Home LifestyleArt and Culture The incredible story of Arthur Briggs, the musician who brought jazz to Europe

The incredible story of Arthur Briggs, the musician who brought jazz to Europe

by Sofia Navarro
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In the internment camp of Saint Denis, north of Paris, playing jazz was prohibited. In fact, the Nazis despised jazz: they saw it as a “degenerate musical style” with its “wild rhythms” and improvised “breaks.” So, when one of the Nazi commanders of the invasion of France, Otto von Stulpnagel, visited the camp in early 1941, the legendary jazz musician Arthur Briggs had to change his repertoire.

Accompanied by three other prisoners – he being the only black person – Briggs performed a segment of Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony, leaving everyone present in silence and admiration.

Von Stulpnagel called for Briggs and told him, “I never thought it would be possible,” referring to a black person being able to play Beethoven.

And in impeccable German, Briggs replied, “There are many things you don’t know.”

The life of Arthur Briggs, the musician who brought jazz to Europe, has many more anecdotes like this, something that has always fascinated the BBC correspondent in Paris, Hugo Schofield.

But Arthur Briggs is not a well-known name in the world of jazz, despite academics considering him the main promoter of jazz in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s of the 20th century.

This contradiction led Schofield to try to find answers.

The Recordings

As part of his research, Schofield managed to access almost seven hours of interviews with Briggs recorded in 1982, which are in the archive of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University (New Jersey, USA).

The content of the recordings had not been made public until now.

The recording begins with Briggs saying, “I was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 10, 1901,” which matches the records available about him. In fact, Arthur Briggs’s obituary published by The New York Times coincides with the content of the recording.

But with the new details known about his life – some of which Schofield confirmed with surviving relatives of the musician – it is now known that Briggs was actually born on the Caribbean island of Grenada, at that time part of the British Empire.

Barbara Pierrat-Briggs

Arthur Briggs learned classical technique to play the trumpet.
Jazz historian Rainer Lotz says little is known about his childhood in St. Georges: “He simply appeared in the US in 1917. We don’t know where he lived [in Grenada], how he was educated, whether he had any musical education. We don’t know.”

But why would he lie? And why maintain the lie for so long?

Schofield continued his search.

Arthur Briggs and Harlem in 1917

When Briggs arrived in the historically black neighborhood of Harlem in New York in 1917, he found a hotbed of creativity and energy, where African American musicians were shaping the emerging genre of jazz.

Briggs quickly immersed himself in the city’s music scene, playing with iconic figures like Sidney Bechet, Will Marion Cook, and James Reese Europe.

Seeing the opportunities that could arise abroad, Briggs enlisted in the army, only to be able to play with the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, a band made up of members of a segregated military regiment.

The Southern Syncopated Orchestra even played at Buckingham Palace in the UK.

Barbara Pierrat-Briggs

Briggs went through several bands during the 1920s and 1930s, touring Europe.
And even though the style they played wasn’t quite jazz yet, hints of what was to come began to emerge.

Europe, Jazz, and Fame

By the time Briggs arrived in Europe in 1919, jazz did not yet exist on the continent, so he dedicated himself to listening to the new music coming from the US and playing wherever there were people who wanted to dance.

Travis Atria, Briggs’s biographer, highlights how the pioneering jazz trips he took during the early 1920s to different European cities were crucial in spreading the concept of jazz, particularly as a disruptive element to traditional European music rules:

“He was traveling to all these places, and it’s incredible the people he met. He was going to Vienna, where they invented the waltz, saying, ‘Here’s a completely different rhythm that you can’t imagine, and they won’t recognize it as music yet. But just listen to it…'”

Barbara Pierrat-Briggs

Arthur Briggs brought jazz to various places in Europe.
Jazz historian Lotz also highlights his virtuosity with the instrument: “His importance [as a trumpeter] cannot be underestimated, and he was surely the best trumpeter in France at that time. He had a keen ear, was a great improviser, and had a strong technique, which he learned from classical trumpeters.”

The Night in Istanbul

The recording of Briggs in the possession of Rutgers University also contains one of the incidents that best illustrates the chaos of post-war Europe after World War I, and how he always found himself in the middle.

It happened in Istanbul, Turkey.

In the recording, Briggs himself tells how a Turkish officer threatened them not to allow them to leave the country unless they performed in the capital, Ankara.

Briggs’s orchestra agreed, and the next night they were preparing when they received the order to start playing at the sound of a whistle.

What they found out later was that the whistle marked the moment when opponents of President Atatürk, accused of attempting a coup d’état, had been publicly hanged.

Briggs recounts that it was them who provided the music for the “celebration.”

The War

By the late 1920s, Briggs had already established a reputation and had moved fully to Berlin, a city in its heyday.

He even recorded alongside Marlene Dietrich, one of the Hollywood divas of the golden age of cinema, on the only jazz record he made.

But the shadow of Nazism haunted Briggs to Paris, where he was finally arrested and interned in the Saint Denis concentration camp in October 1940.

He spent 4 years there, during which three of the coldest winters of the 20th century in Europe were reported, Atria says.

Briggs’s grandnephew, James Briggs Murray, told Schofield that he had the chance to meet Briggs personally and talk to him during a four-day trip to Paris. He insisted that his uncle preferred not to talk about the difficult moments he had to endure in the concentration camp.

“He wanted to focus on the positive things,” Briggs Murray tells Schofield. “The few times we talked about the subject, he always told me that he judged men as men.”

Briggs Murray also provided more information to Schofield about why Briggs would have left Grenada in 1917.

“The real story is that in 1917, my grandmother was in Grenada. Pappy Briggs, Arthur’s father, had just passed away, and Arthur decided to see if he could make some money in the US to send back home,” he says.

“And he started playing with these jazz musicians, and jazz was born at this time. And when he got the opportunity to go to Europe, where you can’t go without a passport, they fabricated a story so he could go with them.”

And although the details of that made-up story were lost with its protagonists, it remained in the world as if Briggs had originated from Harlem.

Life After the War

At the end of the occupation, Briggs rebuilt his life in Paris. He got married and, at the age of 60, had a daughter named Barbara.

Barbara, who still lives in Paris – in her father’s same apartment – spoke to Schofield about the close relationship they had.

“My mom worked all day, and my dad took care of me. It was a kind of agreement between them,” Barbara says, mentioning that by the time she arrived, her dad had already stopped playing jazz.

Although she does keep two of his trumpets and something that confirms what had been suspected about her father’s life: a British passport with the name Briggs and an identification card that proved that the musician, contrary to what was believed, was not born in Harlem or South Carolina, but in Grenada, the small Caribbean island.

But Briggs never completely gave up music. For a period, he dedicated himself to teaching music at a school near the site of the concentration camp where he had endured so much pain.

One of his former students still remembers him: “He was such a sweet man. And what he taught us wasn’t technique, like how to play fast notes.”

“It was just the love for music. He made us love music.”

“It’s an overwhelming idea,” Schofield says, “that almost 100 years later, his music lives on through his pupils.”

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