Tuesday, April 10, 2007

André Francis - Jazz, La préhistoire du jazz & Naissance du jazz

[previous chapter]

"La préhistoire du jazz" (Jazz's Prehistory) stretches from the arrival of the first African slaves to the Blues and Bessie Smith, "Naissance du jazz" (The Birth of Jazz) covers New Orleans, Chicago, boogie-woogie, Jelly Roll Morton and a few others. They're both pretty astounding, so much so that I doubt - and hope - that nothing like them could be written today.

Congo Square is of course the first chapter's central concern.

There, From Saturday to Sunday evening, helped by alcohol, driven by sex, the black drummers sowed the fetichists' trance in their brothers' bodies and warned the whites that a new music was being born.
A similar atmosphere lingers elsewhere in New Orleans:
Alcohol, love and dance have always gone well together. Shouts, syncopation, yells, heat; jazz needed Storyville's soil to blossom.
Sex, drugs 'n' rock 'n' roll is all well and good, but what becomes clear is how little Francis thinks of all these people as people. They are raw materials, to paraphrase Ralph Ellison. Or, to quote Francis on the country bluesmen: "Their art was unpolished, but pure." The only musician quoted at any length is Mahalia Jackson explaining her reticence to sing the Blues. She makes it clear that this raw material has a mind of its own, but Francis ignores that. Even in the later chapters dedicated to Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, there is little sense of dealing with actual people, rather than beings that left behind record collections.

When Francis describes the rudimentary instruments used in Congo Square, one wonders where he's getting all this from. It's safe to assume that he was never present at any of the week-end Congo Square dances, so it's strange that only one book is cited in the entire first chapter. Maybe the litterature didn't exist back then (at least not in French) and he's stitching together things gathered in piecemeal, unrigorous fashion, but it'd be nice for him to admit the limits of his knowledge, because at times his portrait sounds like little more than... a blog post.

I think that Francis simply feels (perhaps unconciously) extremely distant from, not only jazz's ancestral progenitors, but also American musicians such as Armstrong and Ellington whom he probably had the opportunity to see perform. In any case, that would help explain the tone of later chapters.