Saturday, April 4, 2015

André Ekyan (1907 – 1972) – A French Saxophone Player, Part 1 (1930s)

Georg Lankester, expert in pre-WW II French jazz history, introduces in this entry André Ekyan's pre-war career,  the 1930s.

The post war years of André Ekyan will be discussed in another entry, here

André Ekyan (1907-1972)
This highly talented musician was born in Meudon. Who could suspect that he would become one of the pioneers of the French pre-war jazz and play an important role in it as a soloist?  Here is the story of his career:

Non- French parents
André’s mother was of Hungarian origin, while his father was born in Armenia – the official family name was Echkyan. His parents emigrated to France and it was there  that the young André in 1907 was born and further grew up. Already as a boy he started to play alto-sax. André first started to follow a medical study in order to become a dentist. During his study he saved money to buy a clarinet which took quite some time. Finally he got the instrument and it seems that he could play a bit on it within a few weeks. By the end of the Twenties, however, he stopped his dental study and chose for a professional career in music. Soon he joined the orchestra of Perroquet which played in Paris; furthermore he was working continuously to improve his technique.

Cabaret performances and orchestra sideman
From 1930-32 he was active with a small formation under his own name and appeared frequently  in the cabaret “La croix du Sud”, where – according to Charles Delaunay – also Django Reinhardt came to listen to him.

Ekyan and Django
André also joined various big bands. In 1931 he became member of the well-known  English ‘Jack Hylton Orchestra’ and somewhat later he played in the band of Fred Astaire. Our active reed man could – in 1933 – be found playing with “Grégor & ses Grégoriens” which was quite popular in Paris those days. Also Stéphane Grappelli joined this orchestra, as we can see in some old film fragments!  In ’34 and ’35 André was playing in  Le Jazz du poste parisien”.

It should be mentioned that starting from 1932 Ekyan also arranged and supervised studio recordings e.g. in parts of “Jazz symphonique Salabert” and in two recordings of his own group called “the French Hot Boys”. They recorded: ‘St. Louis Blues’ and ‘Moonglow’.

André Ekyan, saxophonist and clarinetist
In 1935 André, as a band leader, played an important role in the famous cabaret “Boeuf sur le Toit” where many excellent musicians regularly met. Under his supervision several  recordings were made in his name, released by “Ultraphone”.

After lots of activities in France André then travelled to the USA where he played with stars like trombonist ‘Tommy Dorsey & the piano giants Joe Turner”and “Fats Waller”.
Once back in France he opened a cabaret called ‘Swing Time” where he showed his own new orchestra. This was the place where terrific ‘jam sessions’ (in French: ‘de Boeufs’) took place, so remembered tenor saxophonist Alix Combelle. André could there also be heard with the piano players Léo Chauliac & George Manion, in addition to his own band.

Paris was in those times a swinging town, full of theatres, cabarets and cafés offering jazz. In one of them called “au Florence” the American trumpet player/saxophonist Benny Carter played.  In the early morning, also there unforgettable jam sessions were held with American and French jazzmen like Coleman Hawkins, Django Reinhardt and Bill Coleman. After their performances in other cabarets and cafés, they liked to meet and play spontaneously in unique formations. Note: Carter and Hawkins, who stayed in Paris, were promoted by the Hot Club de France leaders secretary Charles Delaunay and president Hugues Panassié.

Historical recordings
1937 was a great year for the European jazz. Because of the World Exhibition in the capital the Hot Club leaders had invited many American jazz giants for big concert and recording  sessions and…….they met the best French players of  that time – including André Ekyan. This resulted in many unique recordings, all of them realised under the supervision of Charles Delaunay who had just launched his exclusive jazz record label ‘Swing”.

Discque Swing, SW. 1
He started recording in the  spring and possibly with the best pre-war formation in Europe ever, called “Coleman Hawkins and his All Star band” featuring Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, André Ekyan, Alix Combelle, Django Reinhardt, Eugène d’Hellemmes and Tommy Benford.

On April 28 two titles in this formation were recorded ‘’Honeysuckle rose’ & ‘Crazy Rhythm’.In the same line-up HMV recorded: ‘Out of nowhere’ and ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’. For those interested marked  SW no.1 and HMV(E) B 8812.

Ekyan, still in a very good shape, can also be heard with Django in five tracks which were recorded in 1939 in a small formation under his name.  The titles: ‘The Sheyk’, ‘Dream Ship’, ‘ I can’t believe’, Dark Town Strutters Ball’’ and Blues of Yesterdays’. Three tracks included trumpet player/saxophonist ‘Big Boy’ Goodie, who originally came from Louisiana but already lived in Paris from the early Twenties.

Georg Lankester


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