BOOK REVIEW: Andy Fry – Paris Blues: African American Music and French Popular Culture, 1920 –1960

Andy Fry – Paris Blues: African American Music and French Popular Culture, 1920 –1960
(University of Chicago Press, 290pp., $30.00. Book Review by Chris Parker)

In an attempt to ‘provide a more nuanced account of the French reception of black music from the 1920s to the 1950s by contextualizing it in ongoing debates about race, nation, and culture’, Andy Fry’s Paris Blues undertakes ‘a series of focused inquiries … case studies of various kinds’, ranging from Josephine Baker to Sidney Bechet, Jack Hylton to Django Reinhardt. In the process, courtesy of scrupulous and perspicacious examination of contemporary discourse, Fry replaces widely held assumptions – that the French appreciated and understood jazz before Americans did, that African American musicians experienced little racism in Paris, that the music performed a clandestine subversive role during Nazi occupation etc. – with a much more subtle account, alive to the many ironies, internal contradictions and occasional instances of downright hypocrisy and deliberate obfuscation which permeate the subject.

Fry’s intention, however, is not ‘simply to contest the affirmative view of African Americans in Paris’, but both to ‘actively contest received wisdom’ and to ‘present complementary stories that complicate current understanding’.

Thus, in the chapter ‘Rethinking the Revue Nègre’, the 1927 show Black Follies featured ‘French-speaking Africans imitating black Americans pretending to be Africans – and all this for the sake of a purported authenticity’; while Blackbirds of 1929 (featuring Adelaide Hall) drew this comment (oddly reminiscent of Wynton Marsalis’s contemporary strictures concerning gangsta rap) from the Baltimore Afro-American: ‘It is giving to Paris the wrong idea of the typical American Negro … The danger in such shows … is that they will give generally to white people, the [derisive] attitudes [toward Negroes] of the southerner’.

Again, the chapter ‘Jack à l’Opéra’ quotes intriguing contemporary claims concerning the ‘Frenchness’ of jazz (a word supposedly itself derived from jaser, to chatter or babble), resting not only on assumptions that America was created by ‘the French genius as much as the [Anglo-] Saxon genius, the gallant, amiable, gay spirit of our culture as much as the puritanical, grave spirit of old England’ but also on the fact that the music’s chief instrument, the saxophone, was invented by a Belgian, patented in Paris in 1846, and first championed by a French composer, Hector Berlioz.

Three iconic figures – Josephine Baker, Django Reinhardt, Sidney Bechet – serve to embody a great number of the complexities and ambiguities Fry is delineating throughout this fascinating and thought-provoking book: ‘Baker’s skin colour may have remained the titillating sign of miscegenation, but her performance [in a 1934 revival of La Créole, an Offenbach operetta] left no doubt that she was on the path to naturalization. In other words, to invoke colonial terms, Baker evinced the continued effectiveness of France’s mission civilisatrice’; Reinhardt’s concerts, rather than being ‘a protest against the German boot, trampling the Parisian culture of jazz’ [William Shack: Harlem in Montmartre], were actually characterized by the fact that ‘some Germans trampled no farther than seats in the auditorium’; ‘the gap between Bechet’s self-representation [in Treat It Gentle] … and representations of him in the French press [as a national treasure] is … most telling’.

Intelligently illustrated by carefully chosen photos, contemporary cartoons and playbills, and the odd musical example, Paris Blues throws valuable new light on a still contested area of jazz (and social) history, and – as one reviewer states – it ‘urges us to be a little smarter about how we talk and write about the place of jazz in the world today’.

Categories: miscellaneous

1 reply »

  1. Thank you for your exceptional review of “Paris Blues” by Andy Fry.

    Andy's probe into 'a more nuanced account of the French reception of black music from the 1920s to the 1950s by contextualizing it in ongoing debates about race, nation, and culture,' becomes, for me, a lens to view the popular imagination and social attitudes in Paris at that time.

    In my interview with Andy Fry about “Paris Blues” published on AWomansParis.com (August 12, 2014), when asked the question about the social attitudes and the popular imagination at that time Andy states: ” …it was also because of all forms of media, the movement of peoples, and of course the war itself, had given the French wider exposure to the world outside their borders. …In other words, foreign performers acted as lightning rods for issues of much wider significance that swirled all around them [French]. In this way, writing cultural history leads inevitably to social history more broadly conceived.” To view Andy's interview, Part One and Part Two, on AWomansParis.com visit:


    Many thanks,

    Barbara Redmond
    Publisher, A Woman's Paris

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