The Jazz

and the Freedom

If this is a bright chapter in history, it is because a darker one came before it. And, unfortunately, the period comprising the 1920s also had its sadder aspects. Despite the abolition of slavery in the US in 1895, southern States made their animosity clear by instigating racial segregation, institutionalized in the form of the Jim Crow laws. That is why many African-Americans signed up during the First World War - not just to represent a country they were proud of, but also to be part of a community so as to win the respect of other Americans. However, even through they returned from war victorious, and proudly showed off their medals including the French Croix de Guerre (War Cross), they were still looked down upon by other Americans. This hostile reaction led some to dream of returning to France and settling there.

Les Harlem Fighters

In 1917, during the First World War, 4,500 African-American soldiers fought for France. They were nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters by an enemy surprised by their doggedness and their fighting spirit. They were part of the 369th Infantry Regiment, made up entirely of African-American and Puerto Rican troops.

The fact that they were not taken seriously in their own country (the United States) did not stop France from admiring their bravery. In fact, they were the first American soldiers to be decorated with the French War Cross. Among these soldiers, we could name James Reese Europe, the bandleader for the Harlem Hellfighters Band, and also Noble Sissle. It was while they were fighting in France that they introduced jazz into Europe for the first time.

  • James Reese Europe and the Hellfighters Band wrote a new chapter in France's cultural history.
  • How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm after they’ve seen Paris”. (source: film Harlem à Montmartre)

>> « Comment les garder à la ferme, après qu’ils aient vu Paris … »

That was the message this song - very popular in the 1920s - sought to convey. African-Americans took up the song when they discovered that Paris was a city in which they could enjoy complete freedom, replacing Paris by "Paree". How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree was a song written by Joe Young and Sam M. Lewis and set to music by Walter Donaldson in 1919. Through the song, they tried to speak out about the terrible effects American involvement in the First World War had had on rural lands and family farms.

James Reese Europe's first jazz concert on European soil took place in a highly symbolic venue. It was held in the port of Nantes, right where African-American troops had landed. The aim was to boost morale and give the soldiers a lift. Over time, his stage jazz developed into the music of freedom, played in every liberated town and city. Whatever the occasion, it seemed right for an impromptu jazz dance. It was like a communion, a huge party that took place in big French towns and rural French villages. In Paris "Blacks were free!" This good news spread like wildfire on the other side of the Atlantic. Almost instantly, African-Americans had turned Montmartre into a place like no other anywhere in the world. A great many of the generation's African-American performers decided to settle in France.



James Reese Europe

James Reese Europe (also known as Jim Europe) was born on February 22, 1881 in Mobile, Alabama. In 1904 he moved to New York, becoming a bandleader and one of the foremost figures in African-American music. At the time, this genre was best known for ragtime and the foxtrot. Before the war, in 1910, he set up the Chef Club which brought together most of the musicians in Harlem and even had its own orchestra. When war broke out, James Reese Europe signed up with the 15th Regiment of the New York Army National Guard, a unit comprising mainly African-American troops. He had managed to convince many musicians, including Noble Sissle, to sign up with him and put together a band within the regiment. This regiment would go on to become the 369th Infantry Regiment: The Harlem Hellfighters. This regiment, led by James Reese Europe, was one of the best known during the war. Not only did the regiment bring a brass band to Brest for the first time in 1917, it also served in combat for longer than any other - a total of 191 days. On arrival in Brest, the James Reese Europe regimental band made quite an entrance, marching through the town to the delight of locals, playing The Marseillaise and other numbers to a jazz tune. The Harlem Hellfighters went on to give concerts throughout the continent, including one at the Graslin Theater in Nantes.

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Noble Sissle

Noble Sissle was born on July 10, 1889 in Indianapolis. He was a singer, violinist and American jazz bandleader. He began by setting up a band in 1914 and then worked with Bob Young in Baltimore. In 1916, he offered his singing talent to Jim Europe and then, in 1917, to a French infantry regiment. On his return to the United States, he paired up with Eubie Blake who composed music for Broadway revues (Shuffle Along in 1921 and Chocolate Dandies in 1924). Back in Europe in 1928, he delighted audiences in Paris and London with his wonderful voice. He would go on to be backed by an American band. Together they would tour Belgium and play Monte Carlo. Once the tours were over, he went back to the US and formed several bands, including one with Sidney Bechet.