Jean-Marie Masse was born four hours south of Paris and halfway to the Pyrenees in the small city of Limoges, known around the world for its fine painted porcelain. The year was 1921. His father was a municipal engineer and hoped his son would move toward science. But when the talented Jean-Marie finished high school, he announced to his parents’ chagrin that he was moving in with his girlfriend’s family and becoming a visual artist. Oh non! His parents were distressed. Some of their son’s colorful painting is reproduced in the book—the companion to a recent exhibition—Harlem à Limoges: Une Histoire du Jazz à Limoges.
When he finally he reached the legal age of 21, Jean-Marie married Paulette Morhange, and they found their own apartment near the center of town. Besides each other, they shared a passion for music. In particular, for jazz. Jean-Marie was already a record collector. One day he and Paulette got on a bike and pedaled to the nearby town of Montauban to meet for the first time an older jazz fan with whom Jean-Marie had been corresponding. He was Hugues Panassié—a writer, producer, and the founder of the Hot Club of France, a jazz fan club in Paris.
Soon after the meeting, Jean-Marie taught himself the drums. Playing along to tunes in his expanding collection, he began to transform himself from fan to musician. And so when Panassié told Masse that he was bringing trumpeter Rex Stewart, formerly in the Duke Ellington orchestra, to France, Masse agreed to organize a concert in Limoges.
Pursuing his greatest enthusiasm grew into his occupation. As jazz historian Anne Legrand writes, “1948 was a pivotal year. Masse became a professional drummer, then the President of the Hot Club of Limoges; he organized the latter’s first concert . . . and also produced his first jazz shows for Radio Limoges. He would remain extremely active for close to 70 years . . . .”
Over those years, the Hot Club of Limoges presented more than a thousand musicians, many from America. Masse energized their careers. He introduced them to city officials and gave them keys to the city, figuratively. He recorded their concerts and interviewed them on the radio, live. He invited the players and their wives home to dinner and hosted them overnight. Paulette was a wonderful chef and partner. Their two daughters were always at the table.
The musicians responded with sincere thank you’s. “Kisses for the children, your wife and yourself,” one American musician signed a letter, typed in French. Masse saved those beloved letters along with recordings, books, magazines, beautiful posters, photos, clippings. Then just before his death in 2015, he bequeathed his archive of more than 20,000 items to the City. Picture a mountain of souvenirs (no digital media then), becoming more fragile every day.
The Bibliothèque Francophone Multimédia (the public library) of Limoges moved quickly to bring Anne Legrand, the historian and librarian, from Paris to appraise the collection and begin to catalogue every piece. And before they put those pieces away for safekeeping, Limoges hosted six months of programs to share the story with the world. At a colloquium, scholars and historians presented research papers, and those papers now constitute the beautiful book Harlem à Limoges, in French with an introduction by Anne Legrand. I hope to share some of the wealth here, in English.
As I write, I’ve been listening to the perfect soundtrack—Swing on Radio Limoges, 24/7 on the Hot Club’s website.
Bill Coleman (1904-1981) by Michel Laplace
Bill Coleman would always say he was born in 1904 near Paris—Paris, Kentucky, that is—into a family of amateur musicians. In Harlem à Limoges, trumpeter and historian Michel Laplace writes that young Coleman admired two “cornetists . . . Joe Smith whom he heard in Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra passing through Cincinnati in 1922 and, beginning in 1925, Louis Armstrong. He bought Hot Five records the same day they appeared at the store!”
In 1933 Coleman made his first trip to Europe with the Lucky Millinder Orchestra. In 1935 he recorded there with Fats Waller. In 1936 in Harlem, Hugues Panassié produced recordings of Coleman leading duos and trios for the French Ultraphone label. By 1940 Coleman had recorded with the likes of Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Coleman Hawkins, Mary Lou Williams and more.
Work was becoming scarce in 1948 so Coleman returned to Paris and stayed there. The first time he was booked for Limoges, he missed his train (later explaining “No one spoke English at the station”). So Masse booked him again. Later Coleman wrote that the two “became great friends and by the next time I became the honorary president of the Hot Club of Limoges which is very active.” In 1953 he married Lily, who was born in Switzerland and first saw him play at a dance. She became his indispensable partner and manager, and kept his memory alive in France after his death.
Bill Coleman “had a round, well centered sound, very seductive,” writes Laplace. “He also knew how to sing into his instrument.” In Harlem à Limoges there’s a 1958 photo of Coleman with the Hot Club of Limoges quartet, outdoors at night. He is wearing a suit and tie and long black overcoat—a beautiful coat—and carries his trumpet in a soft leather case. It’s hard to imagine that he was a generation older than the rest of the band, including Jean-Marie Masse on drums. In a letter to Masse adjacent to the photo, though, reality sneaks in as Coleman reports that his cholesterol is going “down, down, down” thanks to the attention of Masse’s doctor.
Bill Coleman is little known in the United States today. As Laplace writes, he was caught between a rock and a hard place, too familiar in France where “played with so many people that you do not notice.” And in the United States, he was gone so long that now he is forgotten.
Buck Clayton (1911-1991) by Alyn Shipton
Writer and BBC host Alyn Shipton bravely delivered his paper in French. Then again, his subject—Buck Clayton, born in Kansas, also spoke and understood French.
Wilbur Dorsey Clayton was born in 1911 in Parsons, Kansas, and his early life circles the globe. In Los Angeles he had some bit parts in movies. Then he continued to Shanghai where he led an American jazz orchestra – yes, in China – in the 1930s. His best-known era came when he joined the Count Basie Orchestra in Kansas City and went with them to New York City. Clayton is said to have been the de facto musical director. He became close to Basie’s vocal soloist, Billie Holiday, and also played on some of her great 1930s recordings. Shipton cites “Back In Your Own Back Yard” and “He’s Funny That Way” as two examples. Muted and open, he is her trumpet foil.
When Hugues Panassié met him in New York, he encouraged Clayton to come to France. And so to prepare, Buck and another trumpeter friend took lessons with a multi-lingual teacher in Harlem, a Professor Smith, with an office over the legendary nightclub Small’s Paradise (with jam sessions in the early mornings). His students called him Smitty.
In 1949 Clayton sailed to Paris and there recorded with pianist Earl Hines and clarinetist Barney Bigard. On that trip he also met Jean-Marie Masse. In Harlem à Limoges, there is a two-page letter from Clayton to Masse in long-hand, in French. Warm and personal and grammatically assured—he uses the subjunctive form of the verb savoir (to know)—Clayton writes “I want you to know how much we enjoyed your home . . . . The meals, the music that we played, all of it.” (Later in his autobiography, Clayton elaborated, saying “In Limoges when I eat at Jean-Marie’s home, my favorite meal is veal kidneys, chicken and steamed apples.”) The two became great friends.
Helped by Masse’s energy and connections, Clayton performed with French and American players and filled the halls. He took a path between traditional and post-War trumpet styles, saying “I heard myself well with both and I never was considered a traitor by one or the other because I played both genres of music.” He was elected honorary president of the Hot Club of Limoges. As health problems slowed Clayton down, he turned to composing, arranging and conducting. He worked in France, and again—as with Bill Coleman—on at least one occasion Jean-Marie Masse helped Clayton find and see a doctor.
Toward the end Alyn Shipton became the editor of Clayton’s life story (written with Nancy Miller Eliot), and another friendship bloomed. When Clayton died in 1991, he left some musical arrangements to Shipton who has organized the Buck Clayton Legacy Band, Alyn Shipton on bass. You can see them on YouTube. In 2008 Jean-Marie Masse arranged for three streets in Limoges to be named for three American musicians: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Buck Clayton.
William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith (1897-1973) by Ludovic Florin
The man who became Willie “The Lion” Smith was born outside New York City and grew up in Newark, NJ, where he proved to be a keyboard prodigy. In World War I he fought with the US Army in France. Presenting Smith’s story at Limoges, Ludovic Florin said that the young soldier “came to defend democracy in Europe, [where] he handled artillery in the trenches of Champagne, . . . [and was] many times cited and decorated.” Then he went home to Harlem and back to the piano.
In liner notes to the CD Harlem à Limoges (a companion to the book), Daniel Nevers writes, “[Smith’s] music had wings . . . .” and his style – known as stride—was “liable to replace an orchestra all on its own” with the four-note pulse in the left hand and the right hand embroidering the melody. “Stride probably owes at least as much (if not more) to the music of Europe’s 19th century composers as it does to the blues.” Willie The Lion Smith was an inventor of stride piano, one of the first and best to play it. Fats Waller and George Gershwin followed him around.
Ludovic Florin titled his paper “The Lion in the China Shop” (Limoges being a center for porcelain). It details Smith’s triumphant return to France in late 1949 and early 1950, at the invitation of Jean-Marie Masse. The title implies destruction, but what really happened was a great embrace between the American artist and his French fans, a musical bear hug. And it almost didn’t happen.
The Lion did not like to fly so when the invitation came, he hesitated, later writing that his wife, Jane, “went right out and bought two tickets to Paris by Air France. That did it.” In photos in Harlem à Limoges, Jane (or Jennie) (his nickname for her was Silvertop) is straight-backed, serious and distinguished wearing a black hat with a flower and a feather and a fur coat. It’s winter. As Masse describes Smith, he performed in “. . . a bowler hat [that’s] screwed down tight, and a fat cigar permanently clamped in his mouth.”
After meeting the couple at the train station, Masse presented them to the Mayor, also a WWI veteran. There were toasts, an official welcome, a re-telling of Smith’s glorious military service and musical merits. There were glowing articles in the press, including one from Hugues Panassié that linked Smith’s pianism to classical European music. And finally, there was the concert.
From recordings and reviews, Ludovic has recreated the program, beginning with Smith’s pieces— “Passionnette,” “Echoes of Spring,” “Morning Air,” “Harlem Joys”— followed by a tribute to Fats Waller, followed by “I Found A New Baby,” and ending with “Tea for Two.” After intermission and autograph signing, Smith returned with “Carolina Shout” by stride great James P. Johnson, Smith’s own “Nagaski,” “My Man,” “Pretty Baby,” a “rampage” of Bach themes, “Saint Louis Blues,” “Sweet Sue,” and interpretations of “La Marseillaise,” “Scarf Dance,” and Chopin’s “Polonaise.” Followed by a feast at the Masse apartment and a jam session, the guest of honor on piano and the host on drums.
As Smith signed off his hand-printed thank you letter to Masse—sent from New York, dated April 6, 1950, and reproduced in full in Harlem à Limoges to Jean-Marie—“[K]eep punching. I am in your corner always and forever your friend and pal who loves you . . . .”
Becca Pulliam edited The Piano Stylist magazine and produced JazzSet and Toast of the Nation (live jazz on New Year’s Eve) for NPR Music.
A tour of the exhibit, in French: