22 March 2021

The Zazous, from recklessness to the Resistance.

Philippe Edouard, PopArchives correspondent in France, looks into an unlikely youth movement in Occupied France. This is almost a prequel to his post on 1960s yé-yé.

In January 1964, The Beatles set out to conquer the world, beginning their journey at L’Olympia in Paris. The day after the first concert, the newspaper France-Soir took the group down with the headline: “The Beatles: old zazous made over by yé-yé, their yé-yé is the worst we have heard in four years."

We know what yéyé is, but what did the journalist mean when he called the Fab Four zazous?

From the end of the First World War, Europe succumbed to jazz. At the start of the 1930s, Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grapelli invented a purely French style, jazz manouche (gypsy jazz), which combined jazz, gypsy music and musette, but without percussion or brass. This genre was all the rage with youth, even as everything was still being influenced by the USA and the arrival of the more universal "swing" jazz. 

Swing! The word is out. Far beyond jazz, swing refers to a state of mind.

In 1938 Johnny Hess (who sang in duet with Charles Trenet from 1933 to 1937) achieved a huge success with Je suis swing with the refrain  Je suis swing, je suis swing, zazou, zazou, zazou, zazou dé , inspired by Cab Calloway's piece Zaz Zuh Zaz which he had admired in concert at the Salle Pleyel in Paris in 1934.

Some amateur musicologists argue convincingly that the father of the zazous is the American musician Freddy Taylor (also as Freddie). A pillar of New York's Cotton Club, he arrived in Europe in 1933 with his combo and his impressive dandy wardrobe that included the famous zoot suit. His repertoire mesmerised the audience with the outrageous onomatopoeia of scat singing. He moved to Paris where he ran a club in Montmartre and worked with the stars of jazz. This did not prevent him from continuing to tour, and he was a remarkable success in Rotterdam. By chance or not, the Netherlands saw a movement similar to the zazous.

In June 1940, France was about to live out four years under German occupation and its tragedies and deprivations.

Despite the fury of the people, Johnny Hess’s song continued to cheer up those who decided to live free, at least in spirit, especially young people from generally wealthy families. These lovers of swing were called zazous, in homage to Hess's hit. They invented a counter-culture, displaying a strong taste for America and England, and an incredible dress style in that time of scarcity.

Wide pants with rolled up bottoms, long fitted jackets and big showy shoes, shoulder-length hair slicked back. The zazou walked with a closed umbrella whatever the weather, and wore sunglasses at all times.

The girls wore excessive make-up, and raised their hair above the forehead in a “crow's nest”. They wore tight-fitting sweaters that sometimes stopped above the navel, frilled shirts with tailored suits, quite short pleated skirts, and platform shoes or stiletto heels.

Sure of his phenomenal success, Johnny Hess did it again with Ils sont zazous.

Some French jazzmen benefited from the prohibition of Anglo-Saxon records by taking the opportunity to record these standards, give them a French title, and take the credits. A real plunder!

The dance venues were closed, and it was difficult to move around because of the curfew, even more so for the orchestras and their instruments. This did not prevent the zazous from continuing their carefree life at night, in the furnished cellars, dancing clandestinely to this forbidden music.

Meneurs de jeux (DJs) innovated by switching the 78s onto amplified record players. Thus in 1941 La discothèque opened, arguably the first modern dance-club in the world. One thing is certain, its name has stuck for all eternity.

In 1942 the film Mademoiselle swing was released, in which Irène de Trébert sang the song of the same name which had already been a big success over two years [YouTube]. In this feature film, we also hear the steadfast Johnny Hess and his eternal Je suis swing. Four years already!

In the field of war, the Allies gained the advantage, and the Nazis needed even more materials and men to make it. The prisoners were no longer enough, so they called for volunteers from the occupied countries who did not rush despite the promise of a salary. The Slavs were forcibly sent.

Faced with this fact, Germany imposed the STO1 on the Vichy government, and the early facade of politeness gave way to ferocity. The Germans and the collaborating militia took the zazous for degenerates. The régime de Vichy (Vichy regime) saw them as a dangerous influence on young people because the zazous refused the indoctrination of youth. They were sometimes discredited by the population and the Resistance who saw them as futile, selfish and anti-patriotic.

Yet some zazous defied the occupier. With the anti-semitic laws that obliged the Jews to wear the yellow star, the zazou, in solidarity, attached the star to their coats with a mention of swing or zazou. Most of them were arrested and interned before being released.

Like many young people who refused forced labor in Germany, the zazous went underground to take up arms.

In the summer of 1944 came liberation, swing was still alive, and it was Andrex who hit the mark with Y’a des zazous.

Popular until 1946, this style was being replaced by bebop. The underground cellars had become clubs like the Tabou or the Caveau des Lorientais where the Existentialistes in checkered lumberjack shirts, claiming to be zazous, danced the lindy hop whose baby would be called rock 'n' roll.

Occasionally, the zazous or swing were celebrated in song. In 1963, the duo Roger Pierre and Jean-Marc Thibault devoted an EP to it, Le temps des zazous, in the middle of the yéyé period.

In 1985, Pet Shop Boys sang In the night [YouTube]. Its composer Neil Tennant recounts the possible ambiguity of the zazou vis-à-vis the occupier [Lyrics]. It was David Pryce-Jones's book Paris in the Third Reich that gave him inspiration.

Let us leave the conclusion to Gérard de Cortanze2 in his novel Zazous. “Hunted down by the Germans, hunted down by collaborators, rejected by the Resistance, the Zazous did not want to change life, simply take advantage of their fifteen years. Of age by the end of the war, they had passed from childhood to adulthood and life was about to change them."


1. Service du Travail Obligatoire (Compulsory Labor Service). In addition to the 600,000 French workers sent to Germany, there were prisoners of war. About 1,500,000 French people are said to have worked for the Nazis between 1942 and 1945. France was the third largest supplier of forced labor after the USSR and Poland. 

2. Also author of ‘Laisse tomber les filles', a history devoted to yéyé. The link is obvious with regard to the zazou phenomenon.

Johnny Hess - Je Suis Swing (1938)

Johnny Hess - Ils sont zazous (1942)

Andrex - Y'a des zazous (1944)

Cab Calloway - Zaz Zuh Zaz (1933)Django Reinhardt and the Quintette du Hot Club de France, with Stéphane Grappelli (violin), Freddy Taylor (vocals) - I'se A Muggin' (1936)