With sublime timing worthy of the musicians it celebrates, "The Jazz Age in Paris, 1914-1940" exhibit has arrived at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. The show is a graphically exciting and information-rich complement to "Jazz," filmmaker Ken Burns' exhaustive history of the art form, currently airing on public television.
"If you were enticed by the sections of `Jazz' that talked about Paris, [the exhibit offers] a much fuller overview of the wide variety of people working there," says Jeff Thompson, project director for the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, where the exhibit was originally conceived in expanded form. The show, which runs through March 1, is accompanied by a series of concerts, readings and film screenings, as well as a locally curated exhibit of sheet music and Baltimore's own lively jazz history.
Made possible through a collaboration with the Smithsonian, the American Library Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities, "Jazz Age" establishes its raison d'etre early: Jazz may have been born in America, but it was in Paris that it was first proclaimed an art, the exhibit declares.
With photographs, posters, programs, text and a video, "Jazz Age" wends its way through the new music's growth and wild popularity in France, particularly in Paris. The story is related through the experience of several well-known musicians and entrepreneurs.
We meet band leader king James Reese Europe, sultry entertainer Josephine Baker, nightclub owner Ada "Bricktop" Smith and genius soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet. If you're watching "Jazz," you will have already encountered these formative forces in jazz's evolution, who were as talented as they were charismatic. When reading about Bechet in the exhibit, for example, it's worth recalling Wynton Marsalis' on-air admiration for a man who was so serious about music, "he was going to kill somebody over chord changes."
Others depicted in the rapturous Parisian jazz scene include guitarist Django Reinhardt, singer Alberta Hunter, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, stride piano player Joe Turner and other legendary folk, some of whom, including Garnet Clark, flamed out tragically early.
The exhibit, like the PBS series, examines the ideas that propel the history of jazz, as well as jazz itself. It takes viewers to the early 20th century, when Europeans were first introduced to jazz through minstrel shows, performed by African-American entertainers. The shows - stupendous, strutting displays that mimicked plantation chic - sparked a "cakewalk" craze that took Paris by storm.
During World War I, James Reese Europe led the 369th U.S. Infantry Band throughout the continent, introducing the syncopated rhythms of ragtime, an irresistible blend of African beat and European melody. Europe and other bandleaders were, in the exhibit's words, "celebrated for the jazz they played at the front, on the march, at hospitals and in concert halls in Paris and elsewhere." Through jazz, "they forged a lasting bond with the soldiers and civilians of France."
After the war, many musician-veterans chose to remain in Paris, where they became part of the rich cultural fabric. And after the deprivations of World War I, Parisians were ready to party.
"Jazz music was everywhere," the exhibit exclaims.
Bricktop came to Paris in 1924 as a performer and left as one of its most famous entrepreneurs. Picasso, Cole Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald were among her patrons at Le Grand Duc and other jazz clubs. An affluent expatriate community, vital intellectual circles, an environment free of racism and gangland control of nightclubs all contributed to the city's becoming an American music hotbed. In turn, musicians prospered. "The wild success of jazz music in Paris between 1914 and 1940 ensured the advancement of cores of African- American musicians, vocalists, composers and conductors," the exhibition explains.
The French fascination for "all things African" as well made "African-American culture very essential to the avant-garde or modernistic expression," Thompson says. At the same time, performers such as Baker, known as "The Black Venus," tired of playing to the stereotype of the "primitive African" in over-the-top stage fantasies.
"The Charleston, the bananas, finished. Understand?" Baker announced in 1929. "I have to be worthy of Paris. I want to become an artist."
Jazz itself, an ever-mutating hybrid of influences and emotions, became a catalyst for writers, photographers, dancers, poets and artists as well as composers and performers. Dada artists such as Man Ray "identified with the irreverent spirit of jazz," according to the exhibit. And brilliant improvisers such as the fiery-tempered Bechet couldn't help but raise the artistic bar for others.