Interwar Jazz in Paris: A dialogue with Prof. Norman Cornett

The Jazz Orchestra of Josephine Baker 1925 © Paul Colin

This summer 2015, from June 23-June 26, the Simon Fraser University English Department’s France Field School will be in full swing with special guest speaker Professor Norman Cornett, from Montreal, introducing the students to Paris’ international jazz culture. Professor Cornett will lead a series of “dialogic” sessions coordinated with a lecture on interwar jazz culture, an outing to a jazz club, and an exchange in person with an invited jazz composer/musician. In the words of Professor Cornett, “A dialogic session enables musicians and listeners to experience a meeting of the minds by creating a non-threatening learning environment where the only wrong question is the unasked question.” Rana Bose, Serai Co-Editor and keen jazz enthusiast, engaged in a dialogue with Prof. Cornett on this program

MS: Prof Cornett, thank you for agreeing to an interaction with you on your upcoming teaching assignment on the History of Jazz in France.  This issue of Montreal Serai is about “Art and Inspiration.” One of our own inspirations is to find out what really led African-Americans to go to Montparnasse and introduce Jazz to the French. Was it the “openness” of the French or was it an escape from the desperate reality of civil rights in America? Did American musicians find salvation in France?  I would appreciate getting an introductory handle as well on your dialogic approach.

NC: Well, in the first instance, the impact of jazz in Europe in general and France in particular has a lot to do with warfare. Because in WWI once the Americans entered the war, there were many black soldiers. And these black soldiers brought their music with them. Keep in mind in the historical context at the dawn of the 20th century when W.E. Du Bois authors what remains a seminal book entitled The Souls of Black Folk, and that this book talks about the role of music in black life, specifically the spirituals and the relationship between the spirituals and the black community, and that’s written at the dawn of the 20th century. When the soldiers come over,  right around 1900, we are on the cusp of rag time. Scott Joplin, and of course ragtime, served as the backbone of jazz already in Congo Square in New Orleans (Congo Square is an open space within Louis Armstrong Park, which is located in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans-ed) and as the ragtime beats come out and the funeral marches and the music of the black church and the black community of black life…Well, these soldiers  go over by the hundreds, by the thousands, because the Americans, for all intents and purposes, bring over armies of people once they enter WWI despite President Woodrow Wilson’s promise that they would not get involved. They do, of course, and they bring their music with them and that music has an immediate impact on the populations of Europe, and on none more so than the French, because of course most of WWI is fought in France. So that’s where the black soldiers are bivouacked and, of course, they are, as W.E. B Du Bois rightly pointed out, they were promised if they were going to put their lives on the line that they would get equal treatment. They didn’t and W. E. B. Du Bois will bring this up and in no uncertain terms really put it in the President’s face that here these people risked their lives and you treated them no different than Jim Crow—– but the French were fascinated by these sounds of the black soldiers.

The US 369th Infantry Regiment, better known by their nickname “Harlem Hellfighters

MS: When one talks about Jazz in Paris, one hears Bechet, Bechet and Bechet all the time. I love his rendition of “Summertime.” Great soprano sax with a New Orleans jug band pace. I guess there is something totally melancholic and romantic about it that gets under the French skin. Is this what it is? That was I suppose the first wave with Josephine Baker and others? That all died at about the time of WWII. So who brought the scene back? And was it about a more lucrative market than in the US?

NC: I would bring in a historical perspective here. The black soldiers, the black doughboys, were the ones who prepared the way for Josephine Baker and indeed Sydney Bechet. They already tilled the ground and found a receptive audience for a new sound called jazz and that all died at about the time of WWII. Now, what happens in the case of Bechet, in the wake of WWI, he’s over there in Europe, in France, he’s right there in 1919 when they’re still working on the Versailles treaty and he’s over with a group and in 1920 they actually play for the king. Sydney Bechet is playing for the King of England in 1920. How often does a black American have the opportunity to play for royalty? So he immediately sees the opportunity there, he knows there’s an open door, a receptiveness here and he’s going to follow up on it immediately.

Now your point about WWII is quite important because, in actual fact, WWII is the second wave of jazz. And it will reinforce again the black presence and by this time, of course, there’s big band music we all know, but already in the 40s African American musicians, black musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus, are moving into bop and bebop and so again they’re enriching the musical soundscape— they’re bringing in new sounds. There’s no way to understand Django Rinehart unless we take into account the contribution of black soldiers in WWII.

So they’re bringing these tunes to the French and the French are eating it up because they are associating this music with liberation in every sense of the word. And Dave Brubeck, when Dave Brubeck was alive, each time he’d come to Montreal, I’d come meet with him backstage. Keep in mind, Dave Brubeck is playing jazz for the troops.  So they are flooding the popular music of WWII by this time with jazz. And we often associate jazz in a post-modern vein but there was a day when jazz was pop music, when it was the music that you heard 24/7 and 365 on the radio. And the American soldiers are flooding Europe with jazz and the Europeans, the French, they are so excited because now they’re hearing the music on the radio, they are hearing it live because many of these musicians are all about improvisations— they are improvising in the GI camps and what’s very fascinating in the history of recording jazz.

Mr. Bose, that is the second wave of jazz that comes to France. With a few exceptions, like Sydney Bechet, the European musicians relied on vinyl records for jazz. So when they played jazz they thought all the scratches were part of the music and they actually recreated the scratches in their performances because that was the best they knew. O.K. now– you quite rightly asked, Mr. Bose, about civil rights.

The tragedy in post WWII America is this: what happens on the heels of the Yalta conference immediately the allies go their separate ways and not just that they become enemies. Winston Churchill comes to Fulton in Missouri, which is the home state of President Truman —-and he delivers his famous address that now “an iron curtain has descended across the [European] continent.” Well unfortunately that led to the red scare and there were prominent black figures associated with quote-unquote communism, one of them being of course W. E. B. Du Bois and Du Bois left the United States and moved to Accra, Ghana because now national liberation is taking place in the wake of post WWII and he dies actually the day before Martin Luther king Jr. delivers his famous” I Have A Dream speech”! That death had shaken some in the audience. We know this from many of the accounts. So, W.E.B. DuBois, co-founder of the NAACP, is left wing, is open and receptive to the discourse of communism. And  of course who is one of the most famous musicians, African American, at the very same time? Paul Robeson. And Paul Robeson is also left wing and open to communism, because they’re associating quite rightly that communism is feeding the national liberation that is taking place in what we used to call the third world. They are the ones who are fueling the liberation and of course how can African Americans not themselves crave liberation, but instead the same pattern repeats. Instead of blacks getting their due, because they’re putting their lives on the lines, they come home and now they have ratcheted up Jim Crow ever more. And so this is part of why people like Dexter Gordon [leave the United States]… and you mentioned that .. Well look at the film Round Midnight which features Dexter Gordon and he actually gets an academy award nomination and the film garners not only Grammy awards but Academy Awards for its musical score, because who’s there? Herbie Hancock’s in the film. Martin Scorsese is in the film and Martin Scorsese incidentally is quite the authority on music. This man is most impressive in his purview of the blues for example. If you have not seen his documentary Lightning in a Bottle, all the history of the blues and the current practitioners. It’s a must viewing. So all of this is in the mix now and what happens? One of the discourses in jazz at the time — and that’s why I referenced WEB du Bois– is folk music.

Jazz is the music of the folk but which folk? WEB du Bois’ folk! The black folks, but then jazz goes into a marketing phase and it’s no coincidence that the first time it really hits commercial success, like they’re starting to sell albums in the millions, is Dixieland and what an irony because no, it’s only whites playing black music, but [people] thereby taking jazz into mainstream culture and making it marketable and this would continue to haunt black musicians like Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry is very candid,—- how come Elvis Presley got to be the king? But in fact the music is black, its black proponents, its black practitioners never enjoyed what Presley did as far as success, as far as media coverage was concerned, and so all of this this is playing into the mix. Ironically, the radio was the great melder, because on the radio you didn’t see the color of the skin— so when a very young girl, about 18 years old, by the name of Ella Fitzgerald in 1938 sings her song “A Tisket a Tasket”– the sheer limpidity of her voice over the radio waves won everybody’s hearts and that is very interesting how radio plays the role of electronic media…it served in bringing jazz into the hearts and homes of Americans and then when they realized that these are black singers, black composers, black musicians– you know,… um… this really is what I refer to as a paradigm shift. Now that doesn’t mean that we were out of the woods by any means because, get a load of this Mr. Bose, in the recording studios, because one can deny how great they are as musicians, there were actual recording sessions where the black and white musicians are divided by a curtain and one of the very few and first to integrate was Benny Goodman.

Benny Goodman © Hulton Archive

He has the guts but you have to understand where he’s coming from, he’s coming from the margins, he himself is Jewish… so he knows the minority experience, he knows what it is to be on the outside looking in and he introduces [the musicians], and a fellow Jew will follow in the same vein, Artie Shaw, and Artie Shaw will start to integrate the music and that will begin to prepare the way.

Now I do want to mention, because you do have other questions here…visually speaking black people appeared much better on the black and white television than white people did, but think of what happened to Nat King Cole. Nat King Cole has got a velvet voice everybody’s falling in love with his records, his radio, and then he gets a television program, unfortunately short-lived because when he starts to tour down south something happens. We’re in the 50s, very much in the red scare, communism is associated with blacks, and I should tell you, Mr. Bose, I’m an American, I was born in 1950 in Texas. I lived this. I saw this with my own eyes. I experienced it. When they start broadcasting over national networks, Nat King Cole in southern living rooms, the reaction is immediate: “Don’t you bring that black man into my home” and so the affiliates start to, you know, “oh no, no we can’t do this it’s too much of a hot potato,” so they start changing and Nat King Cole down in the south is on tour and he is physically assaulted.

MS: By the way I was also born in 1950 and just as a short side note my father was a socialist and a well-known cardiologist and doctor who traveled the world, and so he also met Paul Robson and Marianne Anderson.

NC: And did your father travel to the Soviet Union?

MS: Yes. Several times.

NC: Because India at this time is non- aligned and it’s very strategic and astute on their part which leads to the whole notion of the third world neither capitalist nor communist. Well those were wonderful opportunities.

MS: And it’s part of also the whole– you know, the whole third world non-aligned movement with Kwame Nkrumah and Nasser, Tito, Nehru, Sukarno. A sense of decolonization, in culture as well, was evolving.

NC: Yes, and I want to return full circle to this notion of jazz folk music because that’s how it begins, that’s its origins. It has its roots in black community, in the black church. Keep in mind what Dizzy Gillespie says when he was asked where did he learn to swing, and he said “in the sanctified church,” and the “sanctified church” is the Pentecostal church. And so that’s how jazz begins and one of the biggest discourses now, Mr. Bose, is that it’s no longer the music of black people and that’s a two-edged sword. On the one hand, I consider jazz to be protean and that’s from the God Proteus in Greek mythology. Proteus is the god that can constantly morph, change, adapt, accommodate and acculturate and that’s the genius of jazz because now jazz has gone global. So, now we have some incredible European jazz musicians, but the flip side of this is that it is no longer the voice, and here I’m referencing Carl Jung, the collective consciousness, and one is hard-pressed now to present jazz as the collective consciousness, as the collective voice of black people.

© Eliot Elisofon, ca. 1954, Louis Daniel ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong

MS: Because music evolves, doesn’t it?

NC: Yes, because it’s a human phenomenon– evolves, develops, changes, it morphs and what’s happened now is that the black music is really hip hop and rap. I read two weeks ago they’ve just completed a major university study on what music has had more impact since WWII than any other, and when you think of the blues, when you think of rock ‘n roll, what has really impacted music? Well get a load of this, its hip hop and rap. They have had ultimately the most profound influence. It was a musicological study. I found that quite fascinating. So that’s one of the discourses, you know, when I had the privilege of dialoguing and having lunch and meeting with Branford Marsalis, I mean he’s from New Orleans which is arguably the motherlode of jazz. He’s from, of course, a black family and arguably the foremost family of jazz on planet earth when you think of his brother and father and the list goes on… To what extent does jazz now remain rooted in the black community? And the supreme irony, Mr. Bose, is when I go to Europe, jazz there, and first of all– and this is what interests me as a religious studies scholar– it’s like sacred, it’s like holy, it is worshipped.  And let me tell you it costs a pretty penny to hear jazz in Europe, so it’s become elite and that’s of course the antithesis of its origins, of its roots.

MS: Tell us something about the improvisation aspect?

NC: When black people had nothing, what did they do? They improvised. And that’s the operative principle of jazz. And what is the first way they improvised? With the one instrument that each and every one of them possesses and that’s the voice. The human instrument. And so this is where we see jazz permeating as the folk music, the music of the black community, the black people, to say nothing of the black church. Now I can go on and on about this, but let me get back to the questions you’ve got right here… Now you talked, was there a more lucrative market? Well, when one considers how black musicians are feted in Europe, in Paris, you actually ask a little further down, where are we going? We’re going– I’ll be leading a dialogic series and the second to the last night of the course– we’re all going to one of the foremost venues for jazz in all of Europe. It’s the Duc des Lombards Club in Paris. It’s a dinner club. We’ll dine there, we’ll have live jazz music and then the next day we’ll actually meet with the jazz musicians. But when you think that the roots of jazz are in the poverty of black people that proves supremely ironic. It has become that much of a bourgeois experience. So there is a real critique here that you’ve rightly raised in your questions and the practitioners of jazz, particularly the black practitioners –for some of them this is a real issue.

MS: Harping back on a previous enigma for me– how did the free jazz of Coltrane, the bebop styles of Coleman Hawkins appeal to the French, whose culture has really no bearing on African American music, rhythm, beat, harmonies and wordsmithing? To me, except for their horrid colonial adventures in Africa, the French had no exposure to the plight of the slave in America and the music he/she brought over from Africa. So how did the French start getting into African-American jazz and blues groove? Do the French really have a fascination for blackness and American-ness?

NC: Well yes, you’re quite right Mr. Bose, to some extent they do because there is one salient feature of jazz that it begins as America’s music. In other words it is the music of the new world and look at the relationship here with European composers and musicians and jazz. I’ll give you an example, just think of Maurice Ravel, he comes to the United States, he comes in the 20s, in the roaring 20s, the time of the Harlem renaissance and he goes to Harlem. He is absolutely fascinated, so he starts to integrate jazz into his classical compositions and prior to him, who inaugurates Carnegie hall in New York City? It’s none other than Antonín Dvořák. And he travels by train, he loved trains and he loved boats and ports and he spent a lot of time looking at the boat coming in and out of New York harbor, but then he did a  cross-country train ride and as he heard native American music, and particularly as he heard black folk music among many other tunes, he integrates them and he does so supremely in his Ninth Symphony which is subtitled Symphony from the New World so you’re quite right to point out, musicians in Europe are absolutely fascinated by the newness of North America and the newness of its music, and its music is jazz.

I can also mention somebody who ultimately would occupy a chair of composition — Darius Milhaud is one of the foremost French composers of the 20th century. He travels in the United States, he’s fascinated by jazz, so he starts composing, albeit in a classical idiom, he’s integrating jazz. This is part of what I refer to as musical hybridity. They’re bringing jazz into their music. Well, it’s no coincidence who is offered a chair of composition at prestigious Mills College, originally an all-women’s college? It is none other than Darius Milhaud and who now occupies the chair of composition at Mills College? One of my dialogue partners, Prof. Joëlle Léandre, another French composer who is arguably one of the foremost double bass jazz players in the world today. So there’s this continuity of French and jazz. And it was a two-way street, it wasn’t just Americans who brought jazz to France, but then Americans came back with an appreciation for French culture. This is all part of that Franco-American dialogue taking place as a result of the US involvement in WWI and then reinforced in WWII when the Americans liberate France and specifically Paris. What was the first thing they do? They all break out in jazz. Americans and French. Now let’s see we’ll go on here… It’s an intriguing question about Coltrane and about freestyle. There is I would argue a parallel here with what happens in European classical music post WWII, immediately after WWII, what happens? Well think of Arnold Schoenberg. Now this music is a paradigm shift in composition, so yes one can, if we look at the evolution of so called quote-unquote classical music post-war Europe, it moves more and more to this integrative, what I call the Protean paradigm, and rather staying in the routines we’re going to integrate new motifs, new concepts of music. So in that sense it isn’t all that foreign if you listen to the later works of Schoenberg, one can see that there can be an openness to freestyle for example.

MS: You will be a teaching a History of Jazz course with Simon Fraser University, Vancouver in Paris, France. How did that come about?

NC: O.K… good question. In 2014, Simon Fraser University invited me to give a conference on aesthetics and spirituality at the Goldcorp arts center which is on the main drag of Vancouver called Hastings. It’s a beautiful building and quite new. And they asked me if I could give a two-hour conference and I said sure, and so there were professors, there were students, there were composers, there were musicians, there were artists, there were art historians, there were the public at large.

It went for over four hours, I mean it was non-stop dialogue about creativity in all disciplines and you see for me jazz is not simply a musical idiom… jazz is in fact a pedagogical paradigm, that is to say value weighting improvisation, value weighting intuition. We know from neurological studies –and I’ve had the privilege of collaborating in dialogic series with two neuroscientists. One of them, Dr. Ivar Mendez, is world renowned, and he and I have had five dialogic series together. Another is Vijay Iyer who is of Indian origin, and Vijay Iyer is at Harvard university. He is now considered one of the top jazz musicians in the world today. ……Well, what’s very interesting we know from neurological studies and incidentally Vijay Iyer is a grad of University of California Berkeley in neuroscience, we know from studies in music cognition and in what’s called technically… how do we learn? We learn through what’s called cognitive acquisition. Well I began to study this question of how do we learn? How  could we learn better and what if we value-weighted improvisation and  neurological studies have shown the kind of synapses that takes place when a human being crosses a street is, no pun intended, mind-blowing.

And you know what, Mr. Bose? It’s all done improvisationally. So for me, jazz became a paradigm. The pedagogical paradigm of bringing to the forefront improvisation, intuition, creativity and that’s what I spoke about at Simon Fraser university. As I said, it went over four hours, and I guess it went well because they invited me back six weeks later to lead a dialogic series with a creative writer. Their creative writer-in-residence. And professors, and students and the public at large participated in this and at the end of it they couldn’t believe what had happened. I’m thoroughly convinced that when we create a space for improvisation we tap into the incalculable potential of a human being.

MS: So, the inevitable Serai question! With all that has happened to jazz-and the evolution of rap and hip hop in the past few decades, the transformation of globalization into urban iniquity, has jazz in your opinion inspired acts of resistance in the banlieus of Paris? And — as a mental experiment — Would hip hop and jazz have made a difference on the barricades, say, of 1871, in the Paris Commune?

NC: Well, you know I think you put your finger on something very important here, because immediately after the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, I did a number of interviews with Parisian journalists and you’ve probably gone more than once to Charles de Gaulle airport and you take the train in from CDG to Paris, you go through the suburbs which are inhabited by the hundreds of thousands, indeed millions of immigrants all in the Parisian outlying area. What is the music that fuels their resistance? And keep in mind how Sarkozy, when he was President, goes out after these people and refers to them as the dregs of society. What is the music that fuels them? It’s hip hop, its rap. The French, the children of the immigrants are into this, and yes it is the music of their resistance. And in the case of the Commune of 1871, of course the artists played a key role in the Commune. Gustave Courbet, of the fathers of realism, he actually tore down a lot of the art and was brought to trial for it. He doesn’t get executed, though many did, and there was a massive reaction against the communards. But what fuels now the outlying areas of Paris is hip hop and rap in French. And  it is now the voice, whether you’re from the Maghreb, from North Africa, whether you’re from sub-Saharan Africa, whether you’re from Vietnam, or  Indo-Chine as the French called it– it is their music. And this is one of the debates we had with French journalists. The reality is that they are again dealing with the marginalized. Those who were left on the outside looking in. And this has become their music. This is telling their plight. It’s telling it like it is. It’s their reality check and we are far-removed from Versailles and from Louis and Rameau and the great French keyboard tradition here. We’re dealing with different worlds and they’re articulating a different world view where drugs and violence and poverty and prostitution are every day. It’s the only way for some to survive. To say nothing of those who are trying to make it to the channel and across the channel.

MS:  I want to really thank you on behalf of Serai for having had this opportunity to interact with you.