By the close of World War I, France had embraced the American black even though America herself still had not. The French were ready to celebrate after their liberation and victory, whereas back home there was little integration and plenty of racial cruelty. The soldiers of the U.S. Army's all-black 369th Infantry, dubbed the Harlem Hellfighters, had fought in France. After the war, they captivated the more culturally adventurous French people with jazz and dance.
Drink-and-dance-all-night jazz clubs sprang up in Paris. The party was nonstop, and many blacks found good reason to make a new start among a racially mixed populace that actually wanted their company. In La Revue Negre, Josephine Baker titillated clubgoers with the scandalous "Danse Sauvage," clad only in a skirt made of bananas, and the skinny St. Louisan came to be regarded as an exotic jewel. New Orleans son Sidney Bechet, who never did learn how to read music, charmed on the alto saxophone and eventually married a Frenchwoman.
The man who brought the soundtrack for the Parisian Jazz Age was James Reese Europe, the bandleader who had joined the Hellfighters to recruit a band from its ranks. The 369th Infantry Band combined marches and ragtime into a sound that was eminently danceable and wound up forming a root in the family tree of jazz.
Several branches of the St. Louis County Library are showing a free film this week on James Europe and the sizzling mulligan stew he cooked up in 1920s Paris. Men of Bronze: The Black American Heroes of World War I chronicles the war, the music and the good times. The film is one of several events coordinated by the library in conjunction with The Jazz Age In Paris: 1914-1940, an engrossing exhibit executed by the Smithsonian Institution now on view at St. Louis County Library Headquarters, 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd. The displays on the people and places that defined the culture include a continuously running video.
Men of Bronze: The Black American Heroes of World War I is shown for free from 7-8:30 p.m. April 20 at the St. Louis County Library, Natural Bridge Branch, 7606 Natural Bridge Rd.; and on April 21 at the Indian Trails Branch, 8400 Delport. Call 382-3116, 428-5424 or TDD 994-9255 for more information.