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Celebrating America’s Jazz Ambassador to France

Anyone living in France soon realises the country takes its jazz very seriously, ranking it as a high art form and ennobling it with prominent slots on flagship radio stations such as France Musique and France Culture.

G.I. - Sim Copans
G.I. - Sim Copans

Unsurprisingly perhaps given that New Orleans - birthplace of jazz -- was a French protectorate in the 18th century and the music includes vestiges of French influences. Jazz, as the French Quarter website notes:

"...is a by-product of the unique cultural environment found in New Orleans at the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the vestiges of French and Spanish colonial roots, the resilience of African influences after the slavery era and the influx of immigrants from Europe. The ways these cultures mingled, collided and evolved together in the Crescent City produced America's most distinctive musical style."

G.I. Sim Copans - American Ambassador of Jazz
Thus it came to pass that Americans GIs and one in particular - Simon (Sim) Copans - played an important role in cementing France's love affair with jazz.

The coup de foudre was initiated in the 1920s after American jazzman Sydney Bechet made his first European tour (1924) taking part in the musical "Negro Revue" at the Theatre des Champs Elysees, Paris alongside Josephine Baker .

A comprehensive account of the voyage of jazz from New Orleans across the Atlantic to France can be found in a graduate thesis by Roscoe Seldon Suddarth and published by the University of Maryland School of Music. He starts at World War I and the US army noting:

"Jazz came to France in World War I with the US army, and became fashionable in the 1920s-treated as exotic African- American folklore. However, when France developed its own jazz players, notably Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, jazz became accepted as a universal art. Two well-born Frenchmen, Hugues Panassié and Charles Delaunay, embraced jazz and propagated it through the Hot Club de France. After World War II, several highly educated commentators ensured that jazz was taken seriously."

Later in the account the musicologist underlines the important role played by Simon (Sim) Copans, one of the founding fathers of the Souillac Jazz Festival in the Lot (46200), whom he describes as the 'American Ambassador of Jazz'.

Jazz as a Weapon
Thanks to Sim Copans the popularity of jazz in France blossomed after World War II. His remarkable tale is also recounted more briefly here by Richard H. Cummings author of several books including "Radio Free Europe's 'Crusade for Freedom': Rallying Americans Behind Cold War Broadcasting, 1950-1960" (2010) on his Cold War Radio blog

"…jazz was used as a weapon by both sides of the Iron Curtain: RFE (Radio Free Europe) in its early years contributed its quota of forbidden jazz in daily programs beamed to the younger listeners, although some of the exile broadcasters, brought up on mazurkas, polkas and waltzes, were inclined to doubt the assurances of their American advisers that jazz music would prove as infectious behind the Iron Curtain as it had been all around the world. But after Stalin's passing in 1953 the Communist regimes grudgingly lifted their taboo and their radio stations cautiously ventured to play whatever jazz records they had on file, mostly music of the 1920s and 1930s. By 1956, however, the appetite for jazz was so accepted that the regime radios boldly introduced hit tunes from the West. Radio Warsaw smartly had its records flown in from New York.

"To counter this competition, RFE sharpened its own programs, and put on recognized Western jazz experts to provide the know-how that the Communists could not match. Simon Copans, an American authority who had lived many years in France and who conducted a jazz program on France's Radio Diffusion Francaise, was borrowed from that network to prepare a weekly record session, which in turn was translated and made available for broadcast by all of RFE's Voices. John Wilson's program, 'The World of Jazz',broadcast regularly over New York City's WQXR radio station, was made available for rebroadcast over RFE, as were special jazz programs contributed by New York's radio station WNEW.

"Simon (Sim) Copans actually provided jazz program texts to Radio Free Europe's language services in Munich from October 1956 to June 1959. His program text "Jazz from Paris" in English was then translated into the respective RFE languages for broadcasting.

"He created an international jazz festival in 1976 in Souillac, France, that continues today. Sim Copans died in 2000 and remains a "legend" in France for his promotion of Jazz and American Gospel music.

"On May 30, 2012 there will just be the start of an exhibition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Sim Copan's birth to run through this year's international jazz Festival ("Le Festival Sim Copans") July 15-22, 2012. In addition there will be a five-day program of events in his honour in the Vallee de la Dordogne lotoise (Dordogne Valley) from June 5-9, 2012."

Souillac Jazz Festival 2012
Souillac Jazz Festival 2012

Normandy Landings
If we now return to the musicologist Suddarth's history, we are told something of Copans' progression through academe and how he came to land in Normandy with jazz in his pocket as it were:

"Copans received a doctorate in 1938 from Brown University with a dissertation on French perceptions of American democracy under the Second Empire. He did research in France in the 1930s when he also met and married a French woman before returning to teach French civilization at Colombia University. Although exempt from military service as head of a family, he nevertheless volunteered as an interpreter in the information service and participated as a "Radio Officer" in the (June 6 1944) Normandy landings. Since the Germans had confiscated most of the radios on the northern French coast, one way chosen by the US army to communicate with the French villages and towns they passed through was the "mobile unit"-a truck mounted with a loudspeaker. Copans found the best means of attracting attention was to start by playing a loud jazz selection, often by an American big band!"

Liberation of Paris
Copans participated in the liberation of Paris and then got a liaison job with French radio thanks in part to his involvement with the Armed Forces Network (AFN) which installed a station in Rueil-Malmaison outside Paris.

Here on AFN Copans launched a programme of American jazz, gospel, folk, and musical comedies for GIs and the local population. AFN was renamed Paris Inter and later France Inter, now one of the most popular radio stations in France. Copans' reshaped radio programme Panorama du Jazz Américain was broadcast by the network until 1953.The programmes (more than 4,000 in all) changed name thereafter and these and various others for French radio continued off and on until 1973.

His role in disseminating jazz to the new generation in France is universally recognized in France and hard to overestimate says Suddarth.

"Copans, who remained in France until his death in 2000, became a kind of American ambassador of culture: delegate and presenter with the Voice of America (he hosted a retransmission of the Newport Jazz Festival on French radio), head of the Franklin Roosevelt Cultural Centre [sic] (this in fact is the Benjamin Franklin Library at the American Cultural Centre in Paris), and founder of L'Institut d'Études Américaines in 1959, where he also lectured. He was a major force in creating the jazz festival at Souillac, near Lanzac, his home from 1963 and where he died in 2000."

Sim Cpans 1912 to 2000
Sim Copans
1912 - 2000

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