Americans in Paris
During the early decades of the 20th century, expatriate and exiled African American musicians and performing artists flocked to France, where their New Orleans and free improvisation styles quickly revolutionized the music, art, and very culture of a European nation primed to embrace the innovations of the Jazz Age.
Recently, British and American scholars have turned to an exploration of the factors causing this love affair between France and jazz to flourish, and what exactly it meant both for the artists themselves and for France’s culture and politics, aesthetics and economics. Krieger School French professor Derek Schilling seized this opportunity to create a new course, which he offered last fall, whereby students could study the developments through a lens of music, literature, and language.
“The spate of high quality cultural criticism on jazz in France struck me as an ideal moment to devote a course to it,” says Schilling, professor and chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures.
The course, For the Record, used readings in music criticism, history, and literature, along with frequent close listening to the music of the times, to investigate the impact on mainstream and avant-garde French culture of the influx of jazz—ranging from Josephine Baker in the 1920s to bebop and 1960s-era free improvisation. The course’s culmination was an international symposium held on campus. It featured noted scholars and legendary musicians, some of whom were reunited for the first time since a 1969 festival in Algiers. That festival brought together New York, Chicago, European, and Afro-Caribbean performers. Symposium participants included, among others, musicians Dave Burrell, Jacques Coursil, and Archie Shepp, and translator and activist Elaine Mokhtefi.
“…music listening supplements rich historical readings, all of which are brought together in seminar-style discussions. It leads back to something grounded, something concrete, from which we can grow.”—Lukas MacKinney ’21
“For the Record has been one of my most engaging classes this semester, if not out of all my time at Hopkins so far,” says junior Lukas MacKinney, who is double-majoring in French and film and media studies. “The course operates at many levels; music listening supplements rich historical readings, all of which are brought together in seminar-style discussions. It leads back to something grounded, something concrete, from which we can grow.”
Schilling, too, described the course as the most exciting one he’s taught at Hopkins. As both a fan of the genre and a scholar of French, he guided the students’ exploration of the intersections between the fields. Each of the 14 students, with majors ranging from neuroscience to sociology, chemistry to political science, brought valuable information and perspective to the table, Schilling says, creating a melting pot of learning.
“The course dynamic has been interesting because of the different disciplines,” he says. “From those with music performance experience, we hear interesting comments about structure, rhythm, and timbre. Others with more of a literary background talk about the use of language. Everyone has found a way in. Everyone has found connections to other courses of study.”
“… this class reminds me how impactful art can be on a culture, or a person’s daily life, or a movement, and how change can be facilitated not just through discovery, but also by creation.”—Guiliana Lee ’20
Senior Giuliana Lee, majoring in French and chemistry, says she enrolled in the course because music has played a significant role in her life. It’s been something she’s turned to in times of struggle, and she wanted to learn what it meant for other people.
“The course has given me a much deeper appreciation not only for music itself, but for the history of France and how connected that history is globally,” she says. “We tend to focus on cutting-edge technology, and ‘what’s the new science?’, and I have a foot in that pool as a chemist, but this class reminds me how impactful art can be on a culture, or a person’s daily life, or a movement, and how change can be facilitated not just through discovery, but also by creation.”