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Paris Jazz Diary 2011

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Woody Allen's 2011 film, Midnight in Paris was a hit summer film in the U.S. and Paris, and also a theme that resonated during my annual two-month sojourn to the City of Light. At that hour, I was often happily sitting in jazz venues, my spirits lifted both by the music and seeing the clubs filled with listeners of all ages.
Jazz is easy to locate in Paris because music venues are listed by type in the events section of two weekly mini-magazines—Pariscope and L'Official Spectacle—that are issued every Wednesday, and available at newsstand kiosks. Among the many free music publications are LYLO (les yeux/les oreilles—eyes/ears) and Paris Jazz Club, found at venues and FNAC music/book stores, where advance tickets may be purchased (recommended for top-name performers).
The midnight hour in Paris also is when some boeufs begin—jam sessions so-named from the1930s, when jazz musicians met to play at midnight on the rooftop of Le Boeuf restaurant. But other jams start as early as 6 or 8 pm. There are frequent tributes to deceased and living jazz luminaries, including jazz manouche that replicate the gypsy-jazz sound of Django Reinhardt (even a five-day Django festival), and repeated homages to Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald, among others.
I heard jazz in more than a dozen clubs and caught many random acts of jazz on street corners and pedestrian bridges around the city. The tradition of buskers (itinerant musicians) is global, the performers setting out a hat, cap or open instrument case to encourage donations. The sounds ranged from six-piece jazz bands with upright pianos to solo saxophonists with recorded accompaniment, as well as numerous accordion player— and even a roller-blading guitarist. Among my perennial favorites is singer Dan Fitzgerald, an American expatriate who has roamed Europe since the 1980s, often adding young traveling musicians to his ensemble. The Metro subway cars have hop-on/off musicians who often favor jazz standards along with French favorites such as Sidney Bechet's "Petite Fleur," from Midnight in Paris, and always "La Vie en Rose" and "Les Feuilles Mortes" ("Autumn Leaves").

The biggest names (at the biggest admission prices) are booked at the cavernous Olympia (a double-header of Esperanza Spalding and Hiromi) and Les Arenes du Jazz (Charles Lloyd). But there also is an abundance of free concerts during the summer season. Music outdoors began with the free La Defense Jazz Festival at the end of June, a predominant mix of groove, hip hop and funk, including George Clinton & Parliament/Funkadelic. The Paris Jazz Festival was next, two months of weekend concerts in the botanical Parc Floral on the far eastern side of Paris. Admission was just 5 Euros (about $7.50) to hear fiery Brazilian pianist-vocalist Tania Maria and, on successive weekends, a variety of European bands. There also was the month-long Paris Plage (a beach set up along the right bank of the Seine River) with several performance areas, including some jazz bands. The festival season ended in early September with Jazz à la Villette—two weeks of indoor concerts that, this year, included Americans Brad Mehldau, Maceo Parker, Randy Weston, Tom Harrell, Archie Shepp and Medeski Martin & Wood, as well as numerous European stars.

In between special events, jazz fans can rotate among as many as 20 small clubs. Three neighboring spots in the heart of Paris offer nightly jazz, Sunside staging its American Jazz Festival in August, with a mix of visiting bands. Its downstairs sister-club, Sunset, books both touring and Europe-based musicians. Next door is Le Baiser Sale, with almost nightly jam sessions, this year led by Tiss Rodriguez, a gregarious drummer who invites different soloists to front his house band. Among them were a most-memorable Lou Tavano, a captivating European song stylist who sounds sweet one moment and searing the next; and young Clarence Revil's spot-on Ray Charles replication.

Not far down the same street is the posh supper club Le Duc des Lombards, where one of my summer high points was hearing French pianist Duchemin, whose agility and creativity were absolutely dazzling. Merging his early classical roots with modern jazz, blues and soul, he conveyed the joyous swinging energy of Oscar Peterson, his main influence, on his idol's "Hymn to Freedom" and "Cakewalk," from his recent CD, Massilia (Black & Blue, 2011). He also recently started to write arrangements for a jazz string ensemble for a concert on March 11, 2012 in Tarnos, near Bayonne, and soon after will record again for the Black & Blue label. Le Duc also booked consecutive nights of both Kyle Eastwood and Ramsey Lewis to full houses.

Among US-based touring musicians I heard was Monty Alexander at New Morning, a predominantly jazz and blues venue. The pianist staged a two-band contingent to perform charts from his recent Grammy-nominated CD, Harlem-Kingston Express (Motéma, 2011). His infectious, high-energy swinging merged straight-ahead jazz and reggae sounds, each band featured as the other supplemented on hits such as an extended rendition of Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry" that captivated the audience of 250. Also at New Morning last summer was trumpeter Roy Hargrove, whose evergreen repertoire included "Never Let Me Go" and "The Lamp Is Low," his flugelhorn warmly loving on "I'm Glad There Is You," and then blazing a samba route and rousing the crowd with funky sounds.

It's always a pleasure to reconnect with former Arizona jazz and blues singer Sylvia Howard, who has lived in Paris for 12 years. Her summer itinerary included several major European festivals, but she also performed a full week in the jazz lounge of the five-star Hotel Meridien L'Etoile. Her book of American standards included "Tenderly" and "You'd Be So Easy to Love," as well as blues and pop that fit her subsequent booking at Le Caveau de la Huchette, a swing-dance underground venue (the oldest continuous jazz club in Paris, since 1946) that, later in the month, featured fluent boogie-woogie pianist Jean-Paul Amouroux, who has entertained in the city since 1970.

Among the most popular small clubs is Café Universel, with frequent jams featuring French vocalists who sing American songs in English, many of them students at the Sorbonne or University of Paris. Caveau de les Oubliettes is a two-room cellar-club with elbow-to-elbow seating at tiny tables under low ceilings. In contrast, Café Laurent is a spacious bar-lounge in the Hotel D'Aubusson. Le Petit Journal St. Michel and Le Petit Journal Montparnasse are small and large supper clubs, respectively. Melody Blues is a boat that cruises the Seine River during performances. Other venues include Chez Papa, Jazz Cartoon, Swan Bar and Le Blue Note.

These jazz clubs are full of dedicated listeners of all ages, even when admission is as high as 25 to 40 Euros ($36 to $60), although most entry costs are much less. Most jam sessions have free admission, and piano bars cost only the price of a drink. La Cité de la Musique arts complex has jazz and classical concerts, as well as fascinating exhibits relating to music. And radio station TSF (89.9 fm) programs 24/7 mainstream jazz and bebop.

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