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French Pianist Says Jazz Builds Cultural Bridges


Music is said to be the universal language, and jazz, in particular, travels well from one culture to the next. A recent conference in Los Angeles looked at the ties forged by jazz between France and the United States. Mike O'Sullivan spoke with noted French pianist Rene Urtreger about the influence of jazz in his country.

The American singer Josephine Baker, escaping racial prejudice at home, became a sensation in France in the 1920s and 1930s.

Other jazz musicians would follow, including tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins in the 1930s.

Rene Urtreger, a noted jazz musician in Paris, says the French embraced the American music in the 1930s, but the jazz clubs were silent under the German occupation of World War II.

"Of course, during the occupation by the Nazis, jazz was forbidden because it was supposed to be a music, let's say, 'decadent,'" Urtreger said.

But after the hardships of the war, he says the French welcomed jazz and other imports.

"When the war was finished, the French people were ready for American influence of movies and food and jazz," he said. "There were many young people who loved jazz and were very eager to go to the concerts."

Urtreger was also part of the vibrant cultural scene in the St. Germain section of Paris, where philosophers, writers and artists met to talk in cafes and listen to jazz. He played with visiting jazz greats Lester Young and Miles Davis.

Urtreger came to Los Angeles for a conference on jazz and art in California and France, sponsored by the Getty Research Institute. California had a spirited music and art scene in the 1950s, when San Francisco and Venice Beach became the West Coast centers of the Beat movement, which celebrated jazz, modern art and free-form poetry.

Urtreger says musicians share a common culture, but absorb new influences as they play. He says that as a young pianist in the clubs of Paris, he never dreamed this music would be the subject of conferences. But he enjoyed meeting with scholars and other musicians, and playing some jazz.

Urtreger says he loves jazz because it is unpredictable, and he complains about musicians who follow the score too closely, including a few big names who have played in Paris.

"Jazz is supposed to be a music of improvisation, of madness," said Utreger. "We don't know exactly what's going on in the next five minutes. But with those people coming, they were playing a perfect show. For instance, I had to play one week with a saxophone player, very well known, and the third day or the fourth day, I knew exactly what he was going to do. And this - I cannot accept this."

Jazz great Louis Armstrong told musicians to "never play a thing the same way twice." Rene Urtreger follows the advice. He says jazz is an adventure inspired by the moment, and each song is an exploration, for musicians and audiences, wherever they are.

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