The great jazz explosion... in Limoges

The Connexion talks to the author of a new book on jazz in France and the ‘Hot Clubs’ that hosted top US acts

1 May 2019
Jean-Marie Masse with Jimmy Witherspoon and Buck Clayton
By Samantha David

Anne Legrand is a musicologist – a specialist in the development and history of music – and her great love is jazz. “I’ve always loved music, and started learning violin when I was around 4 or 5 years old, learning the music off by heart.

My whole family loved classical music and jazz, which I started listening to as a teenager. So I already knew what I would do for my degree and my masters.”

Don Byas, whom Masse once took fishing

Over the course of her research, she started meeting other people with an interest in music, and discovered the Phonothèque Nationale (France’s audio archive) in Paris, along with the archives of Charles Delaunay who, in 1934, became a co-leader of the iconic ‘Hot Club de France’, an association which aimed to promote jazz music in France and around the world.

“Jazz has some of its roots in classical music by Ravel, Debussy and others, and then it came back to Europe transformed and ready to transform. It was an international exchange of ideas.”

Anne Legrand’s thesis was on jazz in Paris during the 1930s. “When jazz first arrived in France, people didn’t understand it. The first time the national anthem (La Marseillaise) was played by a jazz band, people didn’t even recognise the tune! Jazz was a symbol of freedom.

It was all the rage during the 50s, and young people danced to it until the arrival of rock and roll in the 60s.”

Her catalogue-book Harlem à Limoges: Une histoire du jazz à Limoges tells much of this story. The book catalogues a six-month long exhibition and jazz festival held last year to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Hot Club in Limoges.

“The South-West of France was home to many of the most active Hot Clubs outside Paris, including Montauban, Périgueux, Pau and Bordeaux – and Limoges was particularly interesting because of Jean-Marie Masse (1921-2015), a jazz drummer from Limoges who set out to attract all the biggest names in jazz to his home-town. 

Masse with wife Paulette in 1940

“His archive is extraordinary. The correspondence shows how actively he invited all the biggest American names to come and play in Limoges, and because there were so many jazz clubs in the region, they came and toured all the Hot Clubs.”  

A century ago, people did not have access to music in the same way we do today. There were no transistor radios, records, portable record players.

The first 78s were heavy and fragile, and then at the end of 30s the first “albums” were produced: collections of five or six 78s in a brightly printed box cover. And by the end of the Second World War, 33s arrived, which were lighter and less fragile, making them more portable.

At first they only held 15 minutes of music but gradually that increased and in the US, and afterwards in France there was an explosion of record covers, magazine covers, and posters. Music truly became part of youth culture.

“The Hot Clubs don’t exist any more in bricks and mortar, but there are still associations dotted across the country which put on concerts, run local radio stations and promote traditional jazz music. We can see it today in the popularity of manouche (sometimes also called ‘gypsy jazz’), a type of modern French jazz very much inspired by Django Reinhardt.”

Anne Legrand’s book

Manouche (think the guitar music played by Johnny Depp in the movie Chocolat) even has its own ‘Festival Django Reinhardt’ every summer at Fontainebleau near Samois-sur-Seine (Seine-et-Marne).

Anne Legrand’s book is accompanied by a CD of recordings by artists who played in the Limoges Hot Club.

Unlike the book, which is available on Amazon, the CD is only available from the ‘Bibliothèque Francophone Multimédia de Limoges’ (bfm.limoges.fr).

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