Sorry Disney fans, but I am not talking about Simba's little feathered hornbill friend in the Lion King (that's spelled Zazu anyway). No, I am talking about the Zazou Jazz Era that began in Interwar Paris and les zazous who, in their own way, defied Vichy and the Nazis when they occupied France during the Second World War.
Thanks to my ADD that always manages to kick in when I am supposed to be doing serious research, I stumbled upon the concept of zazou when I was - you guessed it - researching for my Master's thesis on the French Resistance last year.
While I was disappointed that I could not use this newfound knowledge in my thesis, all was not lost. This detour introduced me not only to the fascinating history of les zazous, but some really remarkable Manouche Jazz (a.k.a. Gypsy Swing Jazz) that I knew would some day make a great blog. Lucky you, mes chers, that day is today!
What the Heck IS Zazou?
Zazou describes a style of jazz as well as a group of people. Les zazous (pronounced /zah-zoo/) were the Swing Kids of Paris. Their name was most likely derived from American jazz great Cab Calloway's 1933 hit Zaz Zuh Zaz.
|American Jazz singer Cab Calloway sporting a Zoot suit |
and the inspiration for the French Zazous
Because jazz was a product of the Harlem Renaissance, it carried with it the stigma of being American - and black. Fortunately for many jazz greats, France cared far less about the color of their skin than did Jim Crow. Many black American jazz artists found a home in Paris - specifically in Montmartre - where they naturally influenced the French and Manouche jazz scenes. The people who would eventually start the zazou style frequented cafés, jazz clubs, and cabarets like Chez Bricktops (owned by an African American woman) and this music resonated with them.
|This scene from Midnight in Paris depicts a stunned Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) sitting in Chez Bricktops with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald watching Josephine Baker perform La Conga Blicoti|
Les Zazous were the counterculture of their time, making bold statements and challenging the establishment with their choices in music, dance, and fashion. It was the latter that really set apart these young Parisians and made them easily identifiable.
According to the website Do You Zazou?, messieurs zazous, "always wore checkered clothing, had long hair, and always carried an umbrella, even when it didn't rain." As you can see in the pictorial dictionary below, the men also sported a thin mustache à la Clark Gable.
|A pictorial dictionary of typical zazou dress|
(Taken from The Wonderful World of Tam-Tam Books)
An online pamphlet produced by the British Anarchist Federation further explains the male zazou dress stating that they:
...wore extra large jackets which hung down to their knees and which were fitted out with many pockets and often several half-belts...Their trousers were narrow, gathered at the waist, and so were their ties, which were cotton or heavy wool. The shirt collars were high and kept in place by a horizontal pin. They liked thick-soled suede shoes, with white or brighting coloured (sic) socks.
It turns out that the amount of fabric used was a social commentary on government decrees regarding the rationing of clothing material, and the formal "Chamberlain" umbrella a "parody of Englishness...always neatly furled and never opened in spite of rainy weather."
|Snazzy Zazou Homme|
The pamphlet also paints a vibrant picture of the dames zazous who
...wore their hair in curls falling down to their shoulders or in braids. Blonde was the favourite colour (sic), and they wore bright red lipstick, as well as sunglasses...They wore jackets with extremely wide shoulders and short pleated skirts. Their stockings were striped or sometimes net, and they wore shoes with thick wooden soles.
|This femme zazou's hair seriously puts my big 90s hair to shame|
During the occupation, les zazous resisted Nazi presence and snubbed the collaborationist Vichy government through their nonconformity. They listened and danced with unbridled zeal to "degenerate" jazz music and continued to dress in what the Nazis and Vichy officials considered a subversive fashion. It did not take long before les zazous incurred the wrath of the Nazis and Vichy.
The 1993 movie Swing Kids starring a young Christian Bale, gives us a middle-school appropriate depiction as to how these Swingjungend (the German counterpart to the French zazou) became targets of the SA, Gestapo, and Hitler Youth. Jazz music, swing dancing, and the style of dress that went with it were seen as too American, too black, and too subversive for the Führer's liking. In Germany, the Swingjungend became victims of the Reich, and were often beaten, jailed, and sent to concentration camps where many died.
Clip from Swing Kids - I dare you not to be mesmerized by the seriously awesome swing dancing! Music: Sing, Sing,Sing (With a Swing)
Zazou (and homosexual - a dangerous combination during the occupation) Pierre Seel was ultimately deported to a concentration camp, and commiserated with his German counterparts:
The zazous were very obviously detested by the Nazis, who on the other side of the Rhine had since a long time decimated the German cultural avante garde, forbidden jazz and all visible signs of...degenerations of German culture...
In France, the fascist youth movement of Jacques Doriot's group the Jeunnesse Populaire Française adopted the slogan "Scalp the Zazous!" They carried with them scissors and took delight in attacking zazous and trimming their hair.
|This Zazou gets a "Voluntary Haircut" from a JPF fascist pal|
One of my favorite means by which les zazous gave the proverbial middle finger to their occupiers and to Vichy was to wear the yellow Star of David, but instead of Juif, they inserted words like Zazou, Swing 42, or Goï (Gentile) in the middle. Mind you, they were not required to do this - they willfully and purposely did this to make a point. This act was one of resistance, but it also symbolized their connection to those on the fringe - those who were being persecuted for being different.
Perhaps the greatest aspect of finding les zazous was the discovery of Manouche Jazz, or Gypsy Swing Jazz. I do not know how this style of music eluded my Francophile radar until last year, but let's just say it is now a staple in my iTunes Library.
While I enjoy an array of Manouche Jazz, I am particularly obsessed with the genius of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. Below is my favorite number by this duo entitled Minor Swing. (Any fans of the movie Chocolat will recognize this).
Reinhardt (1910-1953) was a Belgian-born jazz guitarist who melded traditional European and Gypsy music with elements of American jazz. In doing so he gave birth to this new genre known as Manouche Jazz. Reinhardt was a "Manouche" (French Sinti Gypsy) who at a young age, became adept at playing a hybrid of a banjo and guitar.
|The Formidable Django Reinhardt|
In 1928, Reinhardt's career as a musician was nearly ended. A lit candle fell over in his caravan, setting it ablaze. Thankfully he and his wife survived, but Reinhardt was severely burned on his right leg and on his left hand. It was the burned left hand that nearly ended his career as it rendered two of his fingers useless - a horrible fate for anyone, but particularly a guitarist.
Long story short, being the never say die, innovative musical genius he was, he taught himself a new way to play using his thumb and two fingers and - voilà! The Django Reinhardt we all know and love. And while American jazz initially influenced him, his own brand of jazz would go on to inspire American jazz artists and guitarists of various genres for many generations.
This 2 min video explains (and shows)
Django Reinhardt's playing style
Django Reinhardt is probably the best known Gypsy Swing artist of his time, and unfortunately Stéphane Grappelli has become lost in Reinhard's shadow. Both are accomplished and incredible in their own right, but the two together are pure magic.
|Stéphane Grappelli (L) & Django Reinhardt (R)|
As I had fully diverged from the path of my thesis searching out and listening to the cool sounds of Manouche Jazz, Fate smiled upon me once again when she led me to a modern band that has perfectly captured the essence of 1920s-1940s Parisian music scene. And so the Avalon Jazz Band has become a regular on my play list (although you have to listen to their music on their website or their YouTube Channel).
|The Avalon Jazz Band|
(Photo from the Avalon Jazz Band Website)
The Avalon Jazz Band is a Franco-American band based out of New York, and to see them in concert is officially on my bucket list. They are led by the incredibly talented and oh-so lovely Tatiana Eva-Marie on vocals, and the insanely cool (in that French je ne sais quoi kind of way) violin virtuoso Adrien Chevalier.
So I will bid you all a fond au revoir and leave you with two of my favorite covers by the Avalon Jazz Band.
Avalon Jazz Band Playing Charles
Trenet's Ménilmontant (1938)
Avalon Jazz Band Playing Charles
Trenet's Que Reste-t-il de nous Amours