It’s completely true. If it weren’t for the French, jazz as it is in this country today probably wouldn’t exist. At least that is what Quincy Jones believed and touted widely in his compliment to that forward-thinking country which threw aside racism and bigotry and embraced great jazz performers giving them proper venues for their artistry before and after WWII.
Peter and Will Anderson, consummate clarinet and saxophone performers, picked up on Quincy Jones’ comments and set themselves on a quest to check out the highs and lows of the great American artists who ended up playing their jazz music in France. The Andersons were testing Jones’ commentary with their research about jazz, which Will has said “began ever since I was a baby.” An ever-evolving result is this production currently at 59E59 Theaters, Le Jazz Hot, How the French Saved Jazz. The production also features Alex Wintz on guitar, Clovis Nicolas on bass and Luc Decker on drums.
The concert-themed production includes amazing black and white clips from films of iconic jazz artists and musicians who “saved” jazz. This was most probably because in France they felt the freedom to perfect riffs and rhythms and create so many innovations in an atmosphere that embraced and encouraged them. As word of their techniques, songs, and success filtered around the world, they continued to influence many musicians back home, opening the door to more black artists’ acceptance. This explosion of jazz in turn fueled countless musicians to leave other musical forms and go into jazz – my cousin Ben Di Tosti, a jazz pianist in Los Angeles, being one of them.
This wonderful production is a master class in the jazz greats who either moved to France to stay or visited and lived there for a long while. It touches upon artists including Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, Django Reinhardt, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke and Bud Powell. The Andersons and their band play signature songs originated or associated with these artists, weaving in film clips and a bit of narration about each musician The information is enlightening and along the route we discover historical details about the U.S. and France.
For example, in the 1920s and 1930s Paris was filled with ex-patriots and a hotbed of artistic innovation and rebellion. Josephine Baker, the phenomenal black singer, was beloved in France, which celebrated her talent and sensual appeal. When Baker returned to NYC she was in the Ziegfeld Follies. However, the audience and media were less concerned with her talent than with her skin color. Time referred to her as “a negro wench.” Baker returned to the land that loved her, knowing, as other black jazz musicians knew, that in France she would find a larger audience, better pay, little racism and a tremendous appreciation for her talents. Baker married a Frenchman and became a French citizen, which was useful during WWII when she moved to the South of France and helped in the resistance. She is the only American-born woman to have received full French military honors at her funeral.
Le Jazz Hot is the band’s interpretation of the musicians’ styles and songs. The choices are excellent. Some, like Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages,” Rhythm Futur,” and “Manior de Mes Reves” might not be as familiar as Duke Ellington’s “Paris Blues” and his “Degas Suite,” or Dizzy Gillespie’s “Afro Paris.” However, the selections work together beautifully because they offer variety and exemplify the vigor and dynamism of the iconic musicians. The band’s pieces along with the film clips, narration and, in one instance, a lengthier film, make the concert a one-of-a-kind superlative.
If you love jazz and would like to learn more than you already know about the earlier jazz musicians and their “French connections”, you can experience this amazing show at 59E59 Theaters until December 29.