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
By the 1970s, after Parisian and other European jazz musicians had learned to play well enough to replace the Americans, club owners discovered they could pay the Europeans much less money. Joe Turner used his considerable influence at the French musicians union to retain his job at Calvados against a challenge from a French rival. Memphis Slim, then well into middle age, also stayed in Paris, while Kenny Clarke continued with the vaunted Francy Boland-Kenny Clarke band. But most Americans lost their livings to the people they had taught. Fortunately, jazz was beginning to enjoy a renaissance in the United States. There was work to be had at home again. By 1980, when Americans played in Paris, it was usually for a week or two or a single concert, backed by French musicians. They got very high fees, but they could no longer find a continuous feast there, or anyplace in Europe.
It’s a miracle that so many jazz clubs have survived so long. Successful clubs in most cities come and go. In New York only the Village Vanguard, dating back to the 1930s, and Arthur’s Tavern, from the 1950s, can compare at all with Paris’s oldest. Ronnie Scott’s, in London’s Soho district, is that city’s oldest at forty. But the French have a gift for taking good care of things they love.
Jazz’s golden era in Paris has remained a source of pride and happy memories, and the period is becoming codified in black-history courses. In 1992 a conference at the Sorbonne led by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., director of Harvard’s black-studies faculty, and Michel Fahre, his counterpart at the Sorbonne, combined a celebration of history and an exploration of the era when black artists—primarily writers and musicians, but painters as well—flourished in Paris. Gates observed during the proceedings, “We don’t merely have to go to Africa to discover our traditions; we go to Paris too.”
Some jazz musicians have continued to have special ties to Europe right down to today, prominent among them the pianist Oscar Peterson, who plays European concerts with European musicians as a mainstay of his later career. But though the Americans are mostly gone, the tradition they started lives on all around the city. You even encounter it on the streets, as I did one night last summer, when a motorcyclist sped through the winding lanes of the Left Bank, his boom box blaring Cab Galloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” the way an American’s would play rock or heavy metal.