We got the Jazz
Filed under: cities, colonial history, culture, documentary, drama, empire, French history, heart of darkness, history, jazz, Politics, Reflections, stories, Television, world war one | Tags: , 1920s, africa, afro-americans, britz, eugene bullard, first world war, flying, foreign legion, france, mississippi, paris, peter kosminsky, racism, scriptwriting, stories |
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.