- Historic Sites
Jazz Liberates Paris
American jazz musicians once enjoyed a freedom and respect in France’s capital that they could never win at home. Landmarks of that era still abound.
April 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 2
For all the books and films that have been done about painters and writers who went to Paris, far less has been written about the lives of musicians from the United States who settled there, some for a while, a few for their whole lives. Yet American jazz musicians have felt the influence of that city on their creative abilities no less than did the Lost Generation of American writers after World War I and the impressionists and their successors before them. Much of their world, and of jazz itself, is still there to be seen and enjoyed.
You can listen to jazz on the radio for hours in Paris—there is plenty of it on the airwaves—and never hear a single piece played exactly the way you heard it back home. Jazz players made many recordings in Europe, where they had especially free rein; they could play anything they pleased, and their music usually had clarity and originality.
American jazz musicians have been going to live in Paris since their art was in its infancy, finding there not only a place to compose and play music but a haven from personal, social, and economic problems and constraints in their homeland. They have broadened their horizons and honed their gifts while living interesting, sometimes raffish, and occasionally privileged lives. At a time when race prejudice seemed nearly nonexistent in most European countries, black musicians were able to leave behind the 44 injustices that had bedeviled them in the United States. Moreover, all jazz musicians, black or white, enjoyed a respect accorded their music in Europe long before it was acknowledged as an art form in the land where it was born.
The jazz colony in Paris began when a single band of black American Army musicians led by James Reese Europe made a big hit there during a tour in 1918. By the 1920s and 1930s Louis Armstrong and the soprano saxophonist and clarinetist Sidney Bechet were headlining in London. From there the road led to Paris. Adelaide Hall, an American singer, married an Englishman and they opened a jazz club in Paris. Josephine Baker arrived in the city from the Plantation Club in Harlem. Cole Porter set up residence in Paris and went often to Bricktop’s nightclub in Montmartre.
Bricktop was an American singer who arrived in Paris in 1924, decided to stay, and in 1926 opened a club. “Wouldn’t you?” she once explained. Boosted by the presence of regulars like Cole Porter, her place at 26 rue Pigalle became highly fashionable. The light-skinned, freckle-faced Virginian hired her entertainers out of friendship, and she happened to like Mabel Mercer, the British-born, half-American, half-black music-hall singer. Cole Porter auditioned many of his songs at Bricktop’s with Mabel Mercer singing them. The Prince of Wales sat in on drums. Cab Galloway and Lionel Hampton made Bricktop’s a regular stop as they passed through Paris. Hurt by the Depression and threatened by World War II, Bricktop, who called her operation “a combination nightclub, mail drop, bank, and neighborhood bar for the most elegant people,” closed the club in 1936 and left town three years later, not long before Nazis arrived and condemned jazz as entarte Musik —degenerate music.
In 1926 Bricktop opened what she called “a combination nightclub, mail drop, bank, and neighborhood bar for the most elegant people.”
The French kept jazz alive during the war by listening to New Orleans and swing-era music on records and inventing the discotheque as an underground place to do so (described in this magazine in November 1999). After the war many French fans, who never developed a taste for more progressive jazz, opened clubs around the country featuring New Orleans music. And the Americans returned in force, some to live for a while, others to stay forever.
Perhaps because the French have a knack for maintaining traditions, they still support quite a few jazz clubs that opened forty or fifty years ago. Caveau de la Huchette, at 5 rue de la Huchette, a main street in the Latin Quarter, has survived since 1946, un demi-siècle , or a half-century, as its advertisements boast. Lionel Hampton and Art Blakey played there, and the club still celebrates the fact that it was once the scene of a huge jam session led by Sidney Bechet, a national hero in France. Caveau de la Huchette belongs to Dany Doriz, a vibes player who also owns the Slow Club, at 130 rue de Rivoli. His are the two oldest surviving clubs in the city. Both present blues, swing, and New Orleans music and cater to people who want to dance.
Other popular Left Bank jazz clubs that opened in the 1940s include Les Trois Maillets, near Notre Dame at 56 rue Galande; now it offers Latin, Brazilian, and blues, and it has even tried disco. Le Tabou began at 33 rue Dauphine soon after the Liberation of Paris, and Juliette Greco sang there for audiences that included her friend Jean Paul Sartre, while Boris Vian, a jazz critic, liked to play cornet.