J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Lloyd’s Eugene Bullard


Eugene Bullard: Black Expatriate in Jazz-Age Paris
By Craig Lloyd
University of Georgia Press
Tradepaper edition with new preface
0-8203-2818-9

At one point in his biography Eugene Bullard: Black Expatriate in Jazz-Age Paris, Craig Lloyd sums up his subject writing: “His had been the rough company of gypsies, sailors, boxers, soldiers, and jazzmen.” (p. 97) In short, our kind of people. Sadly Bullard, recipient of the Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor Medal, never received proper recognition during his lifetime in the country of his birth.

Born into the tragedy of Southern segregation, Bullard never resigned himself to his circumstances. As teenager, he ran away from home, ultimately stowing away aboard a ship bound for Europe. Once there, he began to thrive in an environment of freedom, finding work as boxer. He would be a friendly colleague of champion in exile Jack Johnson, jazz’s favorite pugilist.

Eventually settling in Paris, Bullard would enlist with the French before America’s entry into WWI. Decorated for valor at Verdun, Bullard would transfer to the French aviation corps, where he would earn the distinction of being the first African-American combat pilot. It was a distinction American officers did not appreciate when the American military, newly engaged in the Great War, absorbed the Yank expatriates fighting for France. Lloyd’s new preface includes further examples of this disgraceful treatment of Bullard.

After the war, the decorated Bullard stayed in his adopted Paris to become a leading figure in the budding night club business of Montmartre, first as a musician. Lloyd describes Bullard “becoming proficient enough as a drummer (he admits several times he was never more than that)” (p. 77) Bullard’s real importance to the French jazz scene was as a club manager and eventually owner. He would befriend and assist legendary musicians like Noble Sissle, Sidney Bechet, and Louis Armstrong. He would even return to Europe with Armstrong in 1952 to translate and assist with logistics on a continental tour.

As National Socialism started to conquer Europe, Bullard once again answered the French call to service, assisting French intelligence collect information on German agents. When France was over-run by the German war machine, Bullard was forced to make a tortuous flight back to his American homeland. Although nearly anonymous as a resident of Harlem, Bullard was still held in high esteem by the French, receiving the Legion of Honor Medal in 1959.

Bullard’s story is fascinating, and at times infuriating. Although his prose is a bit rough at times, Lloyd’s research is solid and his account of Bullard’s life is authoritative. Despite a few clunky passages, it is a biography well worth reading. Like his contemporary James Reese Europe, Bullard’s cinematic life seems to cry out for dramatization on screen.