melancholy Baby”

Quintette du Hot Club de France

With violinist Stéphane Grappelli, Belgian-born Romani-French jazz guitarist and composer Django Reinhardt formed the Paris-based Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934. The group was among the first to play jazz that featured the guitar as a lead instrument. Reinhardt recorded in France with many visiting American musicians, including Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, and briefly toured the United States with Duke Ellington’s orchestra in 1946. Unfortunately, he died suddenly of a stroke at the age of 43.

Reinhardt’s most popular compositions have become standards in what became known as ‘gypsy jazz’ or ‘gypsy swing’, such as ‘Minor Swing’, ‘Swing ’42’ and ‘Nuages’. Below you can hear ‘J’attendrai Swing’, which was actually based on the song ‘J’attendrai’, an incredibly popular song in France during WWII.

Django Reinhart & Quintette du Hot Club de France play Jattendrai Swing (1939).

WWII and the Big Band Era

During the 30’s and 40’s, the Swing Era had a stronghold in American Popular Music. Big Bands lead by Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Benny Goldman, Glen Miller, Artie Shaw, Count Basie and Jimmy Lunceford dominated the airways and big band music became the soundtrack for decades. Jazz had established itself as Pop. During World War 2 American troops had been issued with V-discs (V for Victory) gramophone recordings of big bands to boost morale. Military dance bands, led by bandleaders such as Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsey performed for troops, further helping to spread the popularity of jazz throughout Europe.

Duke Ellington V-Disc feat. “Ring Dem Bells” issued Nov 1943.

By the mid 1930’s Paris was becoming the European centre for jazz. For many black American jazz musicians, the city became a refuge from the daily racism and segregation that they experienced in America. There were still parts of America where black musicians could enter through the ‘coloured only’ entrance despite being the headline acts. In Europe however, jazz was considered a sophisticated artform where black American jazz artists were given more respect than many ever experienced at home. 

Miles Davis in Paris

Soon after the end of World War 2, a young Miles Davis played at the Paris International Jazz Festival in a joint led quintet with pianist Tadd Dameron.

Miles Davis and the Tadd Dameron Quintet – “Rifftide” (Paris Festival International de Jazz May, 1949).

This was the first Paris International Jazz Festival since the war ended. In the US, Davis was already a rising star in the jazz world, but while he was highly respected among his peers, in mainstream America he was seen as a second-class citizen. It was a time when segregation and discrimination were rife, and most US states enforced anti-miscegenation laws.

But France was a different story, and nothing could have prepared Davis for the reception he would receive in Paris. “This was my first trip out of the country,” recalled Davis in his autobiography. “It changed the way I looked at things forever … I loved being in Paris and loved the way I was treated. Paris was where I understood that all white people were not the same; that some weren’t prejudiced.”

Miles Davis – ”Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud” OST (Louis Malle 1958)

Davis regularly returned to Paris throughout the rest of his life as both as traveller and musician. In 1991, he received one of France’s highest cultural awards when he became a Knight of the Legion of Honour. Davis received the award from French culture minister Jack Lang, who described him as: “The Picasso of jazz”.

The MU Ban on International Musicians

Until the end of the 1950’s the MU prohibited American musicians from performing in Britain, on the grounds that they would be taking work from British musicians, meaning the most famous Jazz musicians of the time were not permitted to play in the UK. For some people, this contentious ban – ending in 1956 – contributed to an indigenous but also limited music practice with racist undertones based on a fear that African-Americans would eventually put White-British musicians out of work.

The American Federation of Musicians reciprocated in kind, by ensuring that all British artists were also kept out of the US. It was largely down to a couple of young East-Londoners, Pete King and Ronnie Scott, who wanted to bring over American jazz musicians to play in their new club, that the Union’s diktat was eventually modified.

Part 3: Jazz in Europe
King, left, and Ronnie Scott in 1952, when both were members of Jack Parnell’s Orchestra | Photo: Peter Vacher Collection

In its defence, the MU has since claimed it was actually ahead of other Unions and organisations in its anti-racist activity. This manifest itself in the successful campaign to overturn the ‘colour bar’ at the Scala in Wolverhampton and in the Union’s early opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa, instructing members not to play there in 1957.

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club

Born in Aldgate, East London, into a Jewish family, Ronnie Scott began playing his tenor sax in small jazz clubs at 16 years old. Scott was a part of a generation of British jazz musicians who found work performing on the ocean liner RMS Queen Mary. The vessel would frequently stop off for a few days in New York and provided the opportunity for the young, impressionable visitors to see their heroes like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie playing the most cutting-edge jazz of the time: Bebop.

Charlie Parker – “Confirmation” (Live At Carnegie Hall, 1947)

On 30 October 1959, in a basement at 39 Gerrard Street in London’s Soho, Ronnie Scott and fellow saxophonist Pete King would go on to set up their own club where they would insist that all of the genius of the era would have somewhere to play. ‘Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club’ eventually moved round the corner to 47 Frith Street in 1965 in order to accommodate its growing audiences. The original venue on Gerrard Street continued in operate as the “Old Place” until the lease ran out in 1967, and was used for performances by the up-and-coming generation of domestic musicians. Ronnie Scott’s would go on to become one of Europe’s most important jazz venues, hosting some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time (which is still does today!).


We’ll be back with more stories about jazz’s travels throughout Europe soon! Next up we explore the Black British Swing era and the important contributions made by Caribbean musicians during the 1930’s and 1940’s.

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