LE TUMULTE NOIR: A Beautiful Black Noise Abroad.

by Ian Whitcomb


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at


Old popular songs, as an index of their times, can tell us about what was actually happening in vivid strokes, like rough-hewn poetry. Irving Berlin, the King of Pop by 1917 and always a songwriter with his ear to the pavement, responded to that year’s coming of jazz—a buzz word for a social as much as a musical phenomenon.

       “I never knew what jazz really was—but then I never knew what ragtime was”, he later said. But he wrote songs about the two styles (or fashions) because that was what his public seemed to crave at the time.

        In 1911 he’d caught the rag craze in his song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, a piece of up-dated blackface minstrelsy. In 1917, when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) was creating a furor in New York, boasting they couldn’t read a note and that they were “assassinators” of music”, to be slammed by reporters for making notes “blat and collide”, and to proceed to sell a million records of their very own “Livery Stable Blues” to a public that then couldn’t get enough of this crazy new dance music, the canny Berlin softened the impact by creating a syncopated magician called “Mr Jazz Himself”. This boy could turn a minor blues into a piece of major happiness.

       But this boy wasn’t, for the moment, a colored musicianer, the kind that songs had celebrated since the pre-Civil War days of Stephen Foster—high jinks and sad plaints on the old plantation, then shuffling through the years to the plunk of the banjo and the rattle of the tambourine, strutting with a high step in the cakewalk of the 1890s. This black boy, went the myth, was the all-licensed fool to high society and the rest of the world. This boy was born with a thumping rhythm in his heart that was non-stop syncopation!

       However the ODJB were white boys from New Orleans. Their boasts about savagery were mere press agent trickery: the tight ensemble sound they made was masterful, an almost Bach-like polyphony, a discipline hard to imitate faithfully. Years of hard study and street marching in the racial diversity of the Crescent City had culminated in their astounding success in New York cabaret and on record. Who could challenge these self-styled “Creators Of Jazz”?

       All the Broadway bandleaders had a go. First they noted that drums were the main attraction with the all-important lady customers. Bass and side drum were joined by baby-cry gadgets, slide whistles, coconuts, watchman rattles and fly swatters. Trumpeters were encouraged to make barnyard cries, trombonists to slide up and down more greasily than even the old circus bands, clarinetists snickered and went into tumbling chromatic breaks—but none were as good as the ear-trained, natural boys from New Orleans. The Northern musicians were all just too well schooled. They were slaves to the tyranny of the black dot on the stave paper.


       James Reese Europe, black as night and dignified as a deacon, was proud of his music learning as a top “race man”. Born in Alabama but bred as an educated and articulate   Northerner, he’d started the Clef Club for his people in 1910 and by 1914 he’d become the go-to man when colored musicians were needed to spice up a New York fancy ball or rich folks party. He was Mr. Organization Man, running his later Tempo Club as a booking agency, taking care of contracts, sending his men out to work in tuxedos. He put on concerts, even in as grand a venue as Carnegie Hall, featuring a 100-piece orchestra with ten grand pianos, lots of cellos and a whole mess of mandolins and banjos. Arranged in a big minstrel-evoking circle, his well-trained men could stretch from “Down Home Rag”, folksy as hell, to an operatic overture from you-name-it.

       His Society Orchestra had accompanied the high-fashion dance stars and teachers Vernon & Irene Castle during the recent ragtime dance craze. For Vernon, a wispy Englishman who loved to sit in and bang the drums and call for louder and faster stuff, Europe had groomed the venerable bumpity-bump schottische into the current sleek fox-tot. He had helped the trendy couple refine the crude animal steps that his less-educated brothers had brought up from southern honky-tonks and Barbary Coast brothel-cabarets.

       By 1917 Jim Europe had the New York cabaret and dance scene sewn up. Black musicians were the in-thing for up-to-date syncopation, and a long ago (1912) suggestion by a “serious” music paper that Europe’s men should tackle a movement or two from a Haydn symphony had been conveniently forgotten. There was now much money to be made in commercial music. Boasted a proud and satisfied Europe: “Our Negro orchestras have nearly cleared the field of the so-called gypsy orchestras”.


        But right here and now blasting him in the face was this awful jazz craze and he was caught short. He felt an ill wind, of hot smears and blue moans and tuneless cowbells, blowing him backwards—he’d didn’t care for all this talk of making up the music as you go along, of scorning literacy. And these were white folks acting so primitive! And this while his President was waging a war preparedness campaign! Jim had immediately joined the 15th Heavy Foot Infantry Regiment (Colored) of the New York National Guard.

       Shortly after the Dixie Jazz explosion of 1917 America entered the Great War in France. Jim’s colonel ordered him to “organize for me the best damn band in the United States Army!” No expense was spared—John D Rockefeller and other businessmen, including Mr. Reid, The Tin Plate King, donated a pile of money. The Harlem Hellfighters band—all sixty-five of them—was formed, a crucial propaganda wing of the 369th Infantry Regiment.

       Irving Berlin hit the nail on the head in his current song “Send A Lot Of Jazz Bands Over There”:

       ’Twill make the boys feel glad…Send a troupe of Alexanders with their Jazz Bands out to Flanders. Make them play a lot of snappy airs… It isn’t just ammunition and food. You’ve got to keep them in a happy mood.

       How right he was! Jim’s mission was to provide marches, ballads, waltzes and a vaudeville show for the American soldiers and the war-weary Allies. A morale booster, a great ad for Uncle Sam. “But where is the jazz?” asked his General, “Where is my “Army Blues?” Lieutenant Europe obeyed with alacrity, sending back to New York for men with a suitable rough edge to their playing.

So it was that the French were exposed to a brass band like no other, marching along to a rollicking beat with Drum-Major Bill “Bojangles” Robinson strutting at the head. When they stopped to concertize they soon had the natives swaying to the “jazz germ”, even doing a Gallic version of the ragtime Eagle Rock dance. One old lady was spotted doing her own “Walking The Dog”, a very saucy black step back home. Two thousand miles they travelled and the tracks had to be cleared of fans as the train rolled in. Plantation songs were performed as well as “La Marseillaise” (which the locals didn’t recognize at first because of the odd playing and arrangement), but the volcanic ending that always got them rocking was “The Memphis Blues”, filled with specially written-in “spasms” (breaks) and slurs—plus the required rat-tatty drumming.

       As the train rolled out, reported the band’s executive officer,

“The crowd cheered without ceasing; women and children wept”. So powerful was the impact of the Harlem Hellfighters in France that when regular white troops relieved them at one village the mayor was heard to demand, “Take back these imposters and send us some real Americans—black Americans!”

       In Paris the band were honored to take part in a concert that starred the noted ensembles of the British Grenadiers, the Royal Italian Band and Le Orchestre de La Garde Republicaine. The Hellfighters knocked the 50,000 strong crowd dead with “The St Louis Blues”. Afterwards the Garde band conductor borrowed Jim’s score. Next day he complained that his men’s rendering of the piece sounded nothing like the Hellfighters. Surely, monsieur, the band are playing with special instruments? Jim explained that it was all to do with the way you played, the feel, the “jazz effects”. We play the classics too, you know, he added wistfully. We sing our spirituals. But it was the jazz and the jazz alone that the French craved.

       General Pershing, commanding all American forces, was mighty pleased with his Lieutenant’s booster work. Early on he appointed the Hellfighters as his own personal band, there to amuse the Allies at conferences and pow-wows and informal gatherings.

       At war’s end Jim and the band, heaped with honors, returned to America. It was 1919, a banner year for race riots and lynching and also the year that Jim, after a triumphant march down New York streets to their home in Harlem, got stabbed to death by his demented drummer at a concert in Boston.

       Not only was Jim gone but so were many of his musically rough-edged players. They’d become ex-pats. Lured by the jazz germ that seemed to be a lasting infection in a France fed up with the recent destructive nature of European civilization, several ex-Hellfighters made a beeline for Paris where, they were told, the gigging was good. And more. Wrote one heated trumpeter to his pals back home: “Man, you should haul over here lickerty-split—they got flowing wine, willing women & no hassling of the colored man. In fact, they ain’t color blind-- they’re color-crazy!!”

       More soberly The New York Age, a black newspaper, headlined: “French Now Want Colored Musicians From the United States”. Many read, many followed.


       There would be a welcome for the brothers upon their arrival in Paris, the place where all the action was. Louis Mitchell, a drummer with all the right trappings to please the people, had been working London and Paris for years, hopping to and fro from New York, even as the Great War raged around him, even when Paris was close to being invaded by the Germans.

       Mitchell had been an associate of Jim Europe’s at the time that the Clef Club was getting established. A natural born leader and built as big and broad as his boss Jim, he chafed under the Club strictures and, on the advice of Irving Berlin, high-tailed it for Europe where the ragtime fever, said Irving, was incurable. Why, everybody there was singing his “International Rag”!

       Mitchell was in London by 1914 with his “Southern Syncopated Quintet” (in fact he was a Philadelphian); he hit the London big-time next year as drummer in Dan Kildare’s string band at a splashy society nightclub where they were billed as  “Ciro’s Club Coon Orchestra”. All were Jim Europe alumni. Stunned columnists describe this “indefatigable black man” firing his trap drums and sounding taxi horns, letting the band have a break as he gives a “ripping” percussion exhibition, making “mad music till breakfast”. Too much law-breaking closed Ciro’s and so Louis set off on a tour of the Isles leading “Mitchell’s Seven Spades”. This was 1917 and the ODJB were amazing the world with their new sound--- so was his band soaked in jazz? No—all these early black bands, including Jim Europe’s, were ragtime outfits trailing wisps of minstrelsy, playing in upright two-four march time, busting with banjos, going in for percussive effects—the horns, the whistles, the noisemakers.

       But right after the war Mitchell hitched his star to the jazz wagon and was in Paris. The “Seven Spades” metamorphosed into “Mitchell’s Jazz Kings”, the Americans mostly drifting off to be replaced by Frenchmen.  Music Halls employed the rowdy band as a lobby spectacle at intermission and Louis sometimes went on stage to set off some drum fireworks. He became renowned for commanding “La Plus Grande Batterie du Monde” or, in plain English, as the “King Of Noise”. Leon Volterra, impresario and racehorse owner, in search of novelty for the revitalized Casino de Paris hired the band on the advice of his revue-producing pal Jacques-Charles. The latter realized the current potency of the bouncing black image and told Mitchell to fire all the Frenchmen and go to New York for real black jazzers. He returned with a boatload and they were installed in the basement nightclub, Le Perroquet, taking turns to amuse and amaze the customers.

       One person enraptured by the glare and noise was the artist Jean Cocteau whose description of the night club revue is typical of the way the avant-garde was prone to wallow in the fantasy of a rotten Old World tottering under attack by the ga-ga (and later da-da) nihilism of a post-Armageddon world of angular, nonsensical plug-ugly modernism. Chaos is the watchword: the poet Cocteau views Mitchell as a ”barman of noises under a gilt pergola loaded with bells, triangles, boards and motor cycle horns.” (He missed the loaded revolver that Louis always carried with him). ”With these he fabricated cocktails, adding from time to time a dash of cymbals, all the while rising from his seat, posturing and smiling vacuously”.

       This band was accompanying the famous American dancer Harry Pilcer (“ thin and rouged”) partnering the glamorous French music hall star Gaby Deslys (“looking like a ventriloquist’s doll”)—a couple who had wowed Broadway back in 1912 with their “Gaby Glide” in the heady days of the ragtime dance craze. Now, cried Cocteau, the mad music (“a hurricane of rhythm and beating of drums”) has left the poor couple “quite intoxicated and blinded under the glare of six anti-aircraft searchlights.” The recent war has bred this jazz chaos and the brave new arts are all the better it.

       Close to the Casino de Paris stood the old Theatre des Champs Elysees where a few months before, in the summer of 1918, Jim Europe’s military band had, from the depths of the orchestra pit, played French airs and plantation melodies at a special concert for war worker women. President Raymond Poincare and other dignitaries in tailcoats and high stiff collars had attended. All this was a far cry from the “tumulte noir” being so beloved in a Paris about to enter the Jazz Age.

       For the next five years the Jazz Kings were house band at the Casino with time out to accompany leggy music hall star Mistinghett and her lover-partner Maurice Chevalier, both of whom were besotted of ragtime or jazz or whatever the tumulte of the day be titled. But there were those who took the new music not only to heart but also quite seriously: Michel Leiris, a youngster, witnessed the Jazz Kings at a music hall and later, as an anthropologist, realized he was experiencing “something exotic and non-European…an affront to European music and art’. A regeneration for his war-broken generation.


        Mitchell and his new family made their home in Montmartre with a welcome at the door for any and all fellow ex-pats. Corned beef hash with a poached egg on top and a side of pancakes was the homey late-night special and many French musicians, anxious to get out of home-grown marches, one-steps and waltzes and into the hang of the jazz sound, dropped in for strange food and good advice. Louis started a local Tempo Club and nurtured a dream about opening his own café or even a nightclub in the area, a spot reeking of bohemian life. A few years later his dream would come true. But by that time Montmartre was riddled with nightclubs offering heaps of hot music and other, less legal, hot matters.

       One of the ex-pats befriended by Mitchell was a pudgy baby-faced soprano sax virtuoso with a mile-wide vibrato called Sidney Bechet, an ear player from New Orleans, cradle of the true jazz, where they knew how to improvise around a chord rather than just syncopating a melody all in unison. Of course Bechet didn’t rub this into Mitchell whose Jazz Kings, judging by the raggedy records they made for French Pathe, had more to with foxtrotting dance bands than with what became known to the cognescenti as “Le Jazz Hot”.

       Bechet was invited to join the Jazz Kings in the revue Laissez-les Tomber and here he saw Chevalier and Mistinghett. He told Louis he was not only in love with the lady but also with her beautiful ballad, “Mon Homme”. For though Bechet had Dionysian tastes off-stage his playing had an ethereal beauty. And he had the press reviews to prove it. He could even quote them word for word.

        He’d arrived in Paris by way of London where he was the added attraction, the spice, in “The Southern Syncopated Orchestra”, a Northern outfit led by the rather straight-laced black violinist Will Marion Cook. The latter, a one-time pupil of Dvorak’s, knew his new man couldn’t read the dots but told him to simply play from the heart and memory. At a concert in the Royal Philharmonic Hall the press were pleasantly surprised to hear not a murderous din like that of the ODJB (currently causing a storm in London dance halls) but instead pastoral music that, as The Times wrote “can bring us back to the darkies’ folk songs and melodies that will live on after jazz and ragtime numbers have enjoyed their spell of popularity”.

       Classical conductor and composer Ernest Ansermet, writing in Revue Romande, singled out by name Sidney Bechet as an “extraordinary clarinet virtuoso...the first of his race to have composed perfectly formed blues…an artist of genius”. Next day Bechet went out to a West End store and purchased a soprano saxophone, the better to be heard with. When he played the Paris clubs people told of being able to hear him clearly (and for free) from the sidewalk, so strong and piercing was he, but so gorgeous too. A forte gentleness. The ladies loved him-- and he loved them in return. This got him into so much trouble in London (he hopped around) that he was deported in 1922 and returned to gigging in New York.

       In 1925, after exhibiting his genius as an independent soloist marching forth from within the democratic New Orleans ensemble tradition (he could out-blast fellow citizen Louis Armstrong), he was invited to join a Paris-bound show band assembled by stride pianist Claude Hopkins.

       Now Hopkins had a B.A in music and a love of Chopin but he’d learned to move with the money and this white society woman called Mrs. Caroline Dudley Regan, a diplomat’s wife, had come over from Paris, egged on by modern artist Fernand Leger, to get a peppy band for her show, “Le Revue Negre”, a display of “authentic Negro vaudeville” which she felt certain would set Jazz Age Paris flaming with its dancing, blaring riot of savage negritude. She’d already hired a teenager called Josephine Baker, an eccentric dancer with an elastic body and a cross-eyed bit, who’d be perfect as the end-line chorus girl out-of-step with the others. Bechet would provide a fire to match the Baker comedy.

       Jazz music—black music—was in fact no longer an infernal noise, a tumulte, but a sound of exact musicianship. However, the French would have none of such nonsense. The exotic must triumph!

So the new revue would open in October at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, that staid old place where the Hellfighters had performed decorous melodies, but now renovated as the very latest in modish music-hall theatre. No more dainty lyrical chansons from pert pretties. Bring on le danse sauvage! Spectacle from untamed America is the new order of the day!


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at