A slow…slow…quick…quick musical madness would be the simplest way to describe the dance craze that the team of Vernon and Irene Castle began in 1914 just as World War One was starting to rage in Europe. Someone gave the new dance the name of Foxtrot.

Various sources trace the birth of Foxtrot to the dances of African Americans at the start of the century, but Father of the Blues, W.C. Handy swore that the foxtrot was born out of his very own St. Louis Blues, and that his tune kicked off the initially called “Bunny Hop” which was later to become the Foxtrot.

After the War, American entertainers invaded European capitals playing and singing brand new, sizzling music in the night time cafés and cabarets. Tout Paris opened its arms to the many African American artists that were escaping poverty and fleeing prejudice back home.

When the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs opened its doors in Paris, Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet fast became the toast of the town, and the French intelligentsia got ready to explore American music, food, art, literature, and everything American.

Tastes in music change, and the advent of early Rock slowly relegated other forms of American music to the museum, so that it is immensely valuable that pianist Gottlieb Wallisch has recorded an album of foxtrots, rags, and charlestons by European composers. Here, Saint-Saëns, Satie, Milhaud, Messager, Pierné, Hahn, Ravel, and several other writers of “serious” music loosen up with American tunes of their own invention.

Some of the selections – like Saint-Saëns’ Lola – are ersatz tangos, some like Erik Satie’s Intermezzo américain hint at American-ness but remain at their core European homages to American music. Some, like Jacques Ibert’s La maison du Maltais and Le Café du Cadran by Henri Dutilleux have a nice swing to them, while Auguste Louis Baeyens’s Jazz Fantaisie flirts with atonality.

Clement Doucet’s Wiener Luft is a down home rag and lots of fun, as is the playing of the superlative pianist Gottlieb Wallisch  on the album 20th Century Foxtrots (GP85500) for the Grand Piano label.

Rafael de Acha

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