- 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
Le Tabou is gone, but Vian started his own place, Club St. Germain in 1947, at 13 rue Saint-Benoît, off the boulevard St. Germain, and today it is the home of Bilboquet, a trendy jazz and supper club on three tiers. People dine on the ground floor and the balcony of Bilboquet; on the bottom tier they sit on soft, low stools around the bandstand and hear American and European singers and jazz musicians. Singers are particularly well loved there. Among them in recent years has been Jeffery Smith, who tells of how he would feel the floor beneath him vibrate with music—and not his own. The vibrations came from loud taped rock music playing in the private cave club below.
That basement spot is the old Club St. Germain. Because it’s nominally private, no longer features live jazz, and is sequestered in a cave, it’s a virtual secret from most tourists. But it’s still there for anyone who wants to have a drink and listen to American pop music until 4:00 A.M. in a city where most clubs, bars, and cafés close by 1:00.
Nowadays Bilboquet swings with live, contemporary, entertaining jazz the way the place beneath it used to. In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the music at Club St. Germain was cutting edge. Visiting and expatriate American jazz musicians would repair there every night after other places had closed. Everybody who was anybody went to listen or play there: Bechet, Charlie Parker, the pianist Bud Powell, the tenor player and flutist James Moody, Miles Davis, and the drummer Kenny Clarke, one of the founding geniuses of bebop.
After World War II the Americans returned in force, some of them to live for a while, some to stay forever.
In 1948 Dizzy Gillespie, who with Parker had already begun inventing the novel, complex, and aggressive bebop sound, toured Europe with his big band, living hand to mouth. They went unpaid for performances in Sweden and arrived in Paris on the verge of starvation, with nothing but wine in their stomachs. Dizzy and his men gave a concert and were rewarded with an ovation according them the greatest success they’d ever had. That landmark event took place at La Salle Pleyel, 252 rue de faubourg du St-Honoré, near the Champs-Elysées. It still presents jazz along with other entertainment.
Audiences adored the beboppers, but their music set off a civil war among the French jazz critics. On one side, the so-called moldy figs celebrated swing and New Orleans jazz and loudly condemned bebop, while on the other side, critics proclaimed the new music’s brilliance. The French accepted bebop as art long before most Americans could tolerate its unusual harmonies, breakneck tempos, and assertive, sometimes shrill spirit. By 1959, when Otto Preminger became the first film producer in America to use a score by a swing-era musician (Duke Ellington, in Anatomy of a Murder ), French filmmakers were already using bebop-era artists —Miles Davis for one, with his haunting, eerie tone that one British critic called “the sound of loneliness.”
The pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams arrived for a short gig in Paris in 1953 and stayed for months. “Mary Lou was not interested in things French,” recalled the drummer Gérard Pochenet, who fell in love with her. “She was not interested in seeking out anything more than the music. She never went to the opera once. We went to clubs to hear other jazz musicians. She was particularly impressed by Art Tatum and Erroll Garner, but who isn’t? She was neither a dresser nor a gourmet, not interested in the clothes or food in Paris. She was simply a great influence on other musicians.”
Postwar Paris was no paradise. Housing was scarce. Musicians often lived in tiny hotel rooms and played in minute Left Bank basements, the only spaces they could find. Some settled and played in Montmartre, where writers and painters lived. But a few worked grander clubs, particularly ones near the Champs-Elysées.
The Right Bank’s most famous spot, the Blue Note, on the rue d’Artois, near the Champs-Elysées, is now a jazzless private club under another name (which no one in 48 the jazz world now can ever remember). Americans also worked nearby at the trendy Le Boeuf sur le Toit (The Cow on the Roof), named for a Brazilian tune; it opened in the early 1920s at 28 rue Boissy-d’Anglas and finished its life as a jazz club at 34 rue du Colisée, also near the Champs-Elysées. Now it, too, is a restaurant.
Around 1955 Le Chat Qui Pêche (The Cat That Fishes) opened on the rue de la Huchette in the Latin Quarter; it was run by a woman named Madame Ricard who had worked in the French Resistance during the war. The club lasted into the 1970s; today a restaurant with the same name occupies its site, at 9 rue de la Huchette. Le Chat Qui Pêche was extremely popular but “terrible looking,” remembers Louis Victor Mialy, a writer for Paris’s Jazz Hot magazine. Open all night every night, it hired such wonderful players as the pianist Walter Davis, Jr., and the drummer Art Taylor. Another popular Left Bank club from that era, opened in 1952, was Le Caméléon, 57 rue St-André-des-Arts; now it’s a rock club.