When Paris first heard American jazz, it is – from our perspective – impossible to make sense of the cultural thunderbolt that must have hit audiences. This music was so wholly different to European ears that it was either scornfully rejected or eagerly accepted.
The jazz rage did not express any interest in politics, but opponents turned it into a factional argument. They denigrated the genre as a product of an inferior culture. In spite of such racially motivated wrath, European composers of differing backgrounds incorporated the genre into their musical language. For them, the arrangement of its tones, timbre, and harmonies were synonymous with modernity.
Composer Darius Milhaud was blown over by experiencing the joy of jazz. For him, music had too long been dominated by the poetic delicacy of Impressionism. Jazz, in his own words, came to his generation as a good shock, like ‘a cold shower when you have been half asleep with ennui.’ What made the ensuing development in music intriguing is the blending of ‘serious’ high art with the raw energy of the radical new.
Born in Marseille into a Jewish family that descended from the Provence, Milhaud would show a lifelong attachment to Provençale music (his Suite Provençale dates from 1936). His musical education was European in the traditional manner. He attended the Paris Conservatory as a violinist and studied privately with Vincent d’Indy. Uneasy with the musical status quo, he was drawn towards the modernism of Erik Satie and other young composers.
His name became known in musical circles when he was grouped with five other modernist composers who worked in Montparnasse (including Arthur Honegger and Francis Poulenc) under the sobriquet Les Six. All of them resisted Richard Wagner’s unbearable dominance in music; they also reacted against the “dreamy” presence of Debussy and Ravel.
In 1917, Darius was employed as secretary to the prominent author Paul Claudel who was French Ambassador to Brazil. Milhaud would collaborate with Claudel on a number of artistic projects. More importantly, South America introduced him to the charm of non-European melodies, rhythms, and dances.
On his return to Paris in 1919 he experimented with integrating Brazilian tunes in his own compositions. Rio de Janeiro had made him aware of a new spectrum of popular and folk music, but there was more to come.
On various occasions in later life, Milhaud stated that he first heard jazz in France in 1919. One can only assume that the occasion was a concert by the band of James Reese [Jim] Europe.
The 369th infantry Regiment, formed from the 15th New York National Guard Regiment, was known as the all-black “Harlem Hellfighters.” When the United States entered the First World War, many African-Americans hoped that their participation might end discrimination. Serving their nation in battle would gain respect from their white compatriots.
The Regiment spent 191 days in French front line trenches, more than any other American unit, suffering 1,500 casualties in combat. Once the soldiers returned home, racial tension had not dissipated and remained rampant. Our history textbooks are disturbingly silent on certain issues.
Jim Europe was amongst those who joined the war effort. Born in Mobile, Alabama, Europe moved to New York in 1904 where he established his name as a bandleader who composed and performed songs for ballroom stars Irene and Vernon Castle that made the Fox Trot the new rage.
In 1910, Jim Europe organized the Clef Club which only performed music by black composers. Two years later, the Club made history when it played a proto-jazz concert at Carnegie Hall, a significant moment in the history of American jazz and black musicianship.
When Jim’s regiment was assigned to the French Army, machine gun commander lieutenant Europe was commissioned to direct the regimental band. He was assisted by his sergeant and lead singer Noble Lee Sissle. In February and March 1918, Jim Europe and his military band traveled over 2,000 miles in France, performing for French, British, and American troupes, as well as for wounded soldiers and civilians.
The band appeared in a special concert at Chalons-sur-Marne on the Fourth of July in 1919, under the direction of assistant-conductor Eugene Markell (Reese had been gassed and was unable to appear). Over 500 soldiers and civilians packed the outdoor concert location near the railway station. The concert featured Nobel Sissle on vocals in his last wartime performance.
France was hit by “ragtimitis.”
After the war, Jim Europe led his Hellfighters band (all of whom had been decorated by the French government) in the nation’s welcome of returning personnel. Over a million fans, watching the parade up the city of New York’s Fifth Avenue in mid-February 1919, saluted the heroes of the 369th Infantry as they marched from Madison Square to Harlem.
Europe’s composition “On Patrol in No Man’s Land,” written as he recovered in a field hospital, was recorded by Pathé in March 1919 after his return from France [listen here]. It was by far the most successful of the eleven recordings the Infantry Jazz Band made for the recording company.
On the night of May 9, 1919, Europe performed for the last time at Boston’s Mechanics Hall. During the interval he had a verbal disagreement with his drummer Herbert Wright who lost control of his temper. He stabbed Europe in the neck with a penknife. At the hospital, they could not stop the bleeding and he died hours later.
The funeral march took place in New York, the first public memorial service held for a black person in the city’s history. James Reese Europe was buried with full military honors at Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C.
Respect & Continuity
Having been introduced to American jazz, Milhaud was so captivated by the potential and energy of the genre that he decided to explore the music’s creative source. In January 3, 1922 he arrived on the Ocean liner SS Rochambeau in New York, visited Harlem, and spent time with jazz musicians and singers in clubs and bars. It left a lasting impact on his musical outlook.
After returning to France, he adopted what he described as a jazz idiom by coloring his compositions with memories of New York. His passion is evident in many compositions for its blues tonality, swinging passages, and beating rhythms.
The visit to Harlem inspired La création du monde. The libretto by Blaise Cendrars outlines the creation of the world based on African folk mythology. Commissioned by Rolf de Maré, leader of the successful Ballets Suédois (Swedish ballet group) in Paris, and with eye-catching sets and costumes derived from African art by Fernand Léger, the premiere took place on October 25, 1923 at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
The performance was met with modest success. The significance of La création was that the same Swedish producer, at the same theater, attempted another show on a similar theme, La revue nègre, which would culminate in Josephine Baker’s supreme reign in Paris.
The invasion of France by Nazi Germany forced Milhaud to take his Jewish family to the United States where he secured a teaching post at Mills College in Oakland, California. He returned the musical (jazz) compliment from France to America.
Pianist Dave Brubeck became Milhaud’s adoring student after he had arrived at Mills College to further his musical studies in the 1940s. He would name his first son Darius.
Illustrations, from above: drawing of Darius Milhaud, January 1944 by Marion Claudel; Les Six; James Reese Europe, the Castle Walk song written for ballrooms giants Vernon and Irene Castle (Music Division, the New York Public Library); James Reese Europe & Harlem Hellfighters 369th Regt. Band; James Reese Europe sheet music (Library of Congress); and Darius Milhaud and Dave Brubeck.