- 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
Even though such basement locales were rudimentary, musicians regarded the Left Bank as their headquarters; when they finished playing in other neighborhoods, they went “home” to the Left Bank. During the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Miles Davis and dozens of other musicians enjoyed their exiles and developed their art in its little byways. They were pioneers, cultural ambassadors—and half-conscious of their role. They had gone to Europe in the tradition of American vaudeville stars, in the interest of entertainment and employment. Finding appreciation and respect, they strongly influenced European musicians.
The bluesman Memphis Slim moved to Paris around 1960; the tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin a few years later. Calvados, more of a jazz boîte for a solo pianist to hold court than a club for jazz groups, at 40 avenue Pierre le Premier de Serbie, near the Champs-Elysées, featured the pianist Little Joe Turner; he settled in there for a nearly thirty-year engagement in 1960, after having already lived in Europe for almost three decades. A solo artist, he worked as Calvados’s main claim to jazz fame into his eighties in the 1980s. He had developed his famous stride style in Harlem, his right hand playing melody while his left pounded out harmony and rhythm in an especially bright, fast-paced style. He sometimes collected three-thousand-franc tips—six hundred dollars—from Arab tourists, while performing from midnight to 5:00 A.M. , always with his trademark cigar in his mouth. Calvados is still there, featuring guitar music played by Europeans.
The drummer Art Taylor led the quintessential life of an American jazz musician in Paris. He arrived in Europe to play at the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1958, and then he and some friends had to choose between using their free tickets home and visiting Paris. “So we blew our tickets,” he said. “I never had a better time in my life. We were all good-looking, wild, young guys. The music in Paris was superb. And it was the first time I didn’t encounter racism. Something must really be wrong here, I thought. Maybe it was because the war in Algeria was just over. People had humility and were sweet. So I fell in love with Paris. Musically and economically, musicians were like kings in Paris.”
Taylor went right to work at Le Chat Qui Pêche and for three months stretched himself to his limits in his playing. Then he returned to the United States. But memories of Paris lured him back in 1963, whereupon having played drums for twenty years, he studied music for the first time. He started taping interviews with musicians and amassed more than enough to fill a book, Notes and Tones . He brought it out at his own expense, and eventually, when he returned to the United States, he found a commercial publisher. He didn’t think that he could have felt the same freedom to experiment back home; in Paris he had sloughed off a depression that had lasted all his life, a depression rooted in the pain of segregation, he said. “I never would have done Notes and Tones if I had stayed in the United States. When I was working in Europe, I had energy. I stayed up at night and worked.”
Petit Opportun at 15 rue des Lavandièr-Ste-Opportune, which opened in August 1977, at the Châtelet metro stop, not far from the Centre Pompidou, belongs to a new generation of clubs. Well-known American and European musicians play every jazz style from New Orleans to post-bop there. Of all the jazz clubs in caves far below street level, it has the steepest, twistiest flight of steps. (Those daunted by the descent should know it has a popular bar on the ground floor.)
French audiences adored bebop long before most Americans could tolerate its breakneck tempos and sometimes shrill spirit.
Le Petit Journal St-Michel, an atmospheric cave club at 71 boulevard St-Michel, founded in 1970, and its sister, Le Petit Journal Montparnasse, 13 rue du Commandant Mouchotte, a latecomer from 1985, both have solid reputations in the modern Paris jazz world. Montparnasse features contemporary music; St-Michel, New Orleans.
Paris has other relatively new clubs, among them Sunset, 60 rue des Lombards, and the Duc des Lombards, 42 rue des Lombards. At the latter the late-night scene includes excellent musicians from America and Europe. Americans who play in Paris often go there after their own gigs end and sit in or enjoy the sounds. The Duc des Lombards is the place now, as Club St. Germain was fifty year ago.
Recently two elegant clubs downstairs in hotels near Bilboquet closed: the All Jazz Club, first called Latitudes, at 7-11 rue Saint-Benoît; and La Villa, 29 rue Jacob, with its formidable collection of jazz photos and the air of a rendezvous for spies. But a two-year-old cave club called Le Franc Pinot, at 1 quai Bourbon on the picturesque Ile St. Louis, is starting to go strong. New Morning, 7 rue des Petites-Ecuries, still thrives after about twenty years, and so does Jazz Club Lionel Hampton, in the Hôtel Méridien, 81 boulevard Gouvion-St-Cyr, near the periphery of Paris on the way to Charles de Gaulle Airport.