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Cultural origins: Paris - WWII

Discotheques originated in occupied Paris during the Second World War. The Nazis banned jazz and closed many of the dance clubs, breaking up jazz groups and driving fans into illicit cellars to listen to recorded music. --Dave Haslam, 2000

Dance halls and discotheques - like pop music in general - gain little energy from the patronage of high society but have always relied on the enthusiasm of the young, the working class and the marginalised. Most important dance venues have been away from the mainstream, towards the edge of town. Brewster and Broughton are good at illuminating the obscure gay clubs of Eighties New York and the essential sites of Northern Soul like the Twisted Wheel in Manchester, the Blackpool Mecca, Wigan Casino and the Pier at Cleethorpes: this is pop history that travels further than Carnaby Street and the Cavern.

Disco [...]

Discotheques were not the first places where disco was played, discotheques were nightclubs in Paris during WWII where records of American jazz artists were played. The word discotheque stands for record library.

Chez Régine [...]

Born, 26 December 1929 in Belgium, Régine's claim to fame is inventing the discotheque.

History of the Discotheque

The French Establishment 1940-1947
By Quela Robinson

Nazi Germany's brutal occupation of Paris, France began June 14, 1940. Until the plug was pulled, Paris nightclubs had been some of the premier hosts of the American Jazz movement. Black American jazz musicians, artists and dancers had discovered Paris after the Harlem Renaissance through the tales of returning black servicemen from WWI. These artists were grateful to the French for the opportunity, respect and pay equity that would not come to America until over 40 years later.

The French, for their part, were obsessed with all things Negro due to the Primitivism movement in art and the spirit of "Negritude". [black pride] Negritude was a manifesto of Black intellectual expatriates that stood for self-determination and a total rejection of all Western influence, the reclamation of what was truly their own. New forms of art were finally able to bloom under this broad acceptance and generous patronage. Pre-WW2 Paris served as a welcome home to jazz luminaries Arthur Briggs, Dexter Gordon, Benny Carter and dancer Josephine Baker (nicknamed "Le Jazz Hot") among others.

With the rise of the Nazis throughout Europe, many Black expatriates returned home, anticipating better chances with the old Klan than with the new Reich. Notably, Josephine Baker and Thelonious Monk [Monk never fought in the resistance] stayed and fought with the French Resistance. Descending on terrified Parisians, the Nazis wasted no time shutting down their vibrant cabaret society and nightlife- jazz was first on their list. As a collaboration of Black and Jewish musicians from America, jazz represented the most glaring offense to Hitler's vision of a "Pure Society". Because every revolution must have its soundtrack, jazz soon became the theme music of the French Resistance.

New clubs and bars began to pop up literally underground. These late-night basement parties were run like the American speakeasy and included the use of passwords, memberships and rotating locations. The new form of nightclub was called "discotheque", the French word meaning "record library". Live acts and known venues were too dangerous to chance, as today's trespassing ticket was a one-way trip to the camps in 1941. The latest jazz records from the United States were awaited with bated breath by this new underground. It was a long and dangerous journey into Paris, dodging bullets and Nazi checkpoints (and you thought your bag was heavy!)

The term "discotheque" would soon grow to signify any type of nightclub that played recorded instead of live music. Virtually overnight, "Le Discotheque" opened on rue Huchette in 1941, an underground bar dedicated to jazz records. These early clubs served as refuge and solace for dusty Resistance fighters, sympathizers and dancers. They weren't extravagant venues, but cozy hovels that served a stiff drink, good music and renegade opinion. In the daylight hours, the French experienced enough discomfort at the hands of a bipolar government comprised of Vichy collaborators and de Gaulle guerillas. The music was the only thing that stayed consistent, and the Underground clung to its muse like a high school girlfriend.

With the end of the occupation in 1944, the underground clubs couldn't wait to do their part for the new national celebration. Jazz, once again, flowed as freely as the liquor and the clubs became bigger, better and a bit snobbier (sound familiar?). The black expatriates returned in a second wave that would last through the sixties and incubate jazz for the coming birth of the Cool. The New Paris was all about sound and vision. In 1947, Paul Pacine's passionate love for jazz records, the discotheque scene and American liquor came together to form the first real lush lounge, the Whiskey au Go-Go. The Whiskey featured the latest in American jazz and spirits, which drew ever-larger crowds of dancers. The beautiful people soon fled to the exclusive late-night Chez Castel, with its invitation-only policy, VIP rooms and morose existentialists. The foundation for the house called Disco was now complete.

Two noteworthy events were developing Stateside during the early forties that would also contribute greatly to facilitating the disco experience. America was just entering its "Golden Age of Radio", and the deejay until that time had primarily served in a marketing capacity as advertiser and news anchor. Deejays like Al Jarvis and Martin Block's habit of playing their own records between news, ads and soap operas established the deejay as music selector. When the advertisers and labels caught up to the enthusiastic audience response, radio as a market was born. Fortunately for us, the deejay was allowed to evolve from a mere announcer to host and educator for the community- a force to be respected as well as heard.

At the same time in the Jim Crow South, African-American laborers transformed the 1889 Edison Phonograph machine into the "Jukebox," the first tool for the wide scale distribution and appropriation of independent black music. The verb "juke" is rural black vernacular for the possessed movement of the body as in dance or lovemaking (not such a long way to 'jack your body,' is it?) After long days of harassment, violation and body breaking labor in the hot sun, that one record and a cold beer on a Saturday night could transform a simple machine into medicine. Because the proprietors of these Love Shacks owned the jukeboxes, both national and local records could be loaded as soon as they were pressed.

Due to segregation and cultural mores of the time, black music was produced by specialized subsidiaries and tagged "race records". Local music (most often blues) was produced a single at a time, and was often dependent on the ability to collect money from hobbled friends as well as finding a studio that would rent their facilities to blacks. White owned networks and radio refused to play even the most ethnically ambiguous records (even some Italians) until the 50's, so the jukebox allowed for independent distribution, promotion and community response. The juke joint would establish the early tradition of the nightclub as the first place to hear new music in the African American community. This focus would allow disco music to develop from the discotheque itself in the years to come. -- http://www.sistersf.com/articles/discoPart1.php

See also David Haslam's article on the origins of disco

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