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Remembering the Deluge
an Interview with Jeffrey H. Jackson
by Rob Couteau
Jeffrey H. Jackson is associate professor of history and director of environmental studies at Rhodes College. After spending over a decade researching material in the Paris archives, in 2007 he was named a “Top Young Historian” by the History News Network and received an international fellowship that enabled him to continue his archival research in Paris. His first major work, Making Jazz French: Music and Modern Life in Interwar France (Duke University Press, 2003), considered the best book on the subject, explores the complex reactions to jazz in France and its ultimate integration into the national tradition. This was followed by the widely acclaimed Paris Under Water (Palgrave Macmillan, $16), a history of the nearly forgotten deluge of 1910 that almost devastated the City of Light.
As a child, Jackson attended an elementary school that happened to require French lessons, beginning in the first grade. It was the combination of this early training and the influence of his globe-trotting grandparents—who brought back exotic tales about Europe—that first piqued his interest in French culture: “When I was a kid they started doing their world travels. They traveled everywhere, mostly going on package tours, and returned with stories and photographs and souvenirs. They went to Paris and to Europe many times. So it was a combination of hearing them talk about Europe and studying French in school. All of that came together in my background, and it pointed me in the direction of being interested in European history and of French history in particular.”
Rob Couteau: A notable figure in your account of the Paris flood of 1910 is the almost animate statue of Zouave, a uniformed colonial soldier who stood with a solemn expression along with the other statues on the Pont de l’Alma. When I lived in Paris, there were many times that I passed Zouave, often accompanied by a Parisian who might point to the high-water mark of 1910, near Zouave’s neck, but other than that I never heard anyone discuss the flood in any detail. You say: “the story of the 1910 flood is largely forgotten.” “It is oddly absent from the written history of the city. Somehow Parisians have erased much of this moment from their past.” Why did that happen? Was it the fact that World War I occurred just a few years later, and it eclipsed this big event?
Jeffrey H. Jackson: It’s a question I thought a lot about in working on this project. Because people often ask, “Why haven’t I heard of this before?” There are probably a number of reasons. Part of it is timing. With the war, which comes only four years later, when people look back to that moment at the turn of the century, 1910 becomes part of the prewar era.
When we think back, and when we create a historical periodization, we talk about that as the run up to the war. All the things that are happening are related to what we now know, looking backward, will be the outbreak of war. So when people think about the big cataclysm of that moment, it’s not flood, but it’s war.
Then, if you think about the anniversary dates of the flood, the fifth anniversary would have been in the middle of the war. The tenth anniversary, 1920, would be just after the war. People are rebuilding; they’ve got other things on their mind. In 1930, it’s the beginnings of the Depression. In 1940, there’s another war. So, even if you’re thinking about commemorating this flood, there were a lot of other events that were pushing it down and out of people’s active memory.
I had a few people who knew about it, certainly, and they would say, “Oh, my grandmother told me a story about it, from when she was young.” So it’s not totally forgotten. But when I would look in histories of the city—even in some of those large, multivolumed histories of Paris—it might show up in a paragraph maybe, or a footnote, but in many cases not at all.
RC: At the time of the flood, many of the Métro tunnels were still being constructed, and this further aggravated the situation, allowing water to rise up from below and to enter parts of the city that were quite a distance away from the Seine. As you know, Paris is riddled with catacombs. This also must have contributed to the swelling up of water from beneath the city streets, yes?
JJ: Yeah, definitely. There were the natural caverns and caves, as well as the human-made ones. Paris is like a Swiss cheese. There are all these caves and catacombs, and then you add the tunnels, you add the sewers. You’ve got Roman-era wells and crypts that have been built over. You’ve got this porous soil, but there had been so much water that that was all saturated. So, it’s got to go somewhere. And it seeks out these caves, and caverns, and then people’s basements.
There’s no way of knowing what the volume of water in the ground was. But if it could fill up those natural caverns, and then the human-made caverns, too, that’s an awful lot of water. Then for it to push up and come into the streets—the volume is just overwhelming.
RC: What’s your estimate of the number of homeless in Paris during this crisis? About 200,000?
JJ: I think so; I don’t have it right in front of me. I know there were at least 50,000 people who were put into hospitals. Something like 20,000 households.
RC: Many of those were recent arrivals from outside the city, right?
JJ: Some of them would have been. A lot of them would also have been people in the immediate suburban towns, just outside the city: Alfortville, Charenton, Gennevilliers, and others. Working in factories, working in other occupations that were tied very much to what was going on in Paris.
RC: I feel as if there are two principal heroes in your account of the flood. One is Louis Lépine, who served as the prefect of police. The other is the average citizen of Paris, with his system of débrouillard or—as it’s commonly known—système d. It was wonderful to finally read an account of système d in an English-language book on Paris. I lived in Paris for twelve years, and I constantly heard references to it. In your book, I suppose the prime example of système d would be the wooden walkways or passerelles that were constructed throughout the city. I believe you said this was copied from the Venetians.
JJ: I think the Venetians have been doing that for quite a long time, just because they always have that high water every year. It probably is a combination of people knowing that Venice had done that, but also just that kind of extemporaneous insight, “What are we going to do? We need to get around the neighborhood, and we’ve got some planks, and let’s put them together.” That’s why I talk about it as a prime example of système d.
And it’s funny you say it’s nice to finally read a description of that in English. Because I knew what système d was, and talked to people about it, but when I went looking to maybe put a footnote in about it, I couldn’t find anything in print. It’s one of those things that people know about but don’t really feel the need to write about.
RC: The Larousse defines débrouiller as: to sort out, to disentangle, and to manage. But when I lived in Paris in the ’90s, I often heard it used in a sense similar to what we would call finagle. That is, to achieve by devious, crooked, or crafty means. The first time I heard of it was when one of my French English-language students showed me her method of secretly turning back the dial on her electric meter, in order to lower her utility bill! You don’t really touch upon that in your book, but the more common usage often indicates something a little underhanded.
JJ: Yeah, I can see that. Obviously, I was trying to emphasize the positive spin on that. But I can certainly see how it would cut both ways, depending on the circumstance. Getting yourself out of a scrape could be turning back your electric meter, just as much as putting up a wooden walkway. It depends on what you’re trying to get out of. [Laughs]
But to go back to your initial statement, I think you’re right. I try to talk about both sides of that story. I try to focus on leadership and people who are in charge, and Louis Lépine is of course the one who really pops out. Because the police oversaw so much of the city, even beyond what we think about as crime and punishment: all the management of the urban space.
But at the same time, this management went hand-in-hand with bottom-up efforts. With the people in the streets, working together, to save themselves and to save the city and their neighbors. You can’t really have one without the other. You could’ve had the police doing all that they could do, but that wouldn’t have been enough. It never is, really. And you could have people responding locally, but without somebody working to try to coordinate it all, you’d have just sporadic, scattered efforts.
The social ties were so strong in 1910 Paris, including across class lines. Clearly, there were many ways in which Parisians were divided against one another. Class, neighborhood, religion, politics: there were many ways in which people could easily have fractured and pulled apart. Instead, they pulled together. Could that happen today, in the same way? Hard to know. I hope we never find out. But that’s what was in the back of my mind. Because there’s so much tension there today. There are so many ways in which people who live in those suburban, banlieue areas feel so detached from Paris. And feel so excluded from much of French society, and of Parisian society, that I wondered what might happen along those lines.
RC: You made that point very well in the book, as well as tying it to other disasters around the world. You write: “What the flood provided was a moment in which Parisians, who were normally divided by class and politics, could act out a different kind of relationship. The solidarity they created out of necessity during the flood would again prove useful during World War I.” You talk about how “the flood also served as a kind of dress rehearsal for the war. It gave Red Cross administrators additional experience in coordinating relief efforts.” That was an interesting insight. Probably, no one’s made that connection before.
JJ: Well, thanks. It was something that occurred to me as I was thinking about the way people acted during the flood. I was looking at photographs of Paris during the war and how similar they are, in some ways, to photographs of Paris during the flood. I was thinking: what are those connections; what are those links? And the flood experience could have been a moment that allowed people to do it again, just a few years later. To do all the things they had done: to find ways to work together, communally. To find ways to save their city.
RC: Louis Lépine served as prefect of police from 1899 until his retirement in 1913. What special qualities did he bring to his position that helped him to become an effective leader during the flood?
JJ: He definitely saw himself as a man of law and order. He wanted to be someone who could tame the city. And that has both positive and negative connotations. For him, that meant good public health; regulated traffic in the streets; public safety: all the good things. But it also meant his vision of what order was. I refer in the book to him raiding bookshops and taking out what he thought were inappropriate books or photographs.
But in a disaster situation like the flood, that desire for orderliness certainly was something he brought to the table that really did help. I talk about how he called himself “the prefect of the streets”: somebody who wanted to be out in the streets, wanted to be visible. Part of that, I’m sure, was a way for him to say “I’m in charge.” [Laughs] But it also allowed him to say, you know, “I feel some sense of connection to, or commonality with, the man on the street.” He could sympathize with that suffering in a moment like the flood.
There are numerous accounts of him leading the charge. It’s hard to tell exactly how accurate some of these depictions are: leading the firefighters and others into a vinegar factory that had exploded. Or coordinating the evacuation of the Boucicaut Hospital. Whether he was really the one barking out orders, or whether he was overseeing, it’s hard to know. But he was definitely there, and bringing that sense of orderliness to the situation.
RC: Perhaps the unsung hero of your account is Eugène Belgrand, Baron Haussmann’s chief of water services, who originally proposed increasing the height of the quay walls to prevent flooding. But the engineers refused to do so, for aesthetic reasons. Perhaps you could speak about Haussmann, Belgrand, their role in designing modern Paris and, in particular, the creation of the Hydrometric Service.
JJ: One of the things I tried to emphasize was that, when Haussmann and Belgrand worked to renovate the city in the 1850s and the 1860s, not only do they make it beautiful, they make it modern. They widen the streets, they re-do the sewers and do all these other things that make Paris cleaner, newer, brighter. But what that also does is, it reinforces that idea—which was very much a nineteenth- century idea—that we can control our environment. We can shape the city to our human needs. That we really are in charge of nature and our surroundings. That was one of Haussmann’s operating principles, that belief in technology and engineering.
You see that as well in the Hydrometric Service. Part of what Belgrand was trying to do was to study the river. To understand how it worked so that he could figure out how to engineer it better: engineer the sewers, engineer the water system to prevent flooding. Manage that water for the better use of people living there.
On the one hand, the Hydrometric Service served the city very well. But in 1910 it didn’t quite match up to what Belgrand and Haussmann had hoped. For me, that’s one of the great ironies of the story, one that fascinated me as I was working on the book. This unending belief in science and technology had a moment of crisis, where people were asking, “Does it really work, the way we’ve always been taught?”
The British journalist Jerrold even wonders: will Paris die? Is this the death of Paris? It was such a shock to read those words, in which someone was musing openly about whether this might, in fact, be the end of civilization in this place.
RC: You write: “The growing mountains of garbage, collapsed sidewalks, clogged sewers, and dislodged paving stones transported the city backward in time to the era before Haussmann’s renovations.” It’s incredible to imagine that Paris, which we conceive of as a kind of eternal city—one that even survived quite intact after the last two World Wars—might be so vulnerable to a natural disaster. Especially one in which the water came largely from beneath the ground, and through the city’s own infrastructure, rather than over the embankments of the Seine. The image you paint of concierges pulling the drain plugs in the basements of buildings throughout the city, only to incur worse flooding, is quite striking
JJ: That’s another perfect example of people putting their faith in the engineering of the sewer system, then it actually backfiring. That’s, again, irony at work.
I think you’re right. The idea that Paris could be this vulnerable is really something that drew me to this project. And it’s probably another reason why many have found the book to be striking and why it’s gotten a number of reviews. San Francisco, New Orleans, places that are in high-risk zones: we think about those kinds of cities as going under. Or Venice, which is slowly sinking. But as you say, we have this image of Paris as an eternal city, and to see it in this moment of vulnerability—both through the descriptions and also through the amazing photographs, in which you see the streets ripped up, and the water everywhere—is shocking, because it’s so unexpected. It certainly was that way, too, for people at the time. Especially with the city having been rebuilt, and having the sewers expanded and modernized, they didn’t expect this to happen.
RC: You say: “the flood challenged many of the era’s most basic assumptions about the inevitable force of progress. Railroads, telegraphs, steam engines, electricity, sewers, and hundreds more inventions had promised a better life. . . . In one week, the flood made that promise seem false, and their faith in an ever-brighter future seem so fragile.” The French in general have long been known to resist change. I wonder if this only increased their fear of the new.
JJ: Well, I think it cuts both ways. Because for all the French interest in the past, and resisting change, as you say, there have also been moments when they have not only embraced it but have been at the forefront of it. Some of that engineering stuff is part of that. That’s why I start with that image, in the first chapter, of the 1900 World’s Fair. Because that was one of those moments. The whole purpose of these world’s fairs or expositions was to celebrate the new; the modern; the newest, coolest invention. To think about how that might make your life better.
The flood was one of those moments that’s both forward-looking and backward-looking. Some people said, look at what technology has brought. It’s destroyed our city. These sewers, which were supposed to keep us safe, have in fact made things worse. The subway, all this new stuff, has made our life worse. And yeah, maybe we should go back. But other people said, the city’s been destroyed, but we can rebuild it.
That’s why, when they form a commission to study the flood, and they write this enormous tome that is their study of what happened and what went wrong, much of the book is about how they will fix it for the next time. It’s very much an engineering document about, or blueprint for, rebuilding the city and getting back to where they were, getting back on track.
RC: At least since the Enlightenment, the French have had a rather paternalistic attitude toward nature, and you even write that, although a few regarded the flood as the “natural result of environmental degradation,” such as “deforestation upstream from Paris,” most regarded it “as a freak event that people had failed to manage but could control the next time around.” You add: “In France, people talk about saving nature through technology rather than giving up on the kind of urban industrial society that harms nature in the first place.”
JJ: Actually, that’s probably something that is not unique to France. That’s probably typical of Western society generally, that we believe we can mitigate environmental degradation through additional technological means. Rather than saying, “Gee, the technology we’re using is messing things up, so maybe we should stop using that technology.”
RC: But isn’t it worse in France because, since the Enlightenment, there’s been this attitude that nature is just another colony that we have to teach civilization to in some way?
JJ: That’s definitely true. It’s like: We can be green, but without giving up the modernistic vision. In some ways, the best example is France’s reliance on nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is of course much greener in the sense that it doesn’t produce greenhouse gas. But what do you do with the waste? [Laughs]
RC: In your book, you remark upon the motto of Paris: “She is tossed about by the waves, but she does not sink.” This is also the visual symbol for the ancient city of Lutetia: the boat tossed on a stormy sea. You’re probably familiar with the large mosaic of this image in the courtyard of the Hôtel de Ville.
RC: The meaning of the word Lutetia is not known with certainty, but many historians interpret it to be a Celtic word for mud. I thought that was interesting in terms of the long history of floods in Paris, and the original name for Paris itself meaning mud.
JJ: Yeah, I tried to evoke a little of that in the first chapter. I didn’t do extensive research into the many floods that have happened in Paris. I did a little bit, of course, to build a context. But I think that could be a whole other book: the history of floods in Paris.
And the book is very much about the city’s relationship to the river. Today people don’t think about that very much. The Seine is beautiful; it’s picturesque. But that motto and that symbol of the ship tell us something of a much longer story: how the city has relied on the river for centuries for commerce, for trade, for industry. For life itself. Another one of the ironies is that, when the river floods, it brings so much destruction and devastation. The river brings life, but the river is also a threat, too, at times.
In that brief section at the beginning, where I talk about some of the other floods, you can get a sense of some of the moments in the city’s history when the river really did wreak havoc. Of course, the modern infrastructure wasn’t there in 1658, when a worse flood, higher than the 1910 flood, occurred. It would have had a very different effect. But you at least get a feel for the fact that the river is always there, lurking in the background, possibly creating havoc.
RC: For me, the most dramatic moment in your account was certainly your portrayal of the near-disaster at the Louvre, when the Seine would have gone over the embankment if the workmen hadn’t been piling all those bags of sand and cement. You quote a British journalist, who said: “A few hours later, and the river would have won. All the basements of the Louvre would have been flooded.” In fact, “water had already breached the basement of the Louvre.” But fortunately, “the barricade held fast.” It’s amazing this isn’t more widely known in France today. It’s such a significant moment in French history—that the treasures of the Louvre could have been destroyed!
JJ: And if they had been, people would remember the flood. [Laughs] People forget the near misses. Even though those are probably the things you should remember, because you never know what’s going to happen next time around. But I think if the Louvre had been flooded, and the Mona Lisa had been destroyed, everybody would know the flood of 1910.
RC: I listened to a BBC interview with the administrateur générale of the Louvre, in which he said that not only were they expecting another flood, but that, when it comes, they’ll have just 72 hours to remove over 100,000 works of art from the basement of the museum. In a culture that doesn’t treasure spontaneity and rapid decision-making, such a quick move sounds to me like wishful thinking.
JJ: Again, I hope we never have to find out. The police have a flood plan that is at least in part based on the experience of 1910. It’s a touchstone for thinking about what they would do today.
There’s a movie called Paris 2011: La grande inundation. There is an English version of it that, for some reason, is called Paris 2010. It’s a fictional documentary whose premise is that the city has just lived through a flood. They use the Paris police flood-emergency plan as the basis for the film.
The way they depict what happens at this moment of crisis is that everything works smoothly. You know, the museums pack up their artworks. They actually show it in the film: people in the Musée d'Orsay, packing away [laughs]. They go through this whole ordeal, and, of course, it’s a happy ending. Everybody survives, and everything’s fine.
I’ve always interpreted this film, which I think was produced by the same people who did March of the Penguins, as a way to say to people: Don’t worry. Everything will be OK. We have a plan; we have an administrative structure in place. You know, the French love administrative structures. We have experts. We have all these things that are in place, and everybody knows what to do. That’s the film version of it. [Laughs] The actual, real-life version? That could be another story.
RC: When I taught English in Paris, many of my students would say, “You know, we French are really individuel,” meaning individualistic. But, in fact, my experience was that there is a real respect for authority, which they’re unconscious of: a sense of not sticking out, and blending in, and having faith in this logical, rational, Cartesian approach, which doesn’t account for acts of God. But God doesn’t exist since the Enlightenment. [Laughs] So, that’s the problem.
JJ: I think you’re right. There is a weird paradox in French culture: this kind of individualism, but, at the same time, that respect for authority. That there is a standard procedure for how things need to be done.
RC: And système d, débrouillard: it’s wonderful that it exists. But often, it’s sparked by a crisis; it’s not a natural French tendency to respect spontaneity. They have to turn to it when they can’t turn to anything else.
JJ: Yeah, and of course, système d, that’s one of those myths. I don’t mean myth in the sense that it’s false. But myth in the sense that it’s a story they tell to make sense out of the world. We all have this ability; it’s our natural, French-born ability to get out of a crisis. It’s a bizarre comparison, but the only similar thing in the American context I can think of is “Yankee ingenuity.” Because that’s a myth we tell ourselves, too: a story about how we’re a resourceful people. And there’s truth to that; there’s truth to système d, too. But at the same time, it’s a way that people craft their identity. Every culture has a similar sort of thing.
RC: It’s quite shocking that it took them until 1969 to finally do something to prevent another flood. I’m referring to the construction of the Grands Lacs de Seine. Perhaps you could briefly describe what that system is.
JJ: I haven’t read extensively about it, and I’m not an engineer, but my understanding is that, basically, it’s a series of reservoirs upstream: three or four lakes. The idea is that, if a large volume of water came down the Seine, they would open up locks and allow the excess water to flow into these reservoirs. And fill those up, as basins that would take the pressure off the rising Seine.
They’ve used it several times. It has proven to work, up to a point, for smaller floods. The big question is: would it work if it were a 1910-level flood? I hope it’s one of those things we never have to find out.
RC: For me, the Seine is really the soul of Paris. It’s the most beautiful and powerful thing in the city. To sit along the quay near Pont de la Tournelle, near Notre-Dame—it’s an experience that goes beyond any words.
JJ: It really is. The city itself is always changing. It’s always being built, torn down, whatever. But the river has that kind of feel because it has been there for centuries and centuries. That’s where, I feel, the eternal part of Paris is.
RC: I thought we could touch a little on your jazz book. A large part of your first work is devoted to the efforts of Hughes Panassié, a jazz aficionado who took it upon himself to publicize “le hot jazz,” and to educate his fellow Frenchmen about the intricacies of this new musical form. He even formed the Hot Club de France. I found this to be a typically French reaction: the need to bring art and artists into institutional frameworks and organizations. In France, artists are often part of a “collective.” Even members of the avant-garde feel compelled to form groups.
JJ: I hadn’t thought about it in quite that way, but I think you’re right. There is something very French about that sort of response, to form a club. Of course, there were similar kinds of jazz clubs in this country, too, and they were trying to connect up a bit. I talked about that International Federation of Hot Clubs that they tried to get going: this trans-Atlantic association. Which, as far as I could tell, never came to anything. They talked about it; there was some discussion in the magazine Jazz-Hot. And Marshall Stearns, who was a big jazz critic in this country, and who founded the Institute for Jazz Studies, was the American connection.
RC: Regarding the Hot Club, I thought it was typically French that he not only tried to create an institution to preserve and promulgate hot jazz, but that, in addition, there was a pedagogical aspect to his work: trying to show people how to think about this particular form and how to assimilate it psychologically.
JJ: That’s definitely true. Some of that may have been because there were still so many who just didn’t get it: didn’t understand what this was supposed to be. I tried to talk about it in the first part of the book: the response to jazz. For some, it’s brilliant and amazing, and they love it. It’s dance music, and it’s fun. And others are like, this is the end of the world [laughs], this weird sound is from the primitive jungles of Africa, or it’s some weird thing from outer space, or we just don’t know what to make of it.
That was the case, to some extent, in this country, too. Jazz was very controversial in the 20s. A lot of people said, this is devil music. There were all kinds of weird associations that people brought to it.
In the French context, it was even more outlandish because it was coming from another country. It was seen as something that was doubly foreign, both black and American. So, there was no frame of reference to understand what it was about. I think Panassié, Delaunay, and others in the Hot Club felt they had to do some teaching, early on. To say: “No, we French can appreciate this too; we can perform this music too.”
RC: They were successful to some extent.
JJ: I think they were. As far as one can measure, the number of jazz fans was still relatively small until after World War II. That’s really when you see the big explosion. But you couldn’t have gotten to that point without those guys in the ’20s and ’30s, like Panassié and Delaunay, who were building the groundwork for jazz, and making it OK to listen to and to play. So, in that sense, they were successful in their teaching.
RC: Often there’s a fear of anything spontaneous in France, and the dominant cultural consciousness is that of a logical, rational, Cartesianism. And it occurred to me today that the whole notion of jazz improvisation flies directly in the face of that. As you say, for many, it must have been viewed as something almost satanic. And you talk about how the same adjectives that were used to attack jazz were also used to extol it. For example, the “brutal force” and the dancers who were “elevated,” “hypnotized, driven mad.” I found this quite interesting and ironic. It suggests there are two fundamentally different temperaments at work here, each experiencing the same thing in a completely different manner.
JJ: Yeah, I think that’s right. It really does come down to which side you are coming at it from. Some of this is generational, perhaps. The people who were open—and there were, of course, plenty of people in Paris in the ’20s who were open to avant-garde kinds of things—were looking at this and saying, Wow, this is amazing stuff.
Then there were those who were not open to looking at any kind of avant-garde thing. You know, people who were listening to Stravinsky and saying this is horrible and walking out. They were the same people who were walking out of jazz, or not going to jazz performances, because it was not traditional music. So, it depends which side of that divide you’re on.
RC: It epitomizes two diametrically opposed tendencies in France. On the one hand, “Why do something differently if we’ve always done it this way before?” And on the other, an enduring need to be at the service of culture, which necessitates an openness to innovation and change.
JJ: You’re right, there’s always this tension in France, and in Paris in particular. Paris wants to be the capital of art, innovation, culture. And so much of that is about the new, right? Something that’s shocking, even. But at the same time, there is that deep-seated desire to link back with tradition, to see how this fits into the broader, deeper flow of tradition.
That may not be uniquely French. You find expressions of that in other cultures, as well, including this country. But the tension between those two things really comes to the fore in a place like Paris, because there were so many people who were doing shocking and avant-garde things in the ’20s. And so many who, at that same moment, were pushing back against that. There’s a culture war in the ’20s in Paris, and jazz becomes a touchstone because it’s one of the many things that shocks people. If you want to be shocked, you’re drawn to it. And if you don’t want to be shocked, you push back against it with all your might.
Some of that has to do with the postwar period. You’re coming out of the trenches; you’re coming out of the experience of war. And the culture has undergone this tremendous upheaval anyway. For a lot of people, they want nothing more than a return to sanity. There’s this whole artistic movement, le rappel à ordre: the return to orderly things. [Laughs] There are a lot of people, even in the artistic community, who say we need to get back to basics and forget all this craziness. But there are plenty of others who say, No, no, let’s push forward. The old culture is dead. The war proves it. Now, let’s try something new. We have to reinvent ourselves in this moment.
RC: The ironic thing is that the great avant-garde artist is always working through tradition, forging a new link to a long chain in tradition. But very few people can actually see that, particularly when the new form is first manifesting.
JJ: Right. I think that’s true. And there were people who were trying to understand jazz within that tradition.
There were many who said, “Jazz has its own tradition. That is a tradition that is linked back to Africa.” They saw it explicitly in racial terms: that it was the expression of “blackness” in musical form. But others were trying to say, “OK, but this is also music. And we can understand it in the context of musical tradition even though it’s coming from outside.
Because, for instance, syncopation is not something that jazz invents. It’s an older, traditional musical technique. There were composers and other people who were trying to think about that. And to connect jazz—this avant-garde form—to the deeper tradition. Just as you were saying.
RC: After jazz gained greater acceptance in France, it became a “symbol for what it meant to be French in the interwar years.” Maybe you could expand on that.
JJ: One of the things I was interested in was not writing about jazz per se but writing about the reception of jazz. I was more interested in audiences than in performers, to some extent. What I wanted to know was, what happened when people heard this music? What did they say; what did they do; what did they think about it?
That’s where this plugs into the question of French identity, and tradition, and culture. Jazz provides an opportunity for people to debate what it means to be French. Is it French to accept an artistic musical form that comes from some other part of the world? And to bring it into our tradition, and to have French musicians perform it as well as the people who created it? Or is it more French to see this as an outside thing, and push it away? Is Frenchness openness to new things? Or is it this kind of conservative, traditionalist vision? We’re talking about jazz, but really we’re taking about these other issues.
RC: How would you define “hot jazz”? Is it synonymous with jazz improvisation?
JJ: Hot jazz refers to that kind of ’20s-era jazz, sometimes referred to as Dixieland, jazz. It’s that early jazz that is very much about improvisation and spontaneity. Often, it was a collective improvisation, early on.
RC: Where each guy in the band takes a turn on his instrument?
JJ: That’s part of it. Or just the sense that the group, as a whole, is improvising on a theme. And out of that come the big name people, like Louis Armstrong, who do that kind of improvisation as soloists. It’s all the same thing; it’s all related. For Panassié the crucial thing you had to have was that spontaneous improvisation.
RC: Otherwise, you were banned by Panassié! [Laughs]
JJ: Yeah, exactly. The way he put it, he has this quote—I don’t know why it always sticks in my brain—he says something like: “Where there is no swing, there is no authentic jazz.” The music has to swing. For him, that means it has to be rooted in this improvisational expression. Here, he was talking about what he referred to as “real jazz,” which is the music of the New Orleans players—Armstrong and others—versus orchestral jazz: the stuff of Paul Whiteman, Jack Hylton, and others, who orchestrated and scored it, so there was really no need or room for improvisation. For Panassié, there has to be something live and in the moment. That’s where the hotness comes from.
RC: What led to the creation of your book? Are you a jazz aficionado? Or was it coming out of what you were previously talking about: jazz as a sort of Rorschach test to define other aspects of French culture?
JJ: A little of both. I’m not an aficionado; I’m an enthusiastic amateur when it comes to jazz. I’m not a musician myself, or anything like that.
I started with the time period. I wanted to do something on the interwar period. I’d always found that to be a fascinating era. I remember saying to myself in graduate school, I know I’ve heard something about jazz and Paris, and maybe I could look into that and see what was there. It started out as a seminar paper in one of my classes. I found very little had been written, and the light bulb went on over my head. And, as someone who appreciated jazz, I was attracted to it for that reason, too.
The other reason it made sense to pursue it was that I went to graduate school at the University of Rochester, and one part of the University of Rochester is the Eastman School of Music. Eastman and Juilliard are the two preeminent music schools in this country. I knew I would have access to an amazing music library, as well as the faculty at Eastman, who could give me their insights. I thought that even though I’m not a musician, I’m surrounded by musicians, and I have access to those kinds of resources. So, it just kind of made sense to work on that.
And I felt like it really came together, too. I was very proud of that book.
RC: I’m glad we had a chance to talk about the jazz book. Thanks so much for your time.JJ: Thank you.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010