Within the long history of jazz music, many people have made their mark in one way or another. Some through playing, others through its documentation and study. Among the latter, exist polarizing figures that valiantly stand firm in their beliefs and thoughts on jazz music. Hugues Panassié is one such figure.
Panassié was a man of many hats: saxophonist, journalist, author, record label owner, concert organizer, and huge Louis Armstrong admirer. Out of all of these things, Panassié is most known as a critic and defender of Traditional/New Orleans Jazz. Such an electrifying voice in jazz criticism deserves a deep dive to understand and consider why he was such an important and controversial figure in the world of jazz music.
Hugues Panassié was born in Paris on February 27, 1912. At around age twelve Panassié contracted polio, due to polio limiting his physical abilities, Panassié started playing saxophone.
Through saxophone, Panassie fell in love with music, particularly jazz, which would become his lifelong obsession. As early as 18 years old, Panassié was already writing about jazz music in periodicals. This would continue throughout Panassié’s life until he passed away on December 8, 1974.
Panassié was extremely busy and accomplished much in his youth as a writer and critic. In 1932 he was a founding member of Hot Club de France, serving as its president from 1935-39. Although jazz had already become popular throughout Europe many years prior, the onset of World War II caused problems for the jazz enthusiast. After France fell under Nazi occupation, American jazz was banned. This was mainly due to Nazi racist ideology, believing that Black American music was inferior and primitive to the music created by whites. Despite this setback, a clever Panassié circumvented this situation. Panassié hosted a radio show but submitted American jazz records to Nazi censors under different labels and titles. For example, a record titled “Sadness of Saint Louis” would, in actuality, be a Louis Armstrong recording of Saint Louis Blues. After the war, Panassié would serve as editor of Jazz Hot journal from 1945-46. During this time, Panassié also contributed heavily to many other periodicals, authored many books on jazz, and established Swing Records in 1937.
Panassié loved jazz, but in particular, he felt that the best, perhaps true, form of Jazz resided in Traditional/New Orleans Jazz. In 1938 with the help of Mezz Mezzrow, Hugues Panassié organized recording sessions that included Sidney Bechet and Tommy Lanier as part of a Traditional Jazz Revival. Panassié was a harsh critic, often making his brutally honest opinions felt by all, yet he adored great talent and was very fond of Louis Armstrong. Panassié reviewed Louis extensively, in an essay written in 1946, Panassié describes Louis’ stage presence and musical ability as follows:
“The entrance of Louis on stage was something unforgettable: as the first measures of his band resounded he made his appearance running, like a brilliant meteor flourishing this trumpet…He gave the impression of approaching the room as one approaches a person, as if he did credit to a host and wanted to share as quickly as possible the extraordinary life force that animated him. Contact was immediately established, one was irresistibly captured by the incredible dynamism that was released by his entire being.”
In 1969 Panassié wrote a biography on Louis, with an English translation published in 1971. Panassié and Louis hit it off from the day they met and became lifelong friends. Often sharing correspondence and visiting each other both in France and New York on numerous occasions. Their friendship was genuinely significant to Panassié, he even named his son after Louis Armstrong.
As mentioned, Panassié was a polarizing figure; mainly due to his harsh criticism of jazz of later styles, in particular, bebop. He claimed bebop to be a form of music distinct from jazz, essentially stating that bebop is not jazz but something else entirely. He would continue to ruffle feathers even more with the comments he would make about prominent artists like Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk. His thoughts on these people and their preferred style of playing jazz could range from dismissive to downright disrespectful. No matter how one may feel about Hugues Panassié, his contribution to jazz through writing is undeniable, especially for the audiences throughout Europe. Though some may think that his conservative views on jazz hurt relations between new and old schools. Panassié still did much in getting jazz accepted as a respected art form in the earlier years of its European exposure.