Sax, Sex and Existentialism
The death of jazz is a vicious rumor:it drives the French to ecstasy
First published in The European, 1994
Summertime, and the living, c’est facile. At least that’s the long-standing truism about Paris’s warm welcome for the cool cats of jazz. Ever since Jimmy Europe’s orchestra of black GIs brought the sounds of the Harlem Renaissance to France in the aftermath of the First World War, the Gallic taste for all things jazzy has grown with every generation. Or has it?
After all, the heady heyday of the cellar clubs of St-Germain-des-Prés is so distant that it has become the subject of polite historical documentaries on French television.
Taste-maker Boris Vian’s irreverent mix of sax, sex and existentialism is now evoked as reverently as D-Day and the Liberation, a treatment he would no doubt find appalling.
And then there’s the toll taken by the influence that the subsequent rock, folk, punk, world music and rap revolutions has had on popular music lovers. Could it be that the unlikeliest of love affairs, the French and jazz, has finally fizzled out?
“Jazz is always considered a sure thing, a fashionable genre, in this city,” says Parisian jazz pianist Zool Fleischer. “But in fact, it is the image of jazz that is trendy, not so much the music itself. Jazz is used to sell perfumes, watches, anything. They just show models playing saxophones.”
Fleischer, whose quintet is a familiar presence on the festival circuit, has no illusions about Parisians being transfixed by jazz, as they were in Bertrand Tavernier’s film Round Midnight. “Jazz is marginal, on the fringe.” Fleischer adds: “Sales of jazz recordings are tiny compared with rock or French variétés.”
Still, reports of jazz’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Even if there is more competition for the Parisian eardrum from other genres these days, there are still many more regular jazz venues in the French capital than, say, those devoted to rock or thrash metal.
Local jazz lovers, who occasionally haunt such mellow Parisian clubs as Le Petit Opportun, Le Petit Journal, La Vila and Sunset, know that there is no rock equivalent of the New Morning, a music club on the Right Bank that consistently hosts the very best in American jazz performers, as well as such stellar French jazz musicians as Michel Petrucciani and Michel Portal.
Mark Hunter, a long-time commentator and writer on French cultural matters, says: “Jazz is in a better position in France than at any time since the rise of rock.” Even Fleischer agrees, saying: “The problem is that there are too many musicians for too few clubs.”
Such vitality is the legacy not only of the grand old men of French jazz – Jean-Luc Ponty and Stéphane Grappelli – but also of the stranglehold American greats has had on the sensibilities of audiences throughout the country. In the 1950s, the French welcomed Charlie Parker’s bebop and Miles Davis’s cool jazz with the same ecstatic fervour. When the innovators of fusion – Chick Corea, Stanley Clark et. al. – first made the trip overseas, they too were welcomed as heroes.
And more recent traditionalists and experimenters, whether such proponents of the new classicism as Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove and Joshua Redman or the heralds of hip-hop jazz such as the young French hope MC Solaar and Britain’s Galliano, have found a hip young French audience.
Galliano has already been invited to play at the marquee – and in the sun – at the two leading French jazz festivals of the summer, Juan les Pins and Nice.
The latter jazz festival, in showcasing rhythm and blues and world music artists, may end up disappointing the affluent purists of the Côte d’Azur – at the same time as it attracts people for whom jazz is the fuddy-duddy genre of their wine-swilling parents.
Zool Fleischer says of the typical French jazz crowd: “Sure, we see a lot of the same faces. But we also see more and more young faces.”
It could be argued that the further jazz appreciation in France gets away from the pearls and loafer set, the better it is for the music, as a living, challenging art form. It could also be argued that in the face of corporate rock, any audience, no matter how small or Pavlovian in its standing ovations, is better than none.
To their credit, French jazz musicians like Fleischer and his peers have preferred playing to arguing.
And their foreign guests – this year’s contingent at the festivals is as star-studded as ever – just know a good gig when they see one.