Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
NIGHT 1: SOUND
Chapter 10. Blues in the Night
Without music, life would be a mistake.
After dinner, I put on a CD of Chet Baker. If any music could get me in the mood to plan a sound walk, it was his ruefully murmured anthems to disappointment.
They’re writing songs of love
But not for me …
From the start, I never considered that the music of a sound walk would be anything but jazz.
Between the ages of eleven and seventeen, when I lived in the featureless Australian outback, jazz was my solace and friend. Each weeknight at 9:00 p.m., I tuned my radio to the Voice of America. For the next hour, the rustle of the night was erased by the urbane voice of its long-time presenter, Willis Conover. Enunciating each syllable for an audience for whom English was not a first language, he guided us through this teasingly elusive music.
Since, on the far side of the world, French students heard the same broadcasts, existentialism evolved to Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Charlie “Bird” Parker. Vian, Camus, Sartre, Barthes, de Beauvoir—all of us plugged into that same frail thread.
Jazz and philosophy are natural bedfellows. In 1949, someone introduced Parker to Jean-Paul Sartre at the Club Saint-Germain in Paris. “Parker told me about his wish to study harmony at the Paris Conservatoire,” Sartre said. “We talked about modern music.” When they parted, Parker said, “I’m very glad to have met you. I like your playing very much.” An artist may improvise just as powerfully with words and ideas as with an instrument.
How often, talking to some French writer or artist of my generation, had their eyes lit up as I mentioned the music of those years. And one winter night, in a clinically bleak municipal hall by the Canal Saint-Martin, at a concert by the vocal trio Les Amuse-Gueules, I was astonished when they launched into an a cappella version of Monk’s bebop classic “Well You Needn’t.”
You’re talkin’ so sweet well you needn’t
You say you won’t cheat well you needn’t
You’re tappin’ your feet well you needn’t
It’s over now, it’s over now.
I felt like a traveler in the most remote corner of the world who suddenly hears someone speaking his own language.
The French first heard real jazz during World War I, when bandleader James Reese Europe toured to entertain the troops. Former musical director to dancers Vernon and Irene Castle, Europe was both an accomplished musician and a natural leader. His sixty-five-member unit comprised singers, dancers, and comedians—all jazz performers and, to the astonishment of Europeans, all black.
Everyone in the band could read music, but white audiences preferred the illusion of spontaneity, so Europe’s sidemen memorized their often intricate arrangements. Paradoxically, this convinced the French that playing jazz was a skill unique to black Americans. For whites to attempt it was regarded as unwise, even unnatural. African American musicians flocked to France. When local players protested, the government ordered bandleaders to employ five Frenchmen for every foreigner. Rather than deprive their patrons of le jazz hot, entrepreneurs paid French sidemen to sit in silence while the Americans performed.
But Paris truly became a jazz capital during World War II, despite the music having been declared entartete—decadent—by Hitler and even though most jazz musicians were black, Jewish, or Gypsy, races the Nazis were sworn to exterminate. Needing entertainment for its troops, the Paris kommandantur turned a blind eye when the cafés of Saint-Germain-des-Prés converted their caves into boites de nuit and installed jazz groups. Luftwaffe Oberleutnant Dietrich Schulz-Köhn, who signed the permits to perform, became known as “Doktor Jazz” or “The Swing Doctor.” A jazz fan both before and after the war, he claimed to have joined the Nazi Party in order to protect his enormous record collection.
Django Reinhardt, France’s foremost jazz musician (and a Gypsy) was in England in 1940, but he returned to occupied Paris and played there throughout the war. Django was nothing like his introspective music. A dandy, given to white suits and red shoes, a slick hairdo and a hairline moustache, he went everywhere by chauffeured limousine, generally with a trashily dressed poule on his arm.
Once word got around that he was in town, local Gypsies converged on the theater, often carrying live chickens stolen en route. If there was no open fire backstage to roast them, they broke up furniture and lit one, often in the center of the room. Reinhardt’s behavior exasperated his colleague, the fastidious violinist Stéphane Grappelli. “Django made me very angry,” he said. “He drank every day. He came [to performances] with no guitar. I gave Django my money. I hated him many times. But when he played, I loved Django! Everyone loved Django. Even the Nazis loved Django!”
I’ve never quite adjusted to the fact that, during the 1940s and 1950s, the intersection of rue de Buci and rue de Seine, the domestic corner where I buy my apples and cheese, was one of the centers of the jazz world. In the late 1920s, Philippe Soupault dismissed it as “a crossroads which gives birth to a family of short narrow streets; not alleys but dark and full of bad smells.” Fortunately the bohemian intellectuals and musicians who moved into the area didn’t mind. Opposite where the Carrefour supermarket now stands, the Hôtel La Louisiane soon harbored a colony of American performers and international eccentrics.
In October 1943, Simone de Beauvoir moved in. “I’d never lodged anywhere that fulfilled my dreams as that place did,” she said. “I would have happily stayed there for the rest of my life. At the other end of the corridor, Sartre had a tiny room where he lived in a state of asceticism that never ceased to shock his visitors: he didn’t even have any books.” Francophile editor and writer Cyril Connolly and his mistress, Jean Bakewell, shared the oval bedroom on the top floor. They kept ferrets and lemurs in their room, feeding them gobbets of raw horse liver. Leather harnesses fitted with little bells helped keep track of them.
Lester Young, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker all lived at the Louisiane. Filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier celebrated those days in his 1986 movie Round Midnight, retelling the story of how young jazz fan Francis Paudras adopted burned-out pianist Bud Powell—replaced by tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon in the film. Too poor to pay the cover charge at the Café du Marché, on the corner of rue de Buci and rue de Seine, Paudras crouched in the rain, straining to hear Powell’s music seeping like perfume through a ventilation grille. When Powell came up for some air between sets, Paudras bought him a glass of wine. Their friendship saved Powell’s life. He moved in with Paudras, who restored him, for a few years at least, to health and productivity. So much for the “cruel and insensitive” French.