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Jazz Liberates Paris

June 2024
11min read

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Where They Played, Past and Present

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