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The Hot Club of San Francisco’s “Meet Me in Paris:” A Reflection on French Music of the 1920s and 30s
By Julia Hurley
Django Reinhardt -  Gottlieb 07301
Once you hear it, you’ll never forget it: a mixture of swinging rhythms and minor chords, gypsy jazz was born in the late 1920s-1930s as the French response to American jazz. Inspired by guitarist Django Reinhardt, Hot Clubs all over the world bring this music to life even today. In a special performance at The Alden, The Hot Club of San Francisco presents not only the dark, rich flavor of gypsy jazz, or “hot jazz,” but thanks to the addition of French vocalist Isabelle Fontaine, a night of music that will pull you straight back into the Roaring Twenties. But how did this music come to be?

In the 1920s, France was still scrambling to recover—after the comparative bounty of La Belle Époque in the late 1800s, World War I took a toll on much of Europe, and France was no exception. But as the economy recovered, so did the desire to create a sensation through art and music. The "années folles," as they were known, represented an explosion of the artistic scene: the nascent Surrealist and Dada movements sought to blur the lines between dreams and reality, bringing with them entirely new forms of poetry and painting through the works of André Breton, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Many artists settled in Montparnasse in Paris during this decade, including some American writers of the “Lost Generation” such as F. Scott Fitzgerald.

American writing and music, in fact, soon began to capture the imagination of the French people. During World War I, African-American bandleader James Reese Europe, who served as a lieutenant in a regiment known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” also directed a highly acclaimed military band that traveled all over France to perform. The syncopated numbers, such as “The Memphis Blues,” presented an entirely new way of making music—exotic, even dangerous, in its freedom, it paved the way for a musical revolution.

Cabaret music halls such as the Folies Bergère and Moulin Rouge, which had achieved fame and popularity throughout La Belle Époque, were revitalized with this musical movement. Josephine Baker, an African-American dancer and entertainer who performed at such cabarets, scandalized audiences with her risqué revues. She quickly became a sensation as Parisian audiences became more drawn to jazz and Black music. Not content to remain in America’s shadow, the French soon began creating their own jazz music—jazz enthusiasts Hugues Panassié and Charles Delauney founded the Hot Club de France in 1931 in order to promote this new musical style around the world. A musician at the club, Django Reinhardt, formed The Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934. He pulled together his Romani roots and the American jazz movement to form a style entirely his own—gypsy jazz, or “jazz manouche.” Guitars form the backbone of this style, with the acoustic guitar in the forefront and a rhythm guitar that replaces traditional drums, combining up-tempo beats and melancholy tones in unexpected ways.

By the time the Nazis occupied Paris and forced American entertainers to return home, they were too late to quell the movement: the French simply packed up their instruments and set up in secret underground clubs in St. Germain-des-Prés and the Latin Quarter. Today, there are Hot Clubs all over the world, bringing gypsy jazz into the 21st century. With this performance by The Hot Club of San Francisco, audiences will be transported in time and space—all the way to the "années folles" and the cobblestone streets of Paris.

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