JAZZ and the Avant-Garde

By Jackson, Jeffrey H. | Humanities, March/April 2005 | Go to article overview

JAZZ and the Avant-Garde


Jackson, Jeffrey H., Humanities


MUSIC HALLS WERE ONLY ONE PATH BY WHICH JAZZ became a familiar part of French entertainment in the 1920s. Avant-garde musicians who incorporated it into their creations were another. By the early twentieth century, many composers were seeking sources of inspiration in folk melodies, foreign tunes, and other types of music in order to reinvigorate the European tradition for the new century.

Some had already begun to use African American songs. Debussy wrote cakewalks in the first few years of the 1900s, and Stravinsky had used black American rhythms in his work "Rag-time" from 1919. The introduction of jazz to avant-garde music seemed the natural outgrowth of a larger avant-garde project in the 1920s to break down the old barriers between socalled art and popular music.

One of the most significant connections between black American music and French composers began after World War I when Darius Milhaud and other members of the group of young musicians known as Les Six incorporated jazz rhythms, melodies, and instrumentation into their works. Les Six emerged out of a group of young admirers of Satie, the musical maverick who, in 1917, had composed the ragtime-inspired ballet Parade with a story by Jean Cocteau. Attracted to the piece's musical simplicity and clear revolt against romanticism in French art music, composers like Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric, and others began meeting together to share their common musical project. Tired of the influence of German music and French Impressionism, and full of the desire to "fuse 'art' with everyday life," as musicologist Nancy Perloff puts it, these composers brought Parisian popular culture into the concert hall.

Of Les Six, Milhaud was the most outspoken about jazz and the one most clearly influenced by it. Auric had written a fox-trot in 1919 entitled "Adieu, New York!" that marked the end of his experimentation with black American music, but Milhaud's interest in jazz lasted several years into the 1920s. On a trip to New York, Milhaud heard many kinds of African American music, including spirituals, when he visited Harlem. "I could not tear myself away," he reported. "From then on, I frequented other negro theaters and dance-halls." When he returned from France, he listened over and over to the jazz records he had brought back with him. Milhaud was not a novice at integrating non-European music into his own compositions. By the time he discovered jazz, he had already used the sounds of the South American folk songs and tangos that he heard while in Brazil during the war; the result was his ballet Le Boeuf sur le Toit with a story by Cocteau. Now in the early 1920s, jazz inspired him in new ways.

Much of Milhaud's appreciation for jazz was based on its musical innovations, and most of his comments focused on syncopation, percussion, new instruments, and new performance techniques. But like other observers of his day, Milhaud referred to blackness as one of the central characteristics inherent in the music itself: "Primitive African qualities have kept their place deep in the nature of the American negro." Drawn from a rich tradition of black music that included spirituals and folk music, jazz played by black musicians was freer, more spontaneous and improvisational, and more dramatic for him than jazz played by whites. He certainly admired and respected the white bands of the day, like Whiteman's and Arnold's, which he called "serious jazz" where "nothing is left to chance, everything is balance and proportion, revealing the touch of the true musician, perfect master of all the possibilities of every instrument." But it was black music that truly moved him. In his 1923 jazz-influenced composition La Création du Monde (The Creation of the World), for example, Milhaud reported that he employed an orchestra similar to that in the black American musical Liza.

Although many French bands in the 1920s seemed merely to be copying what the Americans were doing, Les Six wanted to unite jazz techniques with their own French compositions. …

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