Jazz in Occitanie part 1

The Harlem Hell Fighters (photo)

My dad is a huge opera fan; he’s especially crazy about Italian opera. My mum loves classical music too; she used to play the piano very well.  My brother and I took up playing violin and piano quite early on but I would be a liar if I said I tried very hard. Not unlike my youngest sister who came along years later, I often favoured watching Get Smart over practicing the piano. It wasn’t that we didn’t love music it was just that we were lazy and undisciplined.

At our house you would often hear Caruso singing or my mum playing Chopin. Sometimes, fascinated, I would watch my Dad, unaware he was being observed, ‘air conducting, a bit like playing air guitar, with great passion, to an invisible orchestra.

I grew up in a household where only classical music existed.

 Until my brother and I discovered rock music, that is. The next chapter of my life warrants another blog or even a book, considering the profound effect it had on both our lives. From then on we both fell in love with the guitar and nobody had to nag us to practice anymore. But let’s save this story for another time and concentrate on how I came to love jazz.

On the other side of the Atlantic, from the age of adolescence, my father in law was busy becoming a jazz fanatic. His son, my husband, let’s call him Jacques, was born the same year as me. He enjoyed the same intense explosive introduction to the world of rock music as I did. To this day he is still upset that his mum didn’t let him go see AC/DC, with Bon Scott, at age 14. He had to settle for the next tour 18 months later, sadly without Bon Scott.

Meanwhile, back in Canada my brother and I stumbled across Miles Davis. He made a huge impression on us, but we both stayed pretty much faithful to our first love, rock music.  A little while later, my brother discovered Frank Zappa and the obsession of his life, musically speaking, was born.

 ff towards Jazz

Shortly after Jacques and I got married and moved to Toulouse, his dad gave him his entire vinyl collection, 95% jazz. His dad converted all his music to digital, in order to make room for something around the house.  Sometimes I wonder if he doesn’t regret it, just a little bit. It is a fabulous collection and it is what led to me really appreciating jazz.

Michel, my beau-père is a conferencier of jazz.  He is a connaisseur who writes about the history of jazz and the effect jazz has had on society.

France has a deep connection with jazz, and Occitanie has a place in that story. Hugues Panassié, was a hugely influential critic and producer, who créated the Le Hot Club de France with Charles Delaunay and some other student friends. He moved to Montauban, in the Tarn-et Garonne department where he lived most of his life and started Jazz Hot, one of the first ever magazines about jazz. He was also heavily implicated in the organization of the first International jazz festival in France. One of the very first took place in Nice in 1948. Twenty three years later it became an annual event.

Nowadays, France has become a haven for jazz musicians and their fans with numerous festivals taking place every year under the dazzling summer sun of the south, with more than a couple of gems in Occitanie.

Before sharing my favorite festivals with you I am going to tell you a little story about a young man who got caught up in the fever sweeping the nation, which was jazz.

Long before « the birth of cool », there was the jazz the African American soldiers brought with them when they came to Europe to fight during WWI. The very first jazz concert in France took place in 1918 with « the Harlem Hell Fighters » of the 369th Regiment directed by James Reese Europe, in Nantes.

 After the war, the sufferance and the atrocities, people needed something to lift their spirits and help them forget. The French fell in love with jazz. After the war and even during the depression, the French reveled in the music of the jazz Age, Big Band and Swing. During the Second World War jazz in France took on another dimension and practically became French. Known by African American musicians as « the second country of jazz », where there was much admiration and no segregation.

During World War II, jazz was a symbol of freedom and happiness; it was not appreciated by the Nazis, who tried at one time to ban it altogether. They didn’t like it but they understood the power of propaganda; they even tried using music to manipulate the German youth. In reality, jazz became part of the movement against the Nazi occupation.

During jazz concerts the French Résistance managed to trade illicit political information. In order to fool the Nazis and disguise it from sounding American, it was ‘frenched up’ by changing certain words; In the mood became dans l’ambience.

During this sad war, Mr Delaunay, one of the original partners of Panassié and his secretary were stopped and interrogated by the Gestapo. Delaunay was released after a few hours but his secretary and a member of the Hot Club Marseille were sent to a concentration camp were they perished.

Michel reminisces that during his adolescence after the war, jazz was the music of young people. Forget the image of an older distinguished gentleman greying at the temples, carrying a folding cushion on his way to listen to some trio. Jazz was the popular music of the time. Teenagers all over the France got together to listen to the radio and discover the world of jazz. They listened to American radio, broadcast all over Western Europe and North Africa, called « The Voice of America, with Willis Conover ». It was the music of his generation, the best of American exports, and he loved it so much. It had taken hold of him!

Michel Grasset – Conférencier de jazz (photo)

Follow My Beautiful Occitanie and travel with me across this fabulous region and read about her history; next up Jazz in Occitanie part 2 …………………à bientôt Christina.