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New Book Describes Jazz’s Rise to Popularity in Paris

New York may be where most of the action is in the States, but Paris has long been the jazz capital of Europe. You can attribute the spread of jazz throughout the city of lights during the 1920s and ’30s not only to the wine-sipping Frenchmen who played imported Louis Armstrong 78s at their big, fancy parties, but also to the “Harlem Hellfighters,” a troop regiment in the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, as author William A. Shack explains in a new book: Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story Between the Great Wars.

Led by James Reese Europe, the Harlem Hellfighters were a group of musician/soldiers stationed in France during the war whose big-band jazz impressed the locals and helped ease the relatively new music style into the European consciousness. The warm reception these men received, along with the lack of segregationist laws in France, convinced many to remain overseas and further the spread of jazz. Shack’s book gives an account of the musicians’ community in the Montmarte district of Paris that resulted from the Harlem Hellfighters’ popularity, profiling such artists as Josephine Baker, Ada “Bricktop” Smith and Sidney Bechet.

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