In 1917 France was introduced to jazz in a very unique way. The first detachment of American troops to arrive on French soil came from New Orleans. In the detachment was a marching band. The French government decided to demonstrate solidarity with the American soldiers to the French public in as dramatic a fashion as possible. It was decided that the band would parade down the Champs Elyseés from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde. One million French people lined the streets to watch a New Orleans parade band strut its stuff. The crowd went wild, and France has been jazz crazy ever since.
New Orleans virtuoso Sidney Bechet, the only real challenger to Louis Armstrong's throne as the greatest player in early jazz, became so popular in France that he moved there. Jelly Roll Morton was another early jazz star who flourished in France -- the cultural affinities of French-speaking New Orleans Creole musicians with France ran deep, and even then the stigma against racial interchange did not apply in France to the extent that it did in the American south. Armstrong himself was a huge hit there, as was Duke Ellington.
During the occupation by Germany in World War II, one of the most obvious forms of passive resistance in France was to admire the music of Benny Goodman, Django Reinhardt and Duke Ellington. To champion music made by a Jew, a Gypsy and a Black was to challenge the very premise of Nazi culture.
In the ensuing years many jazz musicians spent significant time in France, including Clifford Brown and Max Roach, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, and more recently Steve Lacy. The quality of indigenous French jazz musicians has grown over the years to the point where such established stars as Martial Solal, Michel Petrucciani, and Jackie Terrason have emerged from that country.
Several outstanding French jazz musicians are in the limelight this month. Piano virtuoso Solal is one of the featured performers at this year's MIDEM conference in Cannes, playing a duet concert with saxophonist Wayne Shorter.
Two veterans of Solal's group, the Moutin Brothers, are currently on tour in the United States with their group, the Moutin Reunion Quartet.
The brothers, 41, form their own rhythm section. Francois is the greatest bassist in France, a brilliant improviser with a terrific pulse, and Louis accompanies him with subtlety and swing, using a unique style with a broad dynamic range. The band's CD "Power Tree" (Dreyfus Jazz) offers a solid introduction to their music. The aesthetic power that the Moutins can summon will not come as a surprise to anyone who has studied the phenomenon of family bands. The two have been playing together nearly all of their lives.
"We started playing music at age 5," said Francois. "Back then my brother was a pianist and I played guitar. Our parents were big jazz fans and took us to see everyone who came to Paris. When we were 6 or 7, we saw (blues pianist) Memphis Slim; Louis started drumming the table during the set, and Memphis Slim started jamming with him. Then he came to our table afterwards and told Louis, 'Man, you're a drummer!'"
Several years later, after seeing bassist Ray Brown play with Oscar Peterson's trio, Francois switched to bass.
"I was too young to pick up an upright bass," he explained, "so my father bought me an electric bass. I finally got my own upright when I was 18."
The band is called the Moutin Reunion Quartet because "We had another band 10 years ago," Francois explained. "There was no guitar or piano in that first band, and we wanted to add that element this time. Baptiste Trotignon was the first pianist we tried, and he sounded so great we didn't look any further."
The band started to perform and tour in 1999. At the end of 2002, Sylvain left the group to pursue his own solo career. The others auditioned a new saxophonist for the band, the great former Miles Davis sideman Rick Margitza.
MRQ has been chosen by WDUQ/National Public Radio Pittsburgh to be the first act of their new national program "Jazz a la Maison Francaise." The program begins broadcasting in May.