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Jazz, les échelles du plaisir, O. Roueff

La Dispute, Paris (2013). 268 p.
William Weber
p. 254-256
Référence(s) :

Olivier Roueff, Jazz, les échelles du plaisir, La Dispute, Paris, 2013, 268 p.

Texte intégral

1Writing the history of a subject from a sociological point of view has emerged as a genre in its own right. In the wake of Pierre Bourdieu’s writings on the genesis and structure of the literary world, and of Paul DiMaggio’s depiction of the transformation of orchestral concerts, Olivier Roueff has fashioned a history of jazz in France which focuses the role of intermediaries as links between musicians and the public. Using a keenly manipulated framework of analysis, O. Roueff depicts how such figures led movements variously of popular and educated taste among publics in the French jazz world. The book depicts a major rupture in the late 1940s between proponents of traditional and avant-garde jazz, a dispute that I sense went deeper than its parallel did in the United States.

2O. Roueff designed the introduction to the book as a brief starting-point for his analysis rather than as an extended theoretical essay. He traces his conception of the scales to the effort of Erving Goffman to analyze how leaders of a cultural world define that social space and its ability to form groups of adherents and adapt to changing cultural and economic circumstances. Drawing on the work of Raymonde Moulin, Paul DiMaggio, and Richard A. Peterson, among others, Olivier Roueff focuses on the key roles played by intermediaries negotiating within the production, distribution, and interpretation of art objects while tastes change under the pressure of competing ideologies. He borrowed from Michael Baxandall an ethnographic sense of how a common language evolved between painters and their patrons which can be seen as parallel to that between jazz players and music critics.

3The problem of race is central to the analysis, and O. Roueff shows that in early jazz such aspects were even more complicated in France than in the U.S. Show producers and commentators talked variously about African, American, and African-American nègres and gave racial identity to the number called “the Kikapoo”. In 1925 a periodical called the Revue nègre tried to sort all this out by identifying “a black originor “an American sublimation (understood as white).

4Organized around an historical narrative, the book traces the acclimatization of jazz in France, the influence of radio and recordings, the impact of the two world wars, and the evolution of free jazz from the 1960s. O. Roueff links historical and sociological developments to explain how jazz arrived in France with the cake-walk, a dance style formed by Afro-American slaves that began appearing in Parisian music halls around 1902. He shows that early jazz served bourgeois hedonism more directly than in the U.S., since its precedents can be traced back to a type of cabarets (cafés chantants) of the 1860s and the Olympia Music-Hall of the 1890s. Critical to his argument is proof that the cake-walk began tending to a well-off audience and was somewhat esoteric and indeed, to a considerable extent, a high culture (une culture lettrée, p. 161).

5In analyzing the succeeding periods of French jazz, the book shows how a corpus of works prescribed by specialized professionals evolved through the work of intermediaries who pursued their own self-interest while negotiating between musicians and the public. Thus did leading critics such as Robert Delaunay, Hughes Panassié, and André Hodeir come into conflict through strategies independent of — indeed, in some contexts competing with — demand manifested by consumers. That social process evolved with a series of recordings called Jazz Hot that begun in 1928 and culminated in an epochal feud in 1947 between critics promoting popular or avant-garde taste. In France the term “hot jazz” was seen from the start as the opposite to “straight jazz”, indeed the better versus less well educated listeners. The dispute centered around Panassié’s writings in Jazz Tango and the music performed by an organization called the Hot Club de France based in a university jazz club. Delaunay was excluded from the Hot Club, and clubs in regional cities supported the traditional conception of jazz. Even though Panassié favored traditional jazz styles, he nonetheless drew on the notion of the sublime by which classical music had been interpreted. By contrast, Hodeir and his followers promoted bebop, the improvisatory style begun in the 1940s, as a new wave that identified Panassié’s taste as out of date.

6I am nevertheless suspicious of Roueff’s definition of canon formation through the term pantheonization, since it involves distracting historical implications that lead away from understanding what was going in a particular area of musical life. This is especially a problem because jazz developed a fragmented set of canonic tendencies, in some ways similar to what happened in the world of opera. In neither field did a unitary concept emerge that had as broad an impact as on classical music did within concert life from the early nineteenth century. Stéphane Dorin (2010) suggested such fragmentation in his history of jazz in India.

7The conclusion of the book suggests how in recent years norms of legitimate taste were redefined to a greater extent in eclectic rather than factional terms. Having published a study of the jazz public in Burgundy with Wenceslas Lizé (see​?id=46), O. Roueff argues that the jazz public became older and included more women, but has also become more deeply rooted in rural areas. He sees a profound enigma in the problem of race found in the jazz world: “where does this form that links a tone, or a sentence, to a racial identity with such unanimity?,” he asks. The answer has to be historical, he argues, given what happened in French musical life at the turn of the twentieth century with the adaptation of the Afro-American rhythmic pulse to bourgeois musical culture.

8In the end, Jazz, les échelles du plaisir follows and deepens other histories of jazz in France, like New Orleans sur Seine by Ludovic Tournès (1999), another early book written by Roueff with Denis-Constant Martin (Martin and Roueff, 2000) and one by Damon Phillips (2013). It is nicely supplemented by a companion website which features various materials, and can be found at​.

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Dorin, S., 2010. Jazz and Race in Colonial India. The Role of Anglo-Indian Musicians in the Diffusion of Jazz in India. Jazz Research Journal, 4 (2), 123-140.

Martin, D.-C., Roueff, O., 2000. La France du jazz. Musique, modernité et identité dans la première moitié du xxe siècle. Parenthèses, Marseille.

Phillips, D.J., 2013. Shaping Jazz: Cities, Labels, and the Global Emergence of an Art Form. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Tournès, L., 1999. New Orleans sur Seine. Histoire du Jazz en France. Fayard, Paris.

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Référence papier

William Weber, « Jazz, les échelles du plaisir, O. Roueff », Sociologie du travail, Vol. 57 - n° 2 | 2015, 254-256.

Référence électronique

William Weber, « Jazz, les échelles du plaisir, O. Roueff », Sociologie du travail [En ligne], Vol. 57 - n° 2 | Avril-Juin 2015, mis en ligne le 17 avril 2015, consulté le 21 mai 2018. URL :

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William Weber

California State University, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, CA 90840, United States of America

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