Blog post

Black Royalty in Europe: How Europe became a centre for jazz as countercultural avant-garde

Black American musicians who mainstreamed jazz throughout Europe after the First and Second World War

Sidney Bechet playing the clarinet
Isabel Crespo (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

When we talk about jazz in Europe, Black musicians become royalty. The introduction of jazz in Europe is a kaleidoscope of national and sometimes local stories difficult to encapsulate. But one aspect in which jazz historians agree is on the widespread European fascination and admiration for Black American musicians who mainstreamed this innovative and free style throughout the continent after the First and Second World War.

Black and white image of Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet with other musicians onstage

Everyone locates the origins of jazz in the nineteenth century by Black American communities in New Orleans (Louisiana) and particularly in Congo Square, where enslaved people would meet on Sundays to sing, play music and dance to their homeland songs. They mixed Caribbean music with African beats and southern church melodies, producing in time innovative rhythms like the ragtime, catwalk, foxtrot or Charleston. Key figures in these advancements were Buddy Bolden, Scott Joplin and King Oliver.

But one of the most fascinating chapters in jazz history is devoted to understanding how this new style transformed into such a venerated style and widespread movement in Europe. In the interwar periods, Europe became an important venue and resort for Black musicians, nowadays it's the largest market for jazz music.

Historians describe the introduction of the new Black American sounds, coined later as jazz, in two waves after the First and the Second World War. In the first wave, both Paris and Berlin of the Weimar Republic became capitals of jazz thanks to Black American bands that either arrived near the end of or after the war to play for soldiers and civilians. One very well-known example was the James Reese band.

Many artists remained afterwards to make a living. Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington and Louis Amstrong, returned regularly all throughout their careers to Europe with every new assemble and production they put in place.

Sidney Bechet playing the clarinet

It’s commonly believed that Europeans embraced jazz not only because it was Black American and was considered ‘exotic’, but also because it marked the secession from the older European culture. In parallel, it served the modernism zeitgeist and the avant-garde agenda, with futurism and surrealism aesthetics.

The cubistically fragmented image consists of dynamic triangles and dark, muted colours and only slowly does the image of horse and rider surface.

Other important factors played a role. The economic boom of the happy 1920s met an increasing demand for live performances and recorded music. Commercial radio was growing as popular media in many households, helping to break racial barriers. And top-class entertainers, like Josephine Baker, helped to promote jazz music and Black American culture more widely in Europe.

However, Europeans weren’t as colour blind in their attitudes towards Black musicians as some narratives state still today. If Black American musicians could find a more favourable atmosphere and respect in Europe than in their segregated homeland, the imbalance in jazz talent between Black American and European musicians promoted institutional racism. First in France in the 1920s and later after the Second War War in the UK, labour laws limited Black Americans performances in Europe to protect the white European market.

But what happened in the jazz scene in Europe after the Second War is another story. If you want to know what happened next, read Part 2. ‘If Hitler had been against jazz, jazz had to be good’

Disclaimer. The narrative about the origins of Jazz in Europe oversimplifies the process by describing a very linear description of the events. With these stories, we don’t underestimate the constant Black influence in arts and culture in Europe over centuries or the diverse national and unique stories around the reception of this style. Jazz didn’t develop in a vacuum in Europe. The Black American jazz waves helped to reconnect with folk and national music traditions where this influence was already present, as well as rediscover elements like improvisation, an aspect removed for generations from European music canons.

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