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Tradition, modernity and the supernatural swing: re-reading ‘primitivism’ in Hugues Panassié's writing on jazz

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 January 2011

Tom Perchard
Department of Music, Goldsmiths, University of London. E-mail:


Before WWII, Hugues Panassié (1912–1974) was Europe's leading critical authority on jazz, and by the time of his death he had published a dozen books on jazz music and been President of the Hot-club de France for over 40 years. Yet despite this life's worth of efforts made in jazz's name, Panassié's reputation is no longer a good one: pointing to the fantasies of black exceptionalism and Noble Savagery present in his work, historians have tended to dismiss the critic as a racist primitivist, one in thrall to that contemporary negrophilie most familiar today from early-century Parisian visual art. Indeed Panassié used the term ‘primitive’ himself, and positively. But this article traces the ultra-conservative writer's intellectual and religious formation to show that, rather than contemporary negrophilie, it was a religious and cultural heritage quite distant from the modern European encounter with blackness that first informed Panassié's primitivism. Although this re-reading does not aim to ‘rehabilitate’ someone who remains a troublesome and reactionary figure, the article nevertheless goes on to explore how, in his primitivist rejection of European modernism, Panassié sometimes pre-empts important arguments made by the postmodern jazz scholarship that would seem to marginalise the critic's historical contributions.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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