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Jeremy F. Lane. Jazz and Machine-Age Imperialism Music, Race, and Intellectuals in France, 1918-1945

Lane takes issue with homogenous perspectives on jazz writing by Ludovic, Tournès, Jeffrey Jackson, Colin Nettelbeck, and Matthew Jordan. Not only do they tell a story of jazz criticism in France that begins with primitivist stereotypes and over the years progressed to more assimilationist and generous notions of the music which championed acculturation.

In order to refute this linear progression, he employs “machine-age imperialism” as a discursive and historical lens to talk about jazz criticism from 1920-1960. He defines this period as mixture of concerns and understandings of the world defined by modern industrial efficiency mixed with primitive barbarity. Many commentators such as Georges Duhamel, Jean Cocteau, Le Corbusier wrote about jazz in these terms: one the one hand as a figure for the evils of an American machine age, for the destructive force of total mechanized war, for the senseless repetitive tasks demanded of workers, and the social and sexual mores of the nightclub. But on the other, jazz’s creation by African-Americans placed it in camp of rhythmic and sensuous primitivism.

These discussions of “machine-age hybridity” were not unique to jazz and arose in large part thanks to a historical situation which mixed the Industrial Revolution with imperial expansion. The efficacy of Taylorism and Fordism sparked massive debates in France at the same time artifacts from the colonial world saturated France. But industrial goods relied on raw goods from colonies, and automobile manufacturers like Citroen and Renault sold about 1/3 of their products back to the colonies.

During the 1920s, the Martiniquaise Nardal Sisters criticized descriptions by Duhamel, Cocteau, and Le Corbusier for this mixture of techno-primitivist hybrid descriptions. Lane argues that, contrary to understanding, this conception was omni-present throughout the years. But he also compares white jazz criticism to works by French-African and French-Antillian writers to see how, or to what extent, they avoided the primitivism of their white counterparts and subverted ethnocentric assumptions.

His analysis demonstrates ideological complexity of the period. A pioneering critic such as Hugues Panassié, a right-wing sympathizer of the Action française, could influence the future president of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor. And the Belgian jazz critic Robert Goffin influenced Léon-Gontran Damas (French Guyana) to inflect the poems of his 1937 collection Pigments with numerous allusions to jazz. If Aimé Césaire seemed impervious to the appeal of musical style imported from North America, his fellow Martiniquais René Ménil could find an inspiration for his creole identity in the music of Duke Ellington. In short, they found in jazz not an expression of exotic techno-hybridity, but of same: of Black or Creole identity.

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