agtime history in France begins with the coming
of the John Philip SOUSA (1854 - 1932) U.S. Marine Band in Paris, at the 1900 World Exposition, one of
the European stages which will lead this orchestra up to Russia. At its repertoire were listed numerous
an African-American dance, which is, by its structure and its rhythms, and with some others music
styles, the genuine source of Ragtime music.
s Ragtime became popular in the U.S.A between
1900 et 1914, French people was truly fascinated which seemed with its unfamiliar dance movements to
be "exotique" and quickly became fond of Cake-Walk rhythms, as suggest newspaper articles published
during that time in the French press in (Le Figaro, Paris Qui Chante and l'Illustration). Some composers, with a Classical background, and
others with less formal musical education, were really struck by this new music, so original that they
quickly tried to compose piano pieces freely inspired by what they had heard, either in the fashionable
"high-society" salons, or at the World Exposition.
who was already a renowned composer and nicknamed "le Roi de la Valse" ("The King of Waltz writers",
to paraphrase John STARK) because of his works in the light Salon music genre, became the first French
musician to compose a Cake-Walk, published in 1903 by ENOCH & Cie music publishers with the title:
JOYEUX NEGRES ("Joyful Negroes"). His experience and his abilities as a composer
specialized in the light music style and especially the dance music, allowed him to have a clear
understanding of the characteristics and styles of the american Cake-Walk as it was played by the
Sousa's U.S. Marine Band and, as a result, to compose a beautiful original piano piece respecting the
style of this music genre. Some other composers, now completely forgotten
nowadays and whom I have found no biographical clues about them worked also in the same light music
field: Léon DEQUIN, Emile MARTRON and Henri HERPIN.
uring the following decade, 1910-1920,
Cake-walk and a primitive form of Ragtime music was gaining popularity all over the country.
Particularly, Julien PORRET (1896 - 1979), a professional cornet player living in Paris had a strong interest in the
"new rhythms", and played cake-walks and early rags with his small outdoor orchestra in different
parisian leisure centres, like the Luna Park. Hired by Gabriel PARES in January 1915 to be a cornet soloist in the French Army Band,
this orchestra toured the USA in three important stages where they played for various events: New York City, Chicago and
San Francisco. PORRET renewed his interest in Ragtime music and he was walking down a San Francisco street when he found a musical idea that
he wrote on paper back to his hotel. This composition, titled "Powell Street", is a one-step, and is probably
the first French Ragtime composition composed by a Frenchman on the American territory.
pianist and Classical composer heard the different foreign musicians at the World Exposition and was
thrilled by the new modal and rhythm combinations offered by other music cultures, and especially by
the rhythms and melodies of "la musique nègre" but also Asian, from Indonesia. He did a sort of wink to
the black american music styles in his piano pieces, Le Petit Nègre, General Lavine eccentric, whose
titles refer to Minstrels who integrated into their shows for the first time Cake-Walks, as early as
1870, by caricaturing and mocking the Black slaves in the southern plantations of the U.S.A. In the same "classical"
category, the well-known Erik SATIE, also composed piano pieces freely inspired by
this musical tradition, "Piccadilly Circus", "le Ragtime du Paquebot" or "Ragtime Parade",
despite the fact that Ragtime music was then considered by established and renowned musicians as
"low-class music". On performers' side, one of the most celebrated pianist of that time, Yves NAT was probably
among the first Frenchman to play ragtimes in his solo piano recital.
The second exposure of Ragtime music to French
people occured in 1917, with the arrival of the american Army on the French territory. As wrote Eileen
SOUTHERN in her "History of American Black Music", Black musicians were enroled in some regiments.
The most famous of them was the 'Hellfighters' military band associated with the 369th regiment. This
band gave a famous concert at the Champs-Elysées theater en 1919, which helped to win an European
reputation to the orchestra's leader, James Reese EUROPE. Their repertoire was not only set up with instrumental
rags. The orchestra also played various styles, from popular music to other music styles associated with
Ragtime : Fox-Trot, Two-Steps and One-Steps. Fashionable music for the second time, French composer
tried again to assimilate and imitate the several Ragtime pieces they heard played by the Black
dance orchestras, so as to write new solo piano pieces, or cafe-concert songs with syncopated rhythms.
ne French artist distinguished himself from other French popular music at that time:
Raoul MORETTI, composer of many operettas who succeeded
in making an interesting hotchpotch of his own musical sensibility with the rules of the Classic Ragtime. Owning his own music publishing house domiciled
in Marseille, he composed a bunch of piano solos; mainly Fox-Trot and One-Step rather than pure piano
rags, but also waltzes, tangos, and some songs with Ragtime-like piano accompaniment. bets remembered
for his operetta works, the tireless and great archivist-specialist
Jean-Christophe AVERTY located some original hand-written scores for this little-known composer, as well some biographical
With the popularization of Ragtime music in France,
occured two phenomenas:
First, the dissemination of Ragtime through
commercial recordings of instrumental ragtimes or songs on cylinders or 78rpms, or through piano rolls,
especially made by the unique French piano roll maker, l'E.M.P. (l'Edition Musicale Perforée) which
included in its catalogues numerous mechanically-cut Fox-Trots/One Step composed by some of the most
renowned writers of that Era : Charles BOREL-CLERC and
Maurice YVAIN. Furthermore, Francis SALABERT, a parisian
publisher, had an extended popular music catalogue of instrumental and song titles, including American
"ragtime song hits" translated and published under a French name ("Célèbre Pas de l'Ours" [MP3], "Le Jazz d'Alexandre") or original French compositions by
French musicians. At that time, a new interest for new musical genres flourished as illustrate
compositions that are freely inspired from different sources, from South-American latin music to
Ragtime, by, for example, Darius MILHAUD who was a member of the "Groupe des Six" ("le Boeuf sur le
Toit", "3 Rag Caprices"), Maurice RAVEL, but also by Igor STRAVINSKY who was a Parisian
resident. ("Ragtime pour 11 instruments", "Piano Rag-Music", and "Ragtime" from "l'Histoire du soldat").
Meanwhile, some French pianists of classical
training, aware of the Ragtime evolution to Novelty style started their career by playing to different
social events or to highlight the soirées organized by the Surréaliste artists in their salons:
Jean PAQUE, Leslie HUTCHINSON,
Jean WIENER and Clément DOUCET. However,
those artists used to present their music as a Jazz Piano form, despite the fact that they were
actually playing in the Novelty genre. "Le Pianiste de Jazz - préparation au jazz
moderne", a book published by SALABERT in the early 30's is a perfect example of Novelty-style piano
exercices that were called "Jazz".
Between 1920 and 1930, Ragtime music was
progressively replaced by other Jazz styles evolutions or other music fashions, especially by the latin
dances Cha-Cha-Cha, Rhumba and Paso-Doble.
From 1940 to nowadays, the famous French movie
director, Jean-Christophe AVERTY, who is also a great Trad Jazz fan and renowned to be an archivist and personnally
acquainted with many great Jazz artists who regularly performed in France, spent many times and energy
to collect sheet musics and written documents and by trying to developp a french interest in Traditionnal
Jazz forms, by programming Jazz music in his TV and radio shows. His best remembrance is the invitation
he gave to Eubie BLAKE to perform and record in Paris, both for the TV and the radio. He also wrote
forewords to the famous Claude BOLLING's solo piano records made in 1966, dedicated to Boogie Woogie
and Ragtime. AVERTY's work is noteworthy because Ragtime music was then completely forgotten, and the
JOPLIN's fad in France really began with the "The Sting" movie release (1974).
AVERTY is also responsible for the first French
broadcasting for Scott JOPLIN complete works on the
national public radio, in 1997, for the 100th anniversary of MAPLE LEAF RAG publication.
Ragtime music has been a theme of some interesting university works, serious and well-documented
and which refute many wrongs and scornful affirmations coming from the so-called French Jazz
"spécialistes" and "historians". We quote among these excellent musicological works:
"Le ragtime dans la société et la musique populaire américaine
des origines aux années 1920" and "Les Rythmes du Ragtime: une analyse",
wrote by Pr. Philippe MICHEL, "Messianisme de Treemonisha" by François VEIT (1984)
and the master's degree on Ragtime by Bernard TOUBIANA (1984).
One can not forget to pay a tribute to the main
Ragtime exponent in France during the second part of the 20th century,
Yannick SINGERY, "le roi français du Ragtime", a very
fine trad jazz pianist fond of Ragtime and Jelly-Roll MORTON's music. He only recorded one piano solo LP, simply
titled RAGTIME, published in 1975 and unfortunately now unavailable in CD format. This work is a
"chef-d'oeuvre" for its good proportion of original music style and personnal sensivity.
The first modern LP recording of Ragtime solo
piano in France occured in 1966 with the collaborative work of Claude BOLLING and Jean-Christophe
AVERTY. This recording is particularly interesting and is a perfect illustration of how the piano rags
should be performed in a personnal way, as all pianists did during the Ragtime Golden Era, contrary to
the false idea that Ragtime was then played exactly as written on popular sheet music without using
variations or improvisations. Nowadays, a few artists try to maintain this unique musical genre alive by playing Ragtime music in concert
in our country: Fabrice EULRY, Emmanuel CARUANA, Benjamin INTARTAGLIA and William PIZON.
To conclude, let's mention here that the only
Ragtime piece that almost all frenchmen know is certainly not the MAPLE LEAF RAG, but THE INTERTAINER,
called l'Arnaque, or sometimes called the " kitten's food advertising music ", due to the intensive
TV marketing campaign which used a honky-tonk piano version of THE ENTERTAINER as a background sound,
or, more recently, in a TV advertising for cellular phones.
SCOTT JOPLIN, POETE DU RAGTIME, 1868-1917 by
Mona REVERCHON, CNRS Editions, 2001.
Partially based on the Scott JOPLIN's biography by Edward A. BERLIN,
Mona REVERCHON wrote the only book in French language dedicated to the "King of Ragtime",
resulting in a beautiful and life-like portrait of the Ragtime Master, as well a comprehensive exposition of
the Ragtime phenomena, described with its historical context.
LE RAGTIME, by Jacques B. HESS,
"Que sais-je" ? Presses Universitaires de France, 1992.
This book is unfortunately no longer available. However, it is a complete and interesting research
about the Ragtime music. It is also interesting because the writer gives his own conclusion derivating from his search results,
more than simply repeating the same hypothesis Jazz specialists commonly wrote in the past. These "specialists" often
elaborated "historical theories" to accreditate their prejudices, for example by saying that ragtime is closer to european
light music than jazz. Jacques B. HESS made a brilliant demonstration by pointing the fact that Ragtime is really a
jazz precursor. In a nuttshell, a higly recommended book for whose who are interested in Ragtime music.
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