Monday, July 10, 2017

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Eh bien, mes amis, as you might know from earlier postings, I am very fond of the city of Paris, based partly on vague childhood memories of a visit there, but more potently based on three recent visits there with my wife (a fourth is in the offing as I write).

As you may also be aware, I am fond of jazz.

Put these two delights together, and I have over the years taken quite an interest in French jazz. My taste for this music was partly fed by a series of CDs that were marketed a few years ago under the title Jazz in Paris. As the generic blurb for the series correctly said, France was jazz’s “second home”. Outside the United States, there is no other country that has so consistently produced leading musicians in the genre and had such a large fan base for it. The Jazz in Paris series consisted of re-pressings of jazz performances recorded in Paris between the 1930s and the 1970s. Many of them were of American jazz people performing in Paris (Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Don Byas, Mary-Lou Williams, Miles Davis etc.), but even more were of French and Belgian performers. For a number of years, my search for CDs in this series was as earnest as my search for second-hand books then was. Riffling through the neglected jazz sections at the back of music stores, I eventually collected 74 CDs in a series which (the last time I looked) consisted of 100, but it may have expanded since I gave up the collecting.

Anyway, the series fed my already-existing taste for Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli and Le Hot Club of France; and for Henry Crolla, the guitarist who came after Django and (often on electric guitar) sounded like a softer and more sentimental version of Django; and for Jean-Luc Ponty, perhaps (sorry Stephane) the greatest of all jazz violinists; and for the great Belgian saxophonist Barney Wilen, especially on his wonderful Jazz sur Seine album..

Now you may understand how this taste stimulated my romanticised image of jazz life in Paris. I had in my head a chic black-and-white 1960s nouvelle vague film image of the Parisian jazz scene. We are in some fashionable, but very cool, club in, say, St Germain des Pres. It’s on the Left Bank, so the club is crowded with hip students from the Sorbonne (girls pony-tailed and skirted; guys all smoking and trying to look as cool as Belmondo in open-necked shirts). And there is this really cool jazz going on. Ponty or Crolla or Wilen or maybe one of the visiting Americans. We’re all very serioius about our jazz, but we also dance to it and discuss it and love it for the music’s sake.

Okay – there’s my mental image of jazz in Paris.

Now for the reality.

Cut to mid-2015. We take our second adult trip to Paris. We seek out and book ahead for a performance in an up-market jazz club and restaurant on the Right Bank (in the Marais district) “Au Duc des Lombards”. We get a table near the front thanks to an officious waiter who clearly expected a tip (but didn’t get it). The star performer is the Brazilian jazz chanteuse Catia Werneck, fronting a tight trio of jazz musicians. I note her huge smile, her crinkly, semi-ringleted hair waving all over the place and her long periods of dancing and shaking her seductive hips while the trio are riffing or taking great improvised solos. We know her banter with the French pianist, Vincent Bidal, is well-rehearsed and carefully timed, but the whole performance (she singing only in her native Portuguese) is infectiously joyful. We buy her CD after the show, which she signs for us. Actually we agree afterwards that Vincent Bidal was the real star of the show, and my wife (a trained music teacher) has some negative things to say about Werneck’s voice; but we are satisfied, as we cross back to the Left Bank over the Pont Neuf with a bright crescent moon on the horizon, that it was a good jazz evening. Even if we are uneasily aware that at a restaurant-club like that, the music is now really a pastime for the rich (Merdre! The price of that bottle of Chablis I bought to make the evening buzz!). We are a long way from pony-tailed and smoking Sorbonne students intellectualising in black-and-white.

Cut to December 2016.

Our third night in the City of Lights and we are a bit headachey and tired after a day trudging around the Musee de Cluny and the Pantheon and much of the Latin Quarter. But we once again make our way across to the Marais to a jazz date which we have again booked ahead. This is in the Sunset-Sunside Jazz Club, and we just have to climb down its narrow stairs to know we are in something like the stereotypical image of a Parisian jazz club. It is a cave (i.e.cellar), with whitewashed brick walls and arched brick ceiling – and mercifully free of any other English-speakers. This is a place for local jazz enthusiasts.

The performers are the Toumai Septet – a line-up of seven youngish men (median age about 30, I’d guess), mainly French but two or three apparently of Algerian or other North African heritage. Their music is an interesting fusion of European jazz and North African rhythms. On the left of the stage, an electric guitaist  whose instrument provided sophisticated commentary on the exotic rhythm. On the right, an expert player of the conga drum, whose beat really dominated the direction in which the music was heading. At the back,  a conventional drum-kit, whose percussionist only occasionally intervened, especially on sizzle cymbals. Also a bass player, whose steady rhythm was no rival for the conga drum. But out front the heart of the group – a line-up including a trombonist (who at one stage took up and played a conch shell); a trumpeter who doubled as MC (and who sometimes played cornet instead); and a lanky, smiliing saxophonist (who sometimes lay down his big instrument and took up a tenor sax).

This was very good jazz, but it was composed jazz (at the beginning of some pieces, the front-stage trio read off music sheets as they established the main lines of the piece and before the improv began). It was exotic. It was fusion. It was the sort of jazz that didn’t exist when the 1960s played out. We swung along and tapped our feet and only began to droop into sleep towards the end as our day of much walking caught up with us. And we did not even mind the only vocal intervention, which was a Frenchwoman singing (badly) one English-language lyric.

Were it not for the clear modernity of the music, this evening would have fulfilled my dream image of the vibrant (and very warm) cave as the paradigm of Parisian jazz.

But not all Parisian jazz (so-called) is good jazz.

A few nights later it was Saturday night and we were at a loose end. The chap at the desk of our hotel helped us to find a jazz club that was playing on the Left Bank. The night was chilly (remember, it was December) but we decided to walk it. We walked down past the Place St Michel with its golden statue of the warrior angel. We turned right into the Rue du Petit Pont which in turn becomes the Rue St Jacques, and we walked up, up, up the long hill past the Sorbonne, past the Pantheon, until we were deep into bohemian land. Frankly, though non-gentrified and a little grimy, the uppermost reaches of the Rue St Jacques we were now in looked like a movie-set depicting student Paris.

And so at last we found the Café Universel (267 Rue St Jacques). The night was chilly, but when we opened the door into this little boite, we were almost knocked over by the blast of heat, infused with body odour, as fierce as the summer noonday sun. My glasses at once fogged up and all the windows were covered in condensation. Thus for a poorly-ventilated small café on a winter’s night.

The place was packed. There was a tiny stage upon which were a trio (clarinet, string-bass, electric guitar). They were fronted by a chanteuse, dirty-blonde, in her mid-30s I would guess. She began her set. “Zaire Raiting Zongs of Larve bart not furr mai”, “Larve mai orr laive mai”, “Wai Donchu Do Rait” (at a horribly slow tempo as if she didn’t understand the words.)

She was so bad. I am not (well, hardly…) making fun of her French accent, but of the fact that she had no place on the stage. If I were a novelist, I would at this point make up a back-story about a girl picked up by a jazz group when she was in her early 20s and was young and sexy enough to be an attraction for that alone; but who was now past the cute stage and really not up to performing. She simply could not hit the high notes, her voice was feeble, and she ended each song not with a bang but with a breathless gasp.

We responded to much of this with suppressed laughter. I pondered for a while on the awkwardness of chanteuses who have to stand centre-stage for long periods when they are not singing, bobbing their heads and pretending to have a good time while the combo plays on behind them. Our breaking point came when Mademoiselle Talentless launched into “Oo, Oo, Oo, Ai Wanna be Laik Yoo-o-o” and sang it as if it were a jazz lyric of the utmost seriousness.

After just six songs, we were out the door walking briskly back down to the Seine, howling with laughter at the abomination we had just experienced.

Ah me. There is good jazz in Paris, but it isn’t the type of jazz as was. And the fact that jazz occurs in Paris doesn’t necessarily make it good jazz.

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