When Saint Germain Swung

Jazz Review, December 1997
A wealth of jazz material recorded in mid-century Paris has recently been re-released and like most voices from the past, these evoke conflicting emotions: nostalgia and sadness on one hand, a sense of wonder and celebration on the other.

As Miles Davis noted in his autobiography, Paris was a haven of artistic and personal liberty for African-American musicians in the post-war years. Above all, they were free of the public humiliation of segregation inflicted on them back home. They were welcomed into the city’s intellectual life and the place to hang was the Club Saint Germain. A live recording, “Art Blakey et les Jazz Messengers au Club Saint Germain 1958,” (BMG) featuring Benny Golson on sax and Lee Morgan on trumpet, captures all the spontaneity and conviviality of that legendary establishment, complete with amusing chit-chat between band members and audience.

But it wasn’t only the Americans who were swinging. Banned during the war, French jazz enjoyed a renaissance after the Liberation, supported by intellectuals like Sartre and Picasso. EMI-Swing have put out a double-disc compilation, “Jazz à Saint Germain, 1945-1967,” which is a joyous overview of the French contribution, featuring artists such as clarinetists Claude Luter and Maxim Saury, and writer/cornetist Boris Vian. The one giant of these recordings, though, is undeniably Sidney Bechet, an American who stayed on so long that many local fans assumed he was French.

Franco-American saxophonist, Barney Wilen, was another example of cultural fusion. He was an engaging player with a bold, energetic tone but somehow the tremendous promise of his early career never quite panned out. The glory days of Wilen, who passed away last year after a long battle with cancer, are recaptured thanks to the CD, “More From Barney at the Club Saint Germain” (RCA Victor), recorded in April 1959 and featuring Kenny Dorham on trumpet.

Wilen can also be found on a record that perfectly captures the twin allure of jazz and Paris, the re-mastered soundtrack of Louis Malle’s noir classic, “L’Ascenseur pour L’Échafaud,” composed by Miles Davis. Davis improvised in front of a projection of the film and the results are truly haunting. His trumpet has never sounded so sensual or yearning. The first piece, “Générique,” is like an aural aphrodisiac and achieves a sexual lyricism that, while scandalous in Eisenhower’s America, was perfectly at home in 1957 Paris.

Today most of the musicians heard on these records are gone and the Club Saint Germain is a Karaoke bar. If it were not for La Villa jazz club, there would be no special place to remind us of Saint Germain’s once privileged past. Like the Club Saint Germain, La Villa mixes visiting and local musicians and is the only remaining club in Paris to program artists for week-long engagements.

Among the acts you can catch there this month are singer/pianist Ben Sidran, who’ll turn your notions of jazz and popular music on their heads, December 3-9; singer Alice Day, whose pianist, Georges Arvanitas, was a part of the Club Saint Germain scene, December 17-23; and the great pianist Alain Jean Marie with his trio, who’ll be performing from their CD, Biguine Reflections, December 25-31. From January 28 to February 3, don’t abandon hope with “A Band in all Hope,” featuring drum star Bill Stewart and brilliant young pianist Bill Carrothers.

La Villa, 29, rue Jacob, 6e, Mº St-Germain-des-Prés, tel: 01.43.26.60.00, 10:30pm, Mon & Thu 120F, Tue & Wed 150F per couple, Fri & Sat 150F, prices include first drink, closed Sun.