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Paris lured the most iconic Black artists of the past century

Part one of three

While there is no evidence to prove it, my impression of people who live in Paris is that they are more relaxed and at peace in their everyday lives than most Americans. Perhaps it’s influenced by the routine of wine with (and between) every meal. Who knows? But for whatever reason, it seems unmistakable.

The fact is, the French live more leisurely, taking time to enjoy good food and the company of loved ones, while America is far more fast-paced and individualized. Political division and racial tensions are far more intense in the U.S. And while Black Americans created jazz, the French seem to appreciate this soothing genre more.

Artists, writers, intellectuals, activists and most notably entertainers, all sought refuge in Paris. The indigenous African American music, known as jazz, found a remarkably welcoming atmosphere in Paris.

The jazz colony in Paris began when a band of Black American army musicians from the much-decorated “369th Harlem Hellfighters Infantry Regiment,” led by James Reese Europe, made a big hit there during a 1918 tour. From then on, a steady influx of jazz musicians continued to flow into Paris, many of them settling in the Latin Quarter.

You may wonder how this tradition of African Americans seeking refuge in France’s capital city got started. Over time, legions of Black Americans fled the racist laws and practices prevalent in the United States, opting instead for the acceptance and respect they were afforded not only in France, but throughout Europe. This trend escalated when Black American soldiers stationed in Europe during World War I and World War II found they received much better treatment overseas than in their home country.

Trumpeter Louis Armstrong, clarinetist Sidney Bechet, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, orchestra maestro Duke Ellington and trumpeter Miles Davis are just a few among the multitudes of Black American musicians who left their mark on Paris.

Nina Simone, the much-celebrated singer, pianist, composer and civil rights activist, internationally renowned as “The High Priestess of Soul,” found wide acceptance in Paris and throughout Europe. However, she found the conditions in the U.S. unsettling as her career began to take off in the early 1960s. Racial unrest in the United States caused Simone to become increasingly angry and

disillusioned, particularly in 1963 when civil rights’ activist Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi, in June of that year.

Then, in September of 1963, four little Black girls were murdered as they worshiped in Sunday School when the 16th Street Baptist Church was intentionally bombed in Birmingham, Alabama. Simone became so disenchanted that by the 1970s she left America and lived abroad for the majority of the rest of her life. Simone lived in Barbados and Liberia, among other places around the globe before she finally settled in France.

Entertainer extraordinaire Josephine Baker is perhaps the most celebrated Black person to break away from America’s racist shores and claim France as her permanent home. Born in St. Louis in 1905, Baker witnessed a race riot as a child. Even before she reached her teens, Baker became an entertainer as a sheer act of survival. By the time she reached the age of 19, she was performing throughout Europe. In Paris, Baker’s charismatic personality, electric performances, and bold eroticism catapulted her into superstardom.

Her 1927 performance in “Un Vent de Folie” at the Folies Bergère caused pandemonium when she burst onto the stage in a costume that consisted solely of a beaded necklace and an uber-short miniskirt made entirely out of artificial bananas. This classic image of Baker – still recognizable today – became a symbol of the Jazz Age in the 1920s. Baker became the first Black woman to star in a motion picture and she also opened her own club, Chez Josephine.

Another African American performer and entrepreneur who made a splash in Paris during the same era was Baker’s close friend Ada Smith. Known as “Bricktop,” Smith’s fiery red hair was as vibrant as her over-the-top personality. Bricktop arrived in Paris in 1924. Two years later, she opened her famous supper club, which quickly became the center of Parisian nightlife.

Baker boasted an impressive world-class cadre of friends that included Princess Grace of Monaco, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Ernest Hemingway, Jean Cocteau, and Pablo Picasso; aided the French Resistance as a spy during World War II, and was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur – one of the nation’s highest honors – by General Charles de Gaulle.

Although she renounced her American citizenship and became a French national, Baker was active in the American Civil Rights Movement. She refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States. During a speech at the 1963 March on Washington, Baker stated, “I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens

and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”

During my eight days in Paris we visited the iconic Moulin Rouge, a nightspot Baker made famous.

Next week will be the third and final installment of three columns focusing on a dream trip… “Paris Featuring the African American Experience,” sponsored by the Indiana University Alumni Association.

This column won’t be enough space to convey the depth of the experience or the wonder of Paris. But it hopefully provides a sampling of a destination like no other and its connection to Black America!



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