Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Parisians put their accent on jazz

PARIS - It was after midnight at Le Duc des Lombards, and the jam session was warming up. A just-assembled quartet toyed with the jazz standard "Cherokee," volleying solos until the melody was barely discernible. Upstarts holding drumsticks and saxophone cases lined up to rotate in.

Musicians at Le Duc des Lombards jazz club in Paris. (Rebecca Dalzell / Washington Post)
Musicians at Le Duc des Lombards jazz club in Paris. (Rebecca Dalzell / Washington Post)Read more

PARIS - It was after midnight at Le Duc des Lombards, and the jam session was warming up. A just-assembled quartet toyed with the jazz standard "Cherokee," volleying solos until the melody was barely discernible. Upstarts holding drumsticks and saxophone cases lined up to rotate in.

In the back, European and American musicians kissed hello and slapped backs, the jam their unofficial rendezvous. French stars Jacky Terrasson and Stéphane Belmondo came by after their show at Sunside; American bassist Burniss Travis stepped onstage for a song or two.

In blue-black light, the audience was packed into banquettes and cafe tables. Outside, the streets of Chatelet were quiet and bistros locked up, but Le Duc des Lombards kept humming until 4 a.m.

For proof that Paris is a jazz town, come to the Duc on a Saturday night. But put aside nostalgic notions of Montmartre cabarets or Louis Armstrong in Paris Blues. Sure, you can hear chanteuses and big bands, but the city is also a hub for contemporary jazz.

During two weeks hitting the clubs, I heard just about everything from bebop at L'Improviste, to avant-jazz at La Java, to Brazilian at the Bab-Ilo. Gypsy jazz, France's contribution to the genre, thrives. Unlike Americans, who largely view jazz as a relic, the French host countless festivals. The music is more popular here than in its homeland, as evidenced by about 600 jazz concerts monthly, far more than anywhere else besides New York.

Listening to jazz in Paris isn't like ordering a Big Mac. It's experiencing a century-old part of French culture. "Jazz is very much linked to France, and France is linked to jazz," says Lucie Buathier, who organizes concerts with Paris Jazz Club, a promotional group.

Jazz arrived in France during World War I, when James Reese Europe led an army-band tour across the country, kicking off a dance-hall craze. In the 1920s, black artists migrated to Paris, gathering in Montmartre. Dancer Josephine Baker dazzled clubgoers in Pigalle; Langston Hughes worked as a busboy nearby. The soundtrack was jazz.

It was around World War II, though, that jazz became embedded in the French psyche. During the war, the Vichy government banned American music, but you could still hear jazz in Paris: Bands just translated titles into French. Jazz became associated with the United States, freedom and the resistance. In 1945, it was the sound of liberation.

"People were rediscovering the beauty of life, just getting dizzy from it, says singer Laetitia Kaing. "Jazz symbolized that state of mind."

To black Americans, Paris equaled freedom. Finding it a welcoming refuge from the Civil Rights era, musicians such as Sidney Bechet and Bud Powell moved here. They mingled with such existentialists as Jean-Paul Sartre in the jazz caves of St. Germain-des-Pres.

Miles Davis fell in love with Sartre's muse, Juliette Gréco, and wrote the score for Louis Malle's film Ascenseur pour l'échafaud.

Some of the storied "caves" are still around and are an atmospheric place to start a jazz tour. Just off the Seine in the Latin Quarter, the Caveau de la Huchette has hosted jazz since 1946. Push past the drunken crowds on the street and you'll enter a smoke-stained warren of vaulted arches and narrow stone stairways. The building, dating to the 16th century, has served as a meeting place to such secret orders as the Masons.

In the 1950s and '60s, it was a popular club for bebop, drawing Art Blakey and Lionel Hampton.

The music is no longer cutting-edge, with classic swing and bop onstage, and the audience skews toward gray-haired tourists. But as you sit on the stone benches and admire the carved details on the wall, it's easy to imagine its beatnik incarnation, when Sorbonne philosophers huddled in corners and dancers spilled into the street. The epicenter of postwar nightlife, the caves symbolized youth, sex, the avant-garde.

Today's student crowd gathers at the livelier Cafe Universel, a 15-minute walk away on Rue Saint-Jacques. It's a cramped, collegial bar with walls covered in American license plates and dollar bills. Unknowns play to a supportive audience. The cafe's speciality is vocal music, with a Tuesday jam session for singers.

For aspiring musicians, moving here makes perfect sense: Concerts in Europe pay well, listeners are appreciative. Drummer John Betsch has lived in Paris for over 25 years. "In the U.S., a Strauss waltz is used to sell dog food - that's the attitude," he told me. In Europe, he said, people value and appreciate the arts.

Even cabs keep the radio tuned to a jazz station.

When I ask about good places to hear jazz, Betsch mentions L'Improviste, a restaurant and music venue on a barge in the Seine. It's in the residential 13th arrondissement, near the Gare d'Austerlitz.

Rusty on the outside, L'Improviste is surprisingly sleek inside on the lower deck, with soft black armchairs and tea lights.

Portholes look out onto the river and the boat bobs slightly, making you wonder whether you've had too much to drink. The space is well-suited to chamber groups.

Another local spot off the tourist radar is the Bab-Ilo, which several young French musicians recommended. A cozy pub at the foot of the Butte Montmartre, it's just the kind of place a music tourist hopes to discover. With art hanging on terra-cotta-colored walls, a dark wood bar, and four beers on tap, it seems to be out of an old movie, sans the cigarette smoke. Scattered chairs make up the club downstairs, which puts on jazz, Caribbean or Brazilian bands nearly every night.

The most well-known jazz clubs are the three on the Rue des Lombards, near Les Halles: Sunset/Sunside, Le Baiser Sale, and Le Duc des Lombards.

Locals don't like the crowded, dingy area, but music fans invariably go there because the bands are so good. All have been here since the 1980s and together formed Paris Jazz Club, which puts out a monthly calendar of shows citywide, available online. It also organizes October's Jazz Sur Seine festival and once a month offers a single admission charge for all three clubs.

Sunside books reliably strong French and international groups, with headliners such as Lou Donaldson or Franck Amsallem. The warmly lit club has exposed brick and wooden tables, but it gets uncomfortably packed despite a 25-euro cover. Like the equally knee-knocking Village Vanguard in New York, it seems to be a place hotel concierges recommend to guests, who come regardless of the band, but that is also respected among the jazz cognoscenti. Downstairs is its more relaxed sister club Sunset, with a cheaper cover charge and less established bands.

Next door is Le Baiser Sale, with lower-tier bands than the street's two other clubs. Its program slants toward fusion and world music, especially from Africa. There's a large West African population in Paris, and its presence is one of the distinguishing factors of the city's jazz scene. You often see bands with Senegalese or Malian members, although the music doesn't necessarily sound African. (For that, check out the Sunday brunch at Le Comptoir General.)

Le Duc des Lombards has a sexier vibe than the two others and books topflight musicians playing some dialect of bebop. There's no cover charge or drink minimum, so it's a good choice for those unfamiliar with jazz and looking to check out the scene.

Much of the music you hear at these clubs is rooted in American bebop or swing. But the French have their own contribution to jazz: manouche, or gypsy jazz.

In the 1920s, Roma guitarist Django Reinhardt fused gypsy and swing rhythms into a catchy original sound. He and violinist Stéphane Grappelli formed the Quintet du Hot Club de France, a hugely influential all-string group that popularized the style.

Reinhardt grew up in a gypsy settlement outside of Paris, in Saint-Ouen, an area that's now a center of his music, which can be heard at La Chope des Puces or the June festival Jazz-Musette des Puces.

Americans might view gypsy jazz as old-fashioned, but it has a strong following here, with two or three shows a day. Atelier Charonne, near the Bastille, hosts some of the best guitarists nightly, with jam sessions Sunday.

One night, I heard the RP Quartet, a young group made up of two guitars, a violin and bass that played " '60s jazz cooked in a Django sauce," according to the concert poster. They played at New Morning, a cavernous space in the 10th arrondissement that puts on rock and funk as well as jazz. Dressed in black suits and skinny ties, the men perched on stools and strummed charging melodies.

Many of the tunes were familiar, such as Thelonious Monk's "I Mean You," or Miles Davis' "So What." But the twangy, propulsive sound was distinctly French. See, it seemed to say, this music is ours.

Bebopping through Paris

Paris Jazz Club points the way to the best venues in the city. A promotional organization, it puts out a monthly calendar of jazz shows and festivals throughout Paris, and offers deals on club admission prices.