Post written by François Grosjean.
In an earlier post, I told the story of how Julia Child, the well-known chef and author, discovered the French culture and language, and French cuisine, and fell in love with all three (see here). Not all people who have a coup de foudre for a new culture and language are as famous as Julia Child but they can be as fascinating. Jimmy Davis, the subject of our story, is one such person. He grew up in Englewood, New Jersey, and probably never thought in his younger years that he would spend the major part of his life across the ocean, in France. After attending the local high school where he was a regular student, preferring music and the debating club to sports, he was accepted to the Juilliard School of Music where he studied piano and composition.
Jimmy Davis quickly started making a name for himself as a songwriter and composed his famous, "Lover Man", with Roger ("Ram) Ramirez and Jimmy Sherman, in the early 1940's. It became a worldwide hit when Billie Holiday recorded it in 1944 (listen here). Since then, it has been sung by many artists, most notably Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Whitney Houston, Norah Jones and scores of others.
When the United States entered World War II, Jimmy Davis was called up but asked to be deferred or be given an exempt status since he was opposed to "serving in military forces that segregate and discriminate because of race, creed or color...", as he wrote in his letter of appeal in 1942. Army units were segregated at the time–hence the expression "Jim Crow army"–and African American soldiers repeatedly suffered from discrimination and mistreatment. After a spell in prison, Jimmy Davis finally accepted to be inducted and served his country for three and a half years.
Even though he became a Warrant Officer and was a band leader, these were difficult times for him as he was in daily contact with practices he had fought against. In one letter to his great friend, the poet, novelist and playwright, Langston Hughes, he wrote: "Whenever I encounter Jim Crow of any sort now, I can't seem to control my emotions; I have no desire, no will power to do anything; I care about nothing."
In March 1945, two months before the end of the war, Jimmy Davis was sent to France and fell under the spell of the country and its people who accepted him as he was. He wrote to his friend Langston that, after so many years of misery, "Paris is just what the doctor ordered". Professor Michel Fabre reports in his book on Black American writers in France that Jimmy Davis was at Soissons, Northern France, when the war ended. He continues, "... along with a couple of other black American officers, (Jimmy Davis) was invited to the home of a French family. While they were feasting, white American officers attempted to teach their host how to treat (them) - by excluding them - and were thrown out of the house."
Even though he only spent six months in France before coming back home with his army unit, he had time to follow a two-months course in French language and civilization offered at the Sorbonne for some 600 GIs. In addition, he met several people in the jazz world who were interested in his work. Starting in the 1920s, jazz had become very popular in France and many American artists had come over for stays of varying length.
Jimmy Davis spent two years back in the States where he studied dramatic art at the Actors' Lab in Hollywood. But even though he was talented, he was offered no roles of any importance and again suffered from discrimination. And so, in 1947, he came back to France where he settled down for good and was known as Jimmy "Lover Man" Davis. He continued his study of French and over the years, became extremely fluent in it. In all, he authored more than 130 copyrighted songs in English, French and Spanish. He also started a career as a singer and a pianist and in one of his records, released in 1954, he can be heard singing in each of his three languages (listen here).
Life in his country of adoption was not always easy as he never became as famous as some of his fellow musicians and singers, many of whom would come over from the States for short stays. In his letters to Langston Hughes, which range over 25 years, he talks of his hopes to have a song or two take off and also of his money problems. Things picked up a bit in the seventies with small roles in movies and plays, and Valerie Wilmer, the renowned jazz expert and a personal friend of his, was able to write in 1975: "Today, Jimmy Davis is alive and well and living in Paris where he divides his time between acting on stage and on screen and continuing to write songs".
Jimmy Davis was liked by all who met him. Professor Fabre talks of a friendly, soft-spoken person, who managed to live happily on little, occasionally hosting American friends on their visits to Paris. In my recent quest to discover Jimmy Davis, I have interviewed several of his friends, some quite elderly now, and what comes through is that he was a very fine human being, a true gentleman, with a very attaching personality and an innate elegance.
Jimmy Davis was one of the rare expatriates in the world of jazz who stayed in France all his life. He died in 1997 in Paris and his funeral ceremony was an improvisational performance, in English and in French, of a life and of grief and of hope, according to Pastor David J. Wood, who officiated. Jimmy Davis' ashes rest in a small cemetery in the center of France, the country which welcomed him and which he adopted. There, a small plaque states, in both French and English, "To you, Jimmy Davis, who will remain forever our "Lover Man", because it was so."
For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.
Michel Fabre (1991). From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Valerie Wilmer (1975). Blues for a Lady. Melody Maker, 50, May 3, p. 40.
François Grosjean's website.