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Harlem in Montmartre - PBS

I just finished watching Harlem in Montmartre, a PBS special that aired in New York this evening. It purports to be about the influx of black musicians in pre-WWII Paris, a fascinating subject that did not go to waste in William A. Shack's book of the same title. Shack died before completing the writing, but his meticulous research was preserved in the posthumous book that materialized after others finished the job. Sad to say, the producers of this film—well-intentioned though they probably were—just didn't get it. I actually had high hopes for this PBS presentation, especially when I saw that it was not another Ken Burns semi-fictional work. However,as it turned out, it might as well have been—in fact, Burns would have dug far deeper for vintage footage.

There is much that can be said about that period in the 1920s and '30s when "le jazz hot" hit Paris and other parts of the Continent, but the film documentary treatment barely scratches the surface and wastes much of its hour and a half fresh footage of a contemporary band pthat makes an attempt at recreation. A good band it is, but one that fails to really capture the period's style. Another group does a far better job evoking the distinct approach created by Django Reinhardt and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, but it, too, is give excessive time. Using actual recording of that day's music would have made a big difference. I wonder, too, if the producers ever heard Ethel Waters' Harlem on My Mind, a perfect song for the subject at hand—but then, why bother with the subject?

The long asides with these bands interrupts what there is of continuity, which brings me to my main complaint: the meandering script. The writer or writers and producers (the credits rolled by so fast that they looked like the film's bare breasts: a blur) lose focus early on and their script drifts off subject, eventually going all over the place to pursue an irrelevant lead provided by either a clip or that cursed band. I know, it's really unfair to pan these musicians, they were, as I said, quite good, but miscast and, visually, ever so contrived. The feud between Charles Delauney and Hugues Panassié could have been handled better and we really didn't need to sporadically drop everything for mostly extraneous, sometimes inaccurate lessons in jazz history lessons. As I said, I could not find the name of the writer, but is it too much to ask for some research? My good friend, Dan Morgenstern is among the talking heads and he certainly knows the subject thoroughly, but did they run their script past him? I doubt it. Other talking heads also seemed knowledgeable and none were as silly as Burns perennial Stanley Crouch or as removed from their area of expertise as Gerald Early, another member of the Burns repertory company. The script was also rife with omissions that most viewers would not notice, but might be glaring to anyone with only a cursory knowledge of the subject.

Also, although she certainly was a central figure in Paris during this era, Josephine Baker is given too much attention while other entertainers—Alberta Hunter, for example—are not even mentioned. Alberta is seen with Bricktop and Mabel Mercer in one photo (see below), but I guess the film makers didn't recognize them.

At Bricktop's in Paris, 1928 (click on photo to enlarge)

Pardon my repeated reference to Ken Burns, but we are talking about a flawed film documentary, so his name quite naturally comes to mind. Anyway, as is invariably the case when Burns wanders off his mark, there is some compensation to be found in the rare footage his staff unearths. Here, too, the footage helps to make up for the ineptitude and skewed priorities of the film's makers, but a fascinating subject has essentially been wasted and that is a real shame.

Alberta Hunter headed her own revue at Casino De Paris in 1934.


  1. The program was pre-empted in our area by Ted Kennedy's death. Maybe it will be aired later, however your comments mirror my expectations and fears that surfaced once I'd read the interview with the director. I'm still not clear - did anyone from the production actually go to Paris and interview anyone there? There is some great stuff on the series of historical programs about Jazz in France made by French TV in the 80s (I think) and viewable via the Red Hot Jazz site. Even an interview with Jean Sablon! It's all in French but I imagine someone at PBS must be bilingual.

  2. I remember well when you took me along to a studio session with Alberta Hunter.....Bonnie

  3. Thanks, Bonnie.

    Yes, at Rudy Van Gelder's in Englewood Cliffs, by the Hudson..far, far away from Eagle River!