Jun 9th 2024

French pianist Hervé Sellin likes the fusion of black and white jazz

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

 

The European jazz scene was once a favorite refuge of black American players who were trying to escape racism at home in the pre-WWII and postwar periods. France became a favored place to live and make music because the French were considered to be “color-blind”. The jazz club scene was as vibrant as anything in New York and the black version of jazz was welcomed by the French audience.

Most interesting to the visiting Americans was that the French were already developing their own style of  “European jazz”.

Now, says the retired French jazz pianist Hervé Sellin, the two schools of modern jazz have fused somewhat to become complementary, each borrowing from the other. Labels like pure black or pure white music have faded. To be sure, some black players still doubt that the white man can understand the roots of black jazz. As Sellin says, “There are some blacks who believe that only they can play their music – it belongs to them.”

Hervé Sellin
Hervé Sellin

 

Sellin looked back at the evolution of jazz styles in a recent interview with me at a friend’s home in Bordeaux. He has performed extensively with black and white jazz groups in the U.S. and is well-placed to see what has happened. (See Q&A transcript below.)

At his parents’ urging, he first entered the Paris Conservatory to study the classics. Part of his current repertoire combines his jazz instincts with the written compositions of Debussy, Fauré, Ravel and others. He recalled in our interview that the Conservatory forbade experimentation with jazz at that time. Even talk about jazz among the students was forbidden.

The rules have loosened up considerably now. Sellin, Daniel Humair and basiist Jean-Paul Celea all taught jazz there at the same time. The culmination of their ideas is captured in their new CD “New Stories”.

Here is an edited and translated transcript of our interview.

Q. Where is jazz in France going today?

A. It’s becoming more and more interesting because the great talent of the current players. There are jazz schools everywhere. I eventually taught jazz art the Paris Conservatoire. We have European jazz today. It has become very intellectual, very improvisational. We borrow from world music -- Africa, North Africa, East Europe, Polynesia. That’s about where we are today.

And yet isn’t jazz today marginalized, compared to the golden years of the 1950s?

Jazz remains very respected, very respectable as an art form, but it frightens a lot of people. The jazz club scene has shrunk to a few survivors. Anyway we players don’t do it to make money. It’s a passion.

Isn’t “jazz” a sort of catch-all term for experimental or improvisational groups?

When a new style emerges, we attach the word “jazz” to it because it gives the impression of continuity. But there is lot of confusion around improvised music and jazz. What’s different is that today all musicians have been trained at a very, very high level. Of course good musicians are also capable of composing something that’s not very interesting.

Isn’t there a problem of identity when almost anything can be called jazz?

First, my mind functions in a way that enables me to find new music that has not been heard before. That’s a problem in France because we always want to keep order in styles of music. If I try something else, it’s considered confusing. But this is exactly what I want in music. Because if I am doing something that has not already been done, I want to surprise everyone, including myself.

What do you make of Jacques Loussier and the Swingle Singers? Weren’t they performing jazzed-up versions of the classics, like a lot of your work?

The public in the U.S. was crazy for the Swingles and Loussier and for French music in general. They didn’t want the French to just come to New York and play American jazz. They wanted a French touch, a sense of lightness.

You were educated at the Paris Conservatory in the classics, in so-called serious music. At what point did you change your life?

We have to look back a little further. I come from a musical family. My father was a jazz trumpeter. My mother was a singer. In the late 1940s my father moved into ”variety music”, show business  -- the studios, television, that kind of work. He made a lot of records, but in popular music. He was even in the orchestra that provided the themes for Michel Legrand’s “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg”.

What influence did your parents have on your musical tastes?

My parents wanted me to become a “serious” musician, so I entered the world of serious music. At the Conservatory we learned the great classical repertoire. But back then, we were forbidden to play jazz or even to talk about jazz.  It was at this point – after the war – that my parents wanted me to study “serious” music. Daniel Humair and Jean-Paul Celea were at the Conservatory with me along other pianists, including some who are very well-known in France -- Andy Emler and Antoine Hervé.

Your friend Daniel Humair is a fantastic drummer but also a composer. Isn’t he well known in both disciplines.

Yes, now 86 years old, Daniel has become a jazz icon.  He was always strong in the classics. He played a lot with the Ensemble Contemporain, under Pierre Boulez and others. He is really a true jazz player, European jazz. His music is improvisatory avant garde. Along with Michel Portal, François Jenneau and others, they created jazz that was typically French. Inspired by American jazz perhaps but different.

Why have you moved on from American roots in jazz?

American jazz has stayed very conservative. There are some contemporary examples but very few. But America is still the Mecca. Yet when we French go to New York, Americans like European styles because it’s something they do not have. Look at Thelonious Monk. He could have played the trumpet, the vibraphone or the bagpipe and he would still be a genius. Johnny Griffin played piano before becoming known for his sax. And his piano derived from Monk. One naturally came to build on Monk’s work because there had never been anyone or like him before or since.

 

Your trio shows what symbiosis can result from musicians who have played together, off and on, for 30 or 40 years.

First of all, it’s not my trio. It’s three players together. Our CD “New Stories” was a high point for us. From time to time of course one has to take control of things. I didn’t want Daniel to do things he had already performed with others. The essential is to communicate with other players, and we take off and the result is good or not so good.

Just how spontaneous was the result? Did you spend hours in rehearsal?

We just decided to try something together. Jean-Paul, Daniel and I taught together at the Conservatory, and we all had this desire to do something that drew upon classical music. Of course the basic music has to be written so we can play around it. Then it’s totally improvised, around such standards as “My Funny Valentine”, “Stella by Starlight”, et cetera.

Isn’t it true, as the musicologist Kyle Gann says, that one cannot judge immediately what’s good or bad in contemporary music? We must wait 20 years.

Yes, look at Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”. It caused a scandal. It was booed and rejected by everyone. Now it’s standard in the concert hall. In jazz, I think it’s not 20 years, but more like 50 years before we know what has worked or not. One has to step back and reflect on whether we have brought something new.

One of the biggest compliments seems to be when a white jazz player gets invited to sit in with a black group.

Yes, and I have had the good fortune to play with a lot of black Americans. Maybe that’s because of my own classical training. They were probably interested in that. But a lot of white players have been accepted by the black musicians – Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan and many others. But we can’t really understand the roots of black jazz. It comes from a past of great suffering. There are some blacks who believe that only they can play their music – it belongs to them.

What is this racial debate really about?

The blacks feel they have access to differ tent traditions – the suffering of their people. They believe only they are capable of playing their music. The white musicians brought other things to jazz. So now one does not speak of black or white jazz. It’s a fusion of the two. Some exceptions of course, like Stan Getz. One cannot say he plays like a black man or the black men play like the white man. Now they are complementary.

Hasn’t the French jazz scene always been color-blind?

True, lot of American jazz musicians came to Paris to be accepted without question.  Kenny Clark, Charlie Parker, Johnny Griffin. They all settled in France but they eventually traveled to the US to perform.

The white players haven’t entirely crossed over to imitate the black players, have they?

No, white jazz players contributed their own music. This attracted the black guys. They had no background in Baroque classics, for example. They were limited to swing and blues. At first they were bothered by this divide but eventually the two styles intermingled. Of course the real question is good music versus bad music, not black or white. After all, the first Dixieland jazz recording was by a group of entirely white players.

Isn’t there a lot of argument over what is jazz and what is not?

As soon as there is a new style of music being launched, the word “jazz” is attached to it. This gives it continuity. And yet sometimes the new styles have nothing at all to do with jazz.

Doesn’t jazz suffer today from a lack of prestige, compared to the great classics from Europe long ago?

The demands of good jazz are just as daunting as the compositions of Mozart or Chopin. Jazz is either good or bad. If it’s bad, we can’t really explain why. And if it’s good, we can’t explain that either. In the classics, we are blinded by what’s written, by the composition.

End

 

 


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