Boris Vian and jazz  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Boris Vian was a jazz enthusiast and he served as liaison for, among others, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis in Paris. He wrote for several French jazz-reviews (Le Jazz Hot, Paris Jazz) and published numerous articles dealing with jazz both in America and France. Though he never put a foot on American soil, the themes of both jazz and America run thick in his work.

Vian's literary work was intimately tied to his love of jazz. In the foreword to L'Écume des Jours, he writes, "There are only two things: love, all sorts of love, with pretty girls, and the music of New Orleans or Duke Ellington. Everything else ought to go, because everything else is ugly..." Vian expressed himself in music and in literature, as it were, in the same breath.

The Jazz Conceptions of Boris Vian

Over the course of his thirty-nine years, Boris Vian managed to live not just one but several existences. A prolific writer, Vian authored plays, poetry, novels, philosophical treatises, songs, magazine articles and reviews, and “translations” of non-existent American pulp novels. Trained as an engineer at the prestigious École Centrale in Paris, he was twice employed in this capacity, though by the end of his life he was more likely to lend his technical expertise to whimsical projects like the invention of an elastic wheel. At the same time, Vian played trumpet in Claude Abadie’s orchestra, one of the most successful amateur dance bands in postwar Paris, playing for American GIs and expatriates and French hipsters and existentialists in the smoky caves (underground nightclubs) of the Boulevard Saint-Germain. In addition, Vian was a family man, with children from each of his marriages. Remarkably, even as he honed his mastery in each of his lives—“be a specialist in everything,” he once said —Vian constantly blurred the lines between them. He wrote a story about a mechanical cocktail-making piano (le pianocktail), literary-quality reviews of jazz concerts and of the latest technological innovations, and, in grand pataphysical style, an artistic and pseudo-mathematical examination of the nature of God.

Though jazz was only one of Boris Vian’s occupations, the sounds and ideas of the music deeply affected his artistry and his existence in general. Shortly after his death, one of his lifelong friends said: “he was in love with jazz; he lived only for jazz; he heard jazz; he expressed himself in jazz.” Vian himself revealed the depth of his attachment to jazz through his numerous articles and reviews in French publications such as Jazz-Hot and Combat, and in his jazz-inflected fiction, which included stories with names like “Blues pour un chat noir.” As a prominent figure in the jazz and literary scenes of mid-century Paris, Boris Vian’s opinions, especially those on music, deeply affected the progression of the direction and the self-image of the Parisian jazz scene for years to come. This essay will sketch the genesis and the characteristics of the aesthetic of jazz that informed Vian’s influential perspective.

In 1938, Vian’s eyes were opened to the wonders of jazz; after seeing Duke Ellington’s big band at the Salle Pleyel, he resolved to learn jazz trumpet. Meanwhile, he earned his degree at the École Centrale and took a job at A.F.N.O.R. (l’association française de normalisation), a classic bureaucracy whose primary function was “to justify and prolong indefinitely its own existence, constantly putting off important decisions while inventing new pretexts for its survival.” After the toil of A.F.N.O.R., Vian transferred to the Office Professionel des Industries et des Commerces du Papier et du Carton, “where—according to his musician friend Claude Léon—‘there was literally nothing to f*cking do.’” Vian finished two novels on the job in the year before he was fired.

Obviously, Vian did not see the life of an engineer as a particularly rewarding or engaging enterprise. He much preferred the vibrant scene of the left bank, centered along the boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Prés. There, surrounded by zazous (the young hipsters of the forties), impecunious writers, Sartrean existentialists, musicians, and hedonists, Vian found himself at the heart of a thriving bohemian subculture where he could simultaneously express many of his parallel identities—the musician, the critic, the writer, the philosopher, and the jazz partisan. Vian himself never traveled to the United States to hear jazz in its native environment, relying instead on recordings and performances in Europe; consequently it was primarily in this environment that Vian nurtured and developed his sense of jazz.

Vian’s most direct involvement in the Saint-Germain scene was as the trumpeter for Claude Abadie’s six-piece dance band. In 1942, Boris and his brothers had enlisted en masse with the bandleader, with Alain on drums and Lélio on guitar. Vian modeled his playing style after that of the trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, whose recordings he cherished, while the Abadie band played in a complementary style, attempting to recreate the pure sounds of Dixieland and early swing. (Of course, the presence of guitar and string bass inherently detracted from the possibility of achieving an authentic approximation of the former, but so did the fact that their sound was emanating from Parisian basements and not from the back rooms of Storyville.) The Abadie orchestra was one of the more popular groups in France, taking top awards at several amateur jazz festivals and performing all over Europe. The self-avowed amateurism of the group certainly helped them in their musical mission; freed from the commercial constraints of the professional dance bands, the Abadie orchestra could afford to maintain their purity of style.

The liberation of Paris would end the “golden era” of the artificially-isolated jazz scene wherein European musicians were the only available practitioners of the American art form. The GIs who invaded the musical time warp enabled by the war brought with them a demand for the newer forms of popular music, a demand which the Abadie orchestra managed to resist. “We refused on moral grounds to play songs that we didn’t like,” a bandmember recalled. “The GIs would constantly request ‘Besame Mucho’ and other total saucissons of the era. Boris would reply, ‘No, we won’t play ‘Besame Mucho;’ we’re going to play some Duke Ellington for you.’ In the end, everyone was happy—the soldiers danced and we played ‘our music.’” However, an influence that was not so easily tackled by the French jazz establishment was arrived in the GIs’ footsteps: le bebop. The endless debate over the new style resulted in the fragmentation of the community of jazz fans in France and provided endless fodder for the pens of French critics, including Boris Vian.

Though it did have a couple of stints at jazz festivals around Europe, the regular habitat of the Abadie orchestra was in the caves, the basement nightclubs full of jazz and existentialists (and presumably a fair number of poseurs). The experience of playing in this environment would deeply affect Vian’s conception of the juste milieu of jazz. The first of these clubs in open in Saint-Germain-des-Prés was the Tabou Club, and the Abadie orchestra was the house band. Later, Boris Vian would describe the entry into the club as follows: “one descended a torturous stone stairway…ending up in a long vaulted passage, like a subway station only much smaller and dirtier… It took some time to make all this out, since the cigarette smoke produced a fog of London-like proportions and the uproar was so intense that one reacted by not seeing anything.” As other clubs sprung up in imitation, the “amateurish, spontaneous air” of the Tabou club gave way to a more subdued professionalism, and the Abadie band moved down the street to the Club Saint-Germain.

Though the caves may have initially presented an atmosphere of anarchy and abandon, they, along with their pre-war aboveground counterparts, also served as important rallying points for the organizers of the Parisian jazz scene. In 1937, Vian had joined the Hot-Club de France, then headed by Hughes Panassié and Charles Delaunay, who together had introduced serious jazz scholarship to Europe. With this organization, he probably played a marginal role in bringing American big bands to Paris, including those of Benny Carter and Duke Ellington. Though the Hot-Club remained stable and operative throughout the war, the arrival of bebop would tear it apart. Essentially, after the disconnection of the war era was ended by the American liberation, the shock of sudden exposure to the new style was simply too much for some fans to integrate into their conception of the music. The question which proved so destructive (which to our eyes today is virtually incomprehensible) was “is bebop jazz?” In the Hot-Club, Panassié and Delaunay were split over the issue, with Delaunay siding with the beboppers, and Panassié claiming that the New Orleans style was in fact the only true form of the music. Thus was the querelle de bebop born. The Hot-Club split in 1947, with Panassié maintaining control of the organization and Delaunay taking over its magazine, Le Jazz-Hot.

It was in this ideologically-charged environment that Vian crafted his first attempts at jazz criticism. He sided firmly with Delaunay in defending the innovations of the young black American musicians, writing his first pieces exclusively for Jazz Hot. However, unlike the die-hards on both sides, he acknowledged the qualities of both styles, attempting to create a more tolerant path between the polemical extremes of the split. Meanwhile, he remarked upon the absurdity of the schism; a short story printed in the Christmas 1948 issue of Jazz Hot compared the querelle to the Nazi-Communist dichotomy. Goebbels shows up at Vian’s door with the salute “Heil Gillespie,” to which Vian replies “Heil Parker!” Goebbels, “draining his glass of marijuana elixir,” then proceeds to instruct Vian in the intricacies of propaganda and cultural infiltration, consisting primarily of wordplay to fool the food service population: “Une poule au riz-bop…du riz-bop au curry-bop, avec pain bis-bop et du thé-lonious.” The humorous connection to the Nazis so soon after the atrocities of war is a rather uneasy one, but nothing is taboo for Vian, and he succeeds in driving the point home in his typically raw and cynical manner. Though many of his contributions to Jazz Hot would be less raucous, the pages of the magazine would serve him well as a bully pulpit for the propagation of his often-unconventional conceptions of jazz and the jazz scene.

To begin to understand what exactly these conceptions were, let us turn to Vian’s idea of what his own group sounded like. In Veronquin et le Plancton, one of the novels he finished while at the Professional Office of the Paper and Cardboard Industries, Claude Abadie’s orchestra makes its fictional début: “the musicians gave it their all, and managed to play pretty much as well as blacks of the thirty-seventh order.” This droll self-commentary indicates one of the fundamental attributes of Vian’s understanding of jazz—the privileging of music created by black people. As this passage reflects, even the best efforts of white musicians are still orders of magnitude removed from the capabilities of their black counterparts. Vian would assign the same criticism to his own playing—no matter how hard he tried, he would never be able to equal the playing of a thirty-seventh-rate black musician. In fact, in his usual hyperbolic style, he actually went as far as to remove himself entirely from the realm of human endeavor. In his journal, he wrote “I played the trumpet a bit like a porker, I think.” Of course, many musicians have felt this same kind of existential despair while listening to the recordings or concerts of musicians whose superb skills seem totally unattainable, but for Vian, the one thing that practice couldn’t change—the color of his skin—was the major impediment to mastery of the jazz idiom.

In truth, Vian believed in the universality of this distinction. No matter what the jazz style, white musicians were inherently inferior to Blacks. “The problem is the following,” he wrote in a 1948 editorial in Combat, “black music is increasing encumbered by white elements, often pleasant but always superfluous, easily and advantageously replaced with black elements.” Vian believed, in theory, in the idea of racial mixing among musicians. “Of course, it’s fun to play with Blacks.” But, he asked his readers, “who benefits? Surely not them!” “So,” he ends the piece, “do we have to exterminate the Whites? Of course not! But if only they could all just die suddenly…” Obviously, as a white musician himself, Vian is overstating his case. But for various reasons, Vian is continually frustrated by the Whites in jazz, especially when they take attention away from Blacks.

This frustration is not necessarily unreasonable. The history of jazz, and the history of American popular music in general, has been marked by a hep-cat/copycat phenomenon. The great innovators, usually black, have had their creations co-opted and commercialized by white artists for sale to the predominantly white populace. For reasons of racism and capitalism, the white bands are typically more successful than their black antecedents, even as their level of invention is sometimes far inferior. Of the commercially successful English pianist George Shearing, Vian wrote “[he] is nothing but a shitty platter of Huntzo-progressive style.” Benny Goodman’s sextet, despite its integration, is similarly subject to Vian’s caustic criticism: “aside from Eldridge, what a constipated band!” It is hard to believe that Vian’s musical racism was simply a conscious and bitter reaction to the pressures of commercialism or an attempt at some kind of early musical affirmative action; it more probably was an actual reflection of how he perceived the music. Still, it seems likely that these perceptions, even with Vian’s emphatic claims of his receptiveness to all types of music, were colored by his deeply ingrained racial essentialism (which, in turn, may have been derived from an association of whiteness with commercialism.) While Stan Kenton’s attempts at “serious” composition are met with ridicule—“Kenton never played jazz anyway, and I don’t know why I’m wasting my time with him in the columns of this supposedly-serious publication”—those of Duke Ellington in his early Reminiscing in Tempo are cited as an example of a good attempt at “serious jazz,” despite the piece’s initially-checkered critical reception. Vian thus betrays the fact that he shares some of Panassié’s inability to accept innovation and synthesis as part of the jazz aesthetic, especially if that innovation is coming from white composers.

If Vian’s jazz ideal is a progressive and professional music played by black musicians, then why does he choose the white trad-jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke as his idol? Although Beiderbecke is indeed a formidable presence in early jazz, a white musician whose playing style is as unique as that of any of his contemporaries, white or black, it seems odd that even after the arrival of bebop, Vian continues to consider him his idol. Miles Davis and Kenny Dorham are much more frequently cited in his columns, but Vian would never deign to model himself after them. The answer must lie in Vian’s conception of the abilities of white musicians in general, including himself. First of all, by following Beiderbecke’s lead rather than a black trumpeter’s, he can excuse himself from the black-innovator/white-copier dynamic which he so vocally decries. The temporal separation of Beiderbecke’s era also lends itself to an escape from this model, for it allows Vian to avoid the pretext of playing a popular and commercially viable music; instead, he can devote himself to an erudite attempt at recreating a music whose time is long past.

At first, this model seems inherently hypocritical; why does Vian play in public at all if he feels like white performance is inherently exploitative of the black tradition? And how can he justify calling the Ellington standards that he plays with the Abadie orchestra “our music”? In fact, though one might disagree with Vian’s stance, he manages to be logically consistent in his discrimination with the inclusion of his self-categorization as an amateur. With amateur status, he can disavow any commercial pretexts, and any material gains that result from his playing are merely accidental and not abusive. In addition, his amateurism excuses him from the responsibility of innovation to which he holds professionals. Thus, it is consistent for him to denounce an Artie Shaw record as “not new enough to be sensational and not sensational enough to be new” while continuing himself to recreate the music played by black musicians years or decades earlier. Since he believes, as he puts it, that “the best that Whites can learn is to be good imitators,” he is trying his best to use the full extent of his racially-imposed limitations.

The music which Vian played in the Abadie orchestra and in his own groups was entirely derivative, even if played well. Solos tended less toward innovation and more toward a revival of the original style; Vian almost certainly committed some of Beiderbecke’s recorded solos to memory to aid him in this quest. Though he believed himself incapable of true musical innovation, how did Vian view the role of spontaneity among true jazz musicians in general? One might expect that, in his bohemian liberalism, Vian would have favored a true and total freedom of form and color. In fact, weaned on big band and Dixieland charts, Vian never lost his love for the arranged side of jazz. “The three great moments of my life had to be the concerts of Ellington in 1938, Dizzy in ‘48, and Ella in ’52,” all of which shared a heavy reliance on the skills of the arranger as well as on those of the soloists. Strikingly, none of the hundreds of bebop combo concerts that Vian saw in Paris, including ones by Miles and “the Zoizeau” (Parker), made the list of “great moments.”

Vian’s fear of purely spontaneous and unarranged jazz was that it left too much to chance. “One ends up relying on pure musical inspiration, and failing that, the music won’t lead to anything good, or it will alienate all but the most die-hard fans.” This comment discloses one of Vian’s primary concerns about bebop—that it is not as accessible as earlier styles and therefore will not attract any new listeners. The simultaneous accessibility and refinement of Diz’s Latin-accented bebop big-band probably assuages some of these fears. But even without the ready-accessibility of the big-bands, Vian recognized Charlie Parker’s mastery when he saw it at the 1949 Paris Jazz Festival:

“Ah! The genial superexcitation of the brain tissues of this man…what am I saying…of this superman…of this demi-god descended to earth… And why stop at demi-god?…of this god…of this double god! Have you seen how he plays? Indeed, in watching him we are far removed from the overintellectualized conceptions that our misdirected society and atrophied century have given to music.”

Next, Vian crafts a pseudomusicological analysis of the first dozen notes of Bird’s solo, dealing less with the music itself and more with Vian’s literary self-indulgence. “Have you noticed with inflexible necessity of the me to insert itself between the sol which precedes it and the sol which follows it?” Vian believes (and he is not alone) that a good solo has the same kind of artistic intent and finality about it as a through-composed arrangement, or for that matter a poem. However, thriving alongside the concrete and “inflexible necessity” of the notes’ arrangement is an antithetical impulse—the primal, savage, and anti-structural urges which lie deep below the foundations of our “atrophied century.” In listening to Bird’s solo, Vian hears the release of huge amounts of the same energy that he hears in other black music—the release of the human soul.

For Vian, this was the ultimate power of jazz, “the potential for at least a partial escape from the strictures and inhibitions of the intellect.” The source of jazz—America—was the only potential source of such a mid-20th century anachronism. But this characterization of Parker’s music, and of jazz in general, put us in a quandary. Boris Vian forswore the stereotype of the noble savage again and again as he elevated the “popular music par excellence” of jazz to the level of high art, but in the end we find ourselves with that colonialist image staring us in the face. Is Vian just as racist as the rest? Does he think that Blacks should, because of their special talents, stick to artistic endeavors and forgo the opportunities of modern society?

The answers to these thorny questions could, in Vian’s words, “occupy ninety-two block-printed double-spaced pages,” and we will not approach them here. But suffice it to say that, even in the most complimentary sense, the praise of black music for its primal urges may rest on even shakier ground than the jokes Vian makes about the Nazis even before the smoke from the camps has completely cleared. If Vian was not so insistent about the superiority of Blacks in the arena of l’expression jazzistique, then his call for jazz to leave the sterile concert halls and return to the caves of the Boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Prés would not be as perplexing. Vian was definitely not a racist in an anti-Black, Jim Crow sense—Duke Ellington was the godfather of his daughter Carole. Perhaps his Afro-essentialism was a reaction to the Aryan essentialism of the Nazi occupiers. Or perhaps it was a reaction to what he perceived as the privileged, technically-structured nature of his own existence. Certainly, the influence of the French colonial endeavor accompanied by, in Paris, the new philosophy of négritude, colored his conceptions of the capabilities and limits of the music.

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