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Monday, October 2, 2023
PARIS, Jul 25 2007 (IPS) - On a quiet side street in the Paris suburb of Louise Michel, jazz musician Bobby Few from the United States sits at his 120-year-old Gabriel Gaveau piano and reminisces about what he has seen come to pass in his nearly 40 years in France.
"After struggling in New York City for so many years, we wanted to find a new territory," Few says when visited at his home on a drizzly, unseasonably cool July day, speaking of his jazz group's decision to move to Paris in 1969. "We landed as total strangers, not knowing anybody, not knowing the language, not knowing where to go. But the music seemed to be everywhere."
Thus Few, who had moved to New York from his native Cleveland, Ohio in the early 1960s on the advice of the legendary jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler, headed to Paris in search of artistic renewal, following an established pattern of African-American musicians who have crossed the Atlantic in search of something they couldn't find in their native United States.
Though the relations between African-Americans and the French has always been complicated (becoming even more so in recent years as tensions have erupted in the context of successive waves of Francophone immigration from North and West Africa) since the early 20th century, France in general and Paris in particular has provided something of a haven for U.S. jazzmen looking to hone their craft.
During World War I, with most African-American units in Europe relegated to labour duties in the still-segregated U.S. armed forces, the 369th Infantry Regiment from New York had to be put under the command of the French military before it was allowed to go into battle, where it became popularly known as the Harlem Hellfighters. The troops became an essential part of the allied campaign in France's Meuse-Argonne region, and many soldiers brought with them a taste for the sounds of the homeland.
At the time, the French composer Maurice Ravel was heavily influenced by the jazz sounds coming over from the U.S.
Also particularly notable for African-Americans travelling to Paris before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the absence in France of the apartheid-esque so-called Jim Crow Laws in force in many southern states in the U.S. which consigned black Americans to a "separate but equal" existence and resulted in a surfeit of inferior housing, transport, educational and other opportunities.
"In the 1920s, 90 percent of blacks lived in the south and people had internalised an idea that you didn't transgress certain boundaries," says Tyler Stovall, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley and author of the book 'Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light', speaking to IPS. "But in Paris, blacks could manage jazz clubs and go to them on the same footing with whites, which was not the case in the United States at the time."
"Because jazz was so new and popular, there was a real premium on musicians and especially black musicians. There was a real sense of opportunity," Stovall says.
The great jazz pianist Bud Powell made his home in Paris from 1959 until 1964, seeking refuge from the mental illness that had dogged him for most of his adult life (exacerbated, some said, by a 1945 beating by Philadelphia police) and a string of personal tragedies. The jazz tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon spent much the 1960s and 1970s in Paris, and later, acting in a part that mirrored his own life, garnered an Academy Award nomination for his performance as the fictitious expatriate Dale Turner in the 1986 Bertrand Tavernier film 'Round Midnight'.
Of the over decade-long stint of the New Orleans musical legend Sidney Bechet in Paris, the novelist Edmund White writes in his Paris memoir 'The Flâneur' that "Bechet was convinced that jazz had both French and African roots since it had started in the formerly French town of New Orleans."
The jazzmen were not alone in representing African-American immigration to France. The novelist Richard Wright moved to Paris in 1946, becoming a French citizen four years later, and after his death was interned in the city's storied Père Lachaise Cemetery. Another writer, James Baldwin, settled in the city in 1948, and used the critical distance gained from the United States to compose some of his most well-known novels.
Luck would also play a role in building the African-American community in Paris.
One day in 1969, during a clash between student protestors and police, Bobby Few and some members of his band were chased into what they thought was a restaurant but which in fact turned out to be one of the most venerable jazz clubs in Paris, Le Chat qui Pêche (The Cat That Fishes). From a chance encounter with the club's owner that night, Few's band got their first regular gig in Paris.
But these days, with a surfeit of musical genres percolating through the nightclubs of France's capital, the financial rewards for immigrant jazz musicians have grown ever more tenuous.
From the 20-30 working jazz clubs to be found in the city during the heyday of the 1960s and 1970s,the number has now dwindled to around half a dozen. Asked about the difference in the scene for African-American jazz musicians in Paris between 1969 and today, Bobby Few says simply "I've seen the closing of jazz clubs."
Nevertheless, the musicians and a hardcore of fans remain in the city, aware and grateful for the role that a musical genre founded in the backstreets of New Orleans over a hundred years ago has played in the cultural and artistic development of one of the world's great cities.
"I think jazz music is going to survive," says Caroline Volcovici, the owner of 7 Lézards (7 Lizards), one of the city's remaining jazz clubs located in the fashionable Marais district. "It's a bit like oxygen in a city like this."
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