We got the Jazz

Lafayette Flying Corps

The other afternoon I had a fabulous chat over tea with director/writer Peter Kosminsky (Britz, The Government Inspector, Warriors) about a forthcoming scriptwriting project of his. It was refreshing for me because the conversation centred on stories which is not usually the focus of much of my work in the Factual arena. Stories are so fundamental to human culture and I came across the beginnings of a fascinating one today.

Like my earlier post Je suis un chef noir – Heart of Darkness, it’s a story involving France and Africa (in this case, indirectly through Afro-America) and racism (in this case, the prejudice of America not of France).

The protagonist is Eugene Bullard. The entry point is the Paris jazz scene between the wars.

The scene was based in the seedy quarter of Montmartre. Bullard, a black American born in Georgia or Mississippi [depending on what you read] in 1894, was programming Zelli’s Club, one of the key clubs in the area (set up in 1919 or 1922 [depending on what you read] by Joe Zelli, a London restauranteur or an Italian-American [depending on what you read] – guess he could have been both, a restaurant and club which dominated the scene til the 30s. The walls were decorated with movie star caricatures which were later emulated at Sardi’s in New York which is where I’m writing this post [in the city not the restaurant, that is]. I came across this story whilst reading about purposeless wandering around cities and today in my purposeless wandering around Gotham I found myself under the red awning of the Village Vanguard where, for example, John Coltrane played in 1961 – the year Bullard died in this same city. So all the skeins of this narrative have been weaving themselves together all day.) Bullard went on to own another hot jazz club, Le Grand Duc. Zelli’s, with its underground dance hall, was less upmarket than the Duc and regularly raided by les flics.

Back as a child in the deep South, Bullard had had explained to him by his father: “in France there are not different white churches and black churches, or white schools and black schools, or white graveyards and black graveyards”. His mother was a Creek Indian which makes the decoration of the biplane, above, all the more resonant.

When he was ten, Bullard stowed away on a ship and made first for Berlin or Scotland [depending on what you read], then London (where he was a boxer and music hall performer), reaching Paris in 1913. When the Great War erupted the following year, Bullard joined the French Foreign Legion. He won the Croix de Guerre for his role at the crucial battle of Verdun. He went on to join the Lafayette Flying Corps, a volunteer squadron who fought for France before America entered the war (the outfit to which the plane above belonged). He flew 20 missions and downed two enemy planes. So he was the very first African-American military pilot. His nickname was Black Swallow of Death. When the USA did enter the conflict in 1917, Bullard was transferred to the US Air Force and immediately grounded. He ended up back in the French infantry. He’d literally been “uppity”, thousands of feet uppity in the French skies.

Our hero died in poverty and obscurity in New York in 1961, having had a series of non-uppity jobs from perfume salesman to interpreter (for Louis Armstrong) to security guard, ending up as lift operator at the Rockefeller Centre (which I wandered past last night aimlessly).

Despite decades of obscure wandering in the aftermath of his Parisian heyday, Bullard was buried with military honours …by French Officers in the French section of the military cemetery in Flushing, Queens, New York. Two years before, the French had made him a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur. By contrast, the Americans waited 33 years after his death and 77 years after his pioneering heroism to eventually make him a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. Not the ending the story deserved.

eugene bullard

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7 comments so far

  1. blackmanvision on

    Yep good ole Uncle Sam slow to recognise a hero again. But to be fair he didn’t fight in any American wars really so they probably thought why bother.
    The other thing is that France seems to have a history of treating African American immigrants really well yet the people they colonised really crappily. See Franz Fanon – Black Skin, White Mask. Or maybe just look at the news footage of the ‘rioters’ in the banlieus.

  2. ArkAngel on

    That’s my experience too, especially with regard to the North Africans. When I lived in France for a year I used to regularly pass the cops hassling young Algerians. I once went to Paris with the son of an Oxford don who happened to have an Arabic surname from way back and they refused his credit card in the two bit hotel he was staying in.

    I think WW1 should count as an ‘American war’ as much as WW2. In the first year of WW2 in occupied Paris Bullard helped French intelligence (at their request) by spying on German officers in his club (he spoke German as well as French).

  3. Derville on

    Saying that France colonized North Africa is as stupid as saying that African-Americans colonized the United-States. There was a huge presence of (white) French slaves in Africa under muslim rule during more than eight centuries. Here are some “Schindler lists” of French slaves:

    http://maitrederville.wordpress.com/2010/07/22/listes-desclaves-francais-des-barbaresques/

  4. ArkAngel on

    These are not Schindler’s lists. France did indeed have some related lists – to help fill the Vel’ d’Hiv where there was a huge presence of (white) French citizens in Paris under French administration (police and civil servants) during July 1942. Here’s what the 13,000 looked like as captives of France: http://joedresch.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/c.jpeg and http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_JpC8BcCQnpk/TM9lY1kvX8I/AAAAAAAAAsI/02M0xZY0hAc/s1600/france-paris-vel-d-hiv-16juillet1942-2.jpg (These don’t really capture the grim details of the experience but then it’s not the best documented event in French history.)

  5. Derville on

    I was not speaking about the Jews in WWII but about the French slaves in Africa, hence the “” around “Schindler”…

    “It’s not the best documented event in French history”

    There are some reasons for that:
    1) Many people in the Vichy regime came back in politics after de Gaulle’s death. One of them, Mitterrand, went on to become French president.
    2) The fact that 80% of the Nazi collaborators were socialists, the composition of the first resistance groups (extreme right wing / Jews) and the Muslim involvement with the Nazis, have all become politically incorrect.
    3) Even some prominent French Jews have better not dig up in their family history. For example, the grandfather of a well-known television host spent WWII selling other Jews to Vichy/Nazis…

  6. Claude Ribbe on

    My book on Bullard

  7. ArkAngel on

    Claude, delighted to hear a new book is just about to hit the shops in France. What made you take up the story? and why now?


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