La revue nègre

"From New-York to the City of light"

"The beginning of a revolutionary artistic movement"La revue nègre

La Revue Nègre was a musical show created in Paris in 1925. Through it, jazz music and African-American culture gained enormous exposure across Europe. The show was a smash hit and it would have a lasting impact on the history of music hall and jazz in France.

Enthusiasm for creating a show of this kind came about when jazz bands brought jazz to Paris, a few months before the end of the First World War. La Revue Nègre was put on at the Champs Elysées Theater, at a time when the venue was in need of fresh ideas after going through a difficult period. André Daven, the Champs Elysées Theater's Artistic Director, was looking for a new kind of show in 1925. This was when he met Caroline Dudley Reagan.

 

The authors of La Revue Nègre

The musical themes and songs were composed by Spencer Williams, an established author thanks to hits such as Royal Garden in 1919 and Everybody Loves My Baby in 1924. The costumes were designed by Susan Smith and the stage sets by Miguel Covarrubias, who was famous for his cubist representations of nightlife in Harlem. The band, comprising a pianist (Claude Hopkins), a drummer (Percy Johnson), a trombonist (Daniel Day), a saxophonist (Joe Hayman), a clarinetist (Sidney Bechet) and Bass Hill on the tuba, was put together and led by Claude Hopkins. He had made his mark as a sideman to Wilbur Sweatman, a leading figure in the world of music since the turn of the century. Maud de Forest was, in fact, hired after Ethel Waters, one of the stars of so-called race records (records aimed at the African-American public) and African-American vaudeville turned down the role. De Forest was very much in the Mamie Smith mold while Waters was more in the Florence Mills style with a silkier voice and slimmer figure. Louis Douglass, Joe Alex and Honey Boy sang and danced a few solo numbers as did two of the eight chorus girls - Josephine Baker and Marion Cook - each performing duets arranged to appeal to Parisian tastes. Only Louis Douglass was already known in France. (Source: the authors of La Revue Nègre: Plaisirs du Jazz).

Caroline Dudley Reagan

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Although often overlooked, Caroline Dudley Reagan was essential to this artistic movement in Paris. In fact, it was thanks to her boldness and pugnaciousness that La Revue Nègre came into being and enjoyed the success we know it for today. You could say that the popularity of jazz, Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet in the City of Light was largely down to her. On its launch, the Museum of Harlem In Montmartre wanted to pay a fitting homage to this great lady.

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Joseph d'Elteil et Caroline Dudley Reagan

Caroline Dudley Reagan played an important role in the creation of this artistic movement. In fact, she was able to turn around the fortunes of a theater such as that of the Champs Elysées. The theater's debts had mounted so high, it was facing closure, with the director desperately searching for a way of keeping it afloat. So Caroline Dudley Reagan was tasked with finding a solution and creating a new kind of show. This African-American, married to poet Joseph Delteil, was a real impresario. She decided to go to New York and check out the Harlem Renaissance (a new, African-American movement which was going from strength to strength in the US at the time) in the hope of convincing some African-American artists to come to the Champs Elysées Theater. A visionary, she was convinced their exotic style would be a hit with Parisians. Her search paid off and she was able to persuade a dozen black musicians, including Sidney Bechet, and eight chorus girls, among them Josephine Baker, to pack their bags for Paris. These two artists could little have imagined that, by accepting her offer, their personal and professional lives would be changed for ever. It was no easy task, convincing performers to leave their homes for a foreign land about which they knew nothing. But once they had signed up with Caroline Dudley Reagan, they set off for Paris. They had to cross the Atlantic Ocean, landing at the trans-Atlantic station of Cherbourg, and then transferring to Saint-Lazarre. Caroline Dudley Reagan had certainly proved herself in terms of courage and professionalism. Thanks to her, La Revue Nègre came into being, featuring the performers she had found. The show was a smash hit both in the City of Light and across all of Europe. And it also saved the Champs Elysées Theater from closing.Although often overlooked, Caroline Dudley Reagan was essential to this artistic movement in Paris. In fact, it was thanks to her boldness and pugnaciousness that La Revue Nègre came into being and enjoyed the success we know it for today. You could say that the popularity of jazz, Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet in the City of Light was largely down to her. On its launch, the Museum of Harlem In Montmartre wanted to pay a fitting homage to this great lady.