Operating from 1939 until 1961, the Hot Club de Belgique was Belgium’s most important jazz society during the late swing and early modern jazz era. Connecting Belgian jazz amateurs through concerts, film screenings and publications, the HCDB played an unmistakable role in the development of the jazz scene in Belgium.
In the late 1930s, before the Second World War, European jazz enthusiasts and critics were divided over the matter of authenticity in jazz. The French critic and co-founder of the Hot Club de France Hugues Panassié had been the first to categorize jazz in two styles: straight jazz, where written arrangements were executed as true to the partitions as possible, and hot jazz, defined by collective improvisation and a more “black” approach to the way it was played. (1) Panassié was convinced that hot jazz was the only true form of jazz, a statement that caused a stir in French jazz circles and left fans and critics with no other choice than to pick a side. And when it rains in Paris, it pours in Brussels.
The matter also divided the Jazz Club de Belgique (JCB), a Belgian jazz society established in the early 1930s by jazz entrepreneur Félix-Robert Faecq and writer Robert Goffin. In 1939 JCB members Willy De Cort, Carlos de Radzitzky and Albert Bettonville quit the JCB to set up a new jazz association of their own, as they too, preferred hot jazz over straight jazz (2). They named their new club the Hot Club de Belgique, after Panassié’s and Charles Delaunay’s Hot Club de France, which they would hold close contacts with during the rest of the club’s existence. The timing to build a jazz organisation could have been better, though, as not long after Belgium was occupied by the German Nazi regime, and jazz was officially banned for the coming years.
But as invisible as it was in public life, so vivid was jazz in the underground during the 1940-1945 war years. Jazz lovers tuned in to foreign broadcasts on radios they had hidden in their basements, imported records became valuable goods on the black market and jazz bands changed the titles of their repertoire to exclude the connection with American music. And the Hot Club de Belgique continued its activities, be it under the temporary pseudonym Club Rythmique de Belgique. Despite the difficult working circumstances, the Club Rythmique managed to organize concerts and tours by Fud Candrix, Django Reinhardt, Alix Combelle, Leo Chauliac, Stan Brenders and Gus Deloof. (3)
Uniting The Belgian Jazz Scene
Throughout September of 1944, Belgium was liberated. Now that the foundations had been laid and the restrictions on music and cultural life were things of the past, the HCDB could work in complete liberty. Operating from its offices in the Brussels Rue d’Arenberg, the main activity of the HCBD was organizing concerts, most of which took place at the prestigious Palais des Beaux-Arts in the Belgian capital or in similar venues in cities like Antwerp and Liège. At first, most of the events featured Belgian jazz bands, but it didn’t take long before the Hot Club succeeded in programming big American jazz stars in Brussels. That way, the Hot Club inflamed the Belgian jazz scene, not only by allowing fans and musicians to directly experience some of the biggest names in jazz live, but also by giving some of them the opportunity to share the stage with those star musicians. Johnny Dover’s band, for example, accompanied Don Byas, the Jump College played with Buck Clayton, and Jack Sels’s Octet shared the stage with the great Dizzy Gillespie. Also, the Hot Club’s international network allowed Toots Thielemans and the Bob Shots to perform at the Paris Jazz Festival in 1949, which was a pivotal moment in their respective careers (4).
By 1954, when the Hot Club celebrated its fifteenth birthday with the first (and last) ‘Salon Du Jazz’, the Club’s resume looked impressive to say the least: Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sidney Bechet, Benny Goodman, Zoot Sims, Roy Eldridge and many more had all come to Belgium under the Hot Club’s impulse. Its driving forces Carlos de Radzitzky and Albert Bettonville had by this time become well respected jazz critics, both in Belgium and abroad, and maintained the necessary international liaisons to expand the Club’s network. In the years to come, the names of Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Art Blakey and Stan Kenton, to name only five, were added to the list of artists who were brought to Belgium by the Hot Club de Belgique.
Besides the concerts, the Hot Club’s most famous events included their regular Jazz Cocktails (a series of film screenings) and their yearly International Jazz Tournament, which lead to the public emergence of some of Belgium’s most talented musicians. From 1946 onwards, the Hot Club members were educated about jazz history and informed on the Club’s activities through Hot Club Magazine.
Geographically the HCDB expanded too, as enthusiasts all over the country set up local sections in seemingly every provincial town between Ostend and Liège. As early as 1942, the Hot Club claimed to have close to forty sections (5), but today it’s difficult to figure out for how long they have existed or what their relevance was. Most of them were probably not more than a handful of jazz lovers who held regular meetings or organized small concerts by local bands. The Hot Club’s catch phrase ‘Tous les amateurs de jazz font partie du Hot Club de Belgique’ (‘All jazz lovers are part of the HCDB’), however, was not far-fetched as at its height the Club counted up to 10.000 members.
‘Le Grand Club’
But the times changed. Music changed. Rock & roll won the hearts of teenagers all over the world, and as jazz headed towards new directions, it lost much of its appeal to the mainstream audiences. As the number of Hot Club members decreased, its management focused on programming bigger and more famous jazz artists instead of supporting the local scene, which lead to criticism from even the die-hard jazz fans. In his book ‘En Passant par la Rose Noire’, the Brussels trombone player Claude D. George recalls how the Hot Club “transformed into a primarily commercial organisation. In addition, the leaders found glory in welcoming their American idols, escorting them during their transports and not missing any opportunity to be photographed by their sides. The attendance of the Gods somehow marked their admission into heaven.” (6)
With a satirical article entitled “L’amateur De Jazz N’est Jamais Content” that appeared in the February 1961 issue of Sweet & Hot, writer Jacques Denis took the point of view of a malcontent jazz fan who complained about the lack of concerts in Brussels, thereby indirectly but clearly criticizing the Hot Club de Belgique. Referring to what he called ‘le Grand Club’, he ironically wrote: “Don’t forget that you are privileged, as there’s a great organisation in Belgium that does its utter best to present you the ‘Messengers’ one time per season. Think about the perseverance, the devotion that it takes to let you hear this formation three consecutive years.” Whether the satirical article was meant to criticize the Hot Club or rather the ever-complaining jazz fan that criticized the Hot Club is not clear, but the article sure didn’t go unnoticed.
In the succeeding issue of Sweet & Hot, Carlos de Radzitzky replied the critics of the HCDB with a four-page long letter that reads like the chronicle of a death foretold. Openly setting out the lie of the land of the HCDB, de Radzitzky explained how difficult it was to run an independent organisation and complained about the ever growing costs of organising a concert (60.000 Belgian Francs, about 1,500 USD), the work permits for musicians (150 Belgian Francs per person, about 3.5 USD), and the increasing fee for musicians, often raised by their manager Norman Granz. “We’re being criticized for not having presented the latest Jazz At The Philharmonic. The main reason: Mr. Granz didn’t even offer it to us, knowing that his price – $ 4,000 – exceeded our possibilities. (…) The fee for the Jazz Messengers has risen with 80% in three year’s time. Louis Armstrong was proposed to us this year for $ 6,000. Ella Fitzgerald has gone from $ 2,500 to $ 4,000.”
But the real problem, according to de Radzitzky, was the diminution of jazz fans in Belgium. “In December 1960, there was a crowd of 215 people for the Jazz Messengers in Antwerp. (…) In 1959, more than 10,000 tickets were sold for the four concerts of the Jazz Messengers in The Netherlands!”. De Radzitzky stated that the Hot Club at that point had a mere 500 to 600 paying members left. Yet, he ended his letter with a call for action and a shade of hope. “We need to be more than jazz lovers, we need to be supporters. And together, we could maybe achieve a lot of goals!” (7)
A few months and a few concerts later (Lionel Hampton played Antwerp and Brussels in March 1961, Buck Clayton did the same the month after), the few remaining members of the Hot Club de Belgique received a letter from Carlos de Radzitzky: “Dear friends, it’s with much regret that we are obliged to inform you that we’re putting the activities of our club on hold. (…) We have known good years, despite all difficulties, and we believe that our efforts have been crowned with success.” Once more describing the precarious financial situation of the HCDB like in his February 1961 letter, de Radzitzky concluded his letter with the sorrowful words “we are the first to regret it, let there be no doubt about that.”
More than half a century after it ceased to exist, the Hot Club de Belgique is remembered as a club with a rather traditional artistic direction by most Belgian jazz fans. And indeed, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the HCDB was much more focused on artists like Louis Armstrong, or Count Basie rather than the artists who represented the new wave in jazz that was about to emerge. Nonetheless, without the HCDB, Belgium’s jazz history would have looked a lot different.