When I used to play the blues at our local folk club, a visit by the great guitarist Diz Disley was a real event. The host of Guitar Club on the BBC Light Programme, he…whisper it…took over Django Reinhardt’s chair alongside violinist Stéphane Grappelli after Reinhardt’s death. I’m tuning up and noodling on my Gibson when Disley comes in, and sits down with his pint and guitar case in the snug of the Railway Arms. “Nice guitar, chief.” He smiles. “Fancy sitting in?”
With Django’s replacement? Any jazz fan knows that Reinhardt’s shadow, alongside otherwise exclusively African American giants, still looms over the genre. A natural genius, apparently springing fully formed from the wreckage of a burning caravan, his crippled left hand still capable of supernatural invention, drive and lyricism. Are you talking to me?
Tom Perchard, however, aims to reappraise these jazz shibboleths, in which tragic genius, oppressive racism and French taste and civilisation provide the basis for a musical culture. Here, he offers a forensic dissection of debates between major figures in the creation both of the legend of the incorporation of jazz into the intellectual and cultural life of France, and its trajectory in response to the tensions of contesting ideologies. Impresario and critic Hugues Panassié, a key figure in the reception and promotion in France of “hot” jazz, comes alive as an intensely monomaniacal figure, obsessed by the notion of jazz founded on the pure, primitive essence of the “Negro”, uncontaminated by Western ideas of sophistication and order. His fevered fanaticism is vividly drawn, as is his veneration of black music alongside a racist tendency to infantilise and stereotype. His extreme purism led eventually to his rejecting live performance and fetishising jazz vinyl, not simply as reproductions of the great music, but as actual icons, embodying the inviolable, inexpressible purity he so revered, and the sole medium through which “true jazz” could be experienced. Plus ça change.
The arrival of new forms of jazz generated puritanical schisms. Composer/writer André Hodeir attempted reconciliation by moving away from primitivism and combining the influences of the incomers with existing elements from art music. The search for a Beethoven for this musical revolution led, in the first instance, to Thelonious Monk, the composer/pianist from legendary jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse in New York in the early 1940s. Monk elicited the same worshipful responses as Reinhardt, for his extraordinary creative talent and absolute singularity – for a while at least.
We are drawn into the unfolding story as heroes rose and fell, and French cinema discovered jazz. Another black musician living in France, Miles Davis, rose to jazz superstardom with his soundtrack to Louis Malle’s 1958 film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. Once again, Perchard scrupulously excavates the intellectual background, with the work of André Bazin on realism used to explore Davis’ striking improvisations, and its critique using Lacanian principles to deconstruct the ideology of immediacy and realism dominating both jazz and cinema in 1950s France.
Taking in the entire period from pre-war France up to the early 1980s, this is an extraordinarily detailed and compelling account of a musical subculture within its native setting, tracing the intricacies and roots of the ideas and individuals who populated, and much of the time orchestrated, the era’s institutions and politics. By concentrating on the writers and intellectuals who were not only the critics but also the tastemakers, rather than (as is usual) simply the musicians, Perchard makes the connection of the music to the fabric and tumult of a changing society wonderfully vivid and utterly enthralling. This is a must-have for serious cultural historians.
Back at the Railway Arms, I make my excuses and leave. As Dirty Harry had it, a man’s got to know his limitations.
After Django: Making Jazz in Postwar France
By Tom Perchard
University of Michigan Press, 308pp, £72.50 and £36.50
ISBN 9780472072422, 2052424 and 2120758 (e-book)
Published 19 January 2015