Paris’ Jazz Scene


The iconic jazz clubs of Paris are in a league of their own. Steve Pill hits the high notes on a whistle-stop tour of the city’s jazz scene

The iconic jazz clubs of Paris are in a league of their own. Steve Pill hits the high notes on a whistle-stop tour of the city’s jazz scene

On a bright autumn afternoon, a quintet of seasoned jazz musicians has settled on the corner of Boulevard Saint-Germain.

A crowd quickly gathers but each player continues to stare absent-mindedly down the street, only coming to life for their respective solos. As the saxophone peels away and the trumpet picks up the ragtime melody, it is difficult to think of a more quintessentially Parisian scene: spontaneous, romantic, blas� and, above all, soundtracked by jazz.

Jazz has played an integral part in the cultural life of the French capital, providing the background music to everything from the artistic revolution of Les Ann�es Folles to the student riots of 1968. In cinemas and on television, it has become a kind of aural shorthand for the city too – just think of Gato Barbieri’s sultry score for Last Tango In Paris, or Yann Tiersen’s accordion-lead theme from Am�lie. To this day, it remains a source of fascination for locals and visitors alike, with a trip to an authentic’ jazz club often high on most tourists’ to-do lists.

“The Parisian jazz scene is extraordinary because of several factors,” says Bremner Duthie, a New York-born singer and author of the Paris Loves Jazz blog. “Firstly, there’s the incredible number of venues. All over town, small venues promote jazz and provide places for young musicians to play. They’re not always filled to the brim, but the fact of having a venue at all is pretty great to develop your talent and art. Also, the artists in these spaces are not always playing strictly commercial jazz either. They are free to experiment and play with a variety of styles and ideas.”

Such freedom is no mere coincidence either. “The French government literally supports these artists,” he adds. “Through the Intermittent du Spectacle programme, performers can have their yearly income topped up enough to survive playing small gigs. North American musicians don’t have that luxury.”

Nevertheless, the Parisian jazz scene owes a great debt to those US players. A recent exhibition at the Mus�e Quai du Branly celebrated The Jazz Century, but in truth most Parisian’s first taste of swinging rhythms came in 1918, with the performances of Lt. James Reese Europe’s 369th Infantry Regiment orchestra – known as the Hellfighters.

After leading New York’s popular Clef Club Symphony Orchestra, Europe was drafted by the army and charged with putting together “the best damn brass band in the United States”. After a string of riotous concerts in Paris, he returned home a war hero, convinced that cosmopolitan European audiences would prove the perfect atmosphere for the music to thrive.

The enthusiasm of Europe and other such bandleaders sparked a minor exodus of US jazz musicians, many of whom were taken under the wing of local heroes Django Reinhardt and St�phane Grappelli, as they sought fame and fortune in the clubs of Montmartre. Meanwhile, jazz rhythms developed across the city, via cabaret-style musical review shows such as the Moulin Rouge’s provocative Black Birds and the famous Revue N�gre at the Th��tre des Champs-Elys�es, with Josephine Baker.

With the outbreak of World War II, the hub of the city’s jazz scene shifted across the Seine, to the caf�s and clubs of Sartre’s Left Bank. Venues were increasingly terrorised by Zazous’, a group of jazz-addicted French youths, sporting zoot suits and greasy quiffs – the name a corruption of Cab Calloway’s famous scat singing style.

By the 1950s and 1960s, US talent dominated in what was a win-win situation for all concerned. French audiences benefitted from a stream of unprecedented talent, while the African-American musicians could hone their skills in clubs largely free from the racial prejudices they faced back home. A residency in Paris also added incredible cultural cach�, with Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis among those who became regular visitors. Universal’s now-deleted 100-strong reissue series of Jazz in Paris CDs are a testament to the wealth of concerts recorded there during that period.

In recent years, the number of blockbuster international names may have reduced, but at a grass-roots level, things remain hugely eclectic. Paris jazz DJs will often take in styles as diverse as afrobeat, Cuban son and gypsy folk music to explore the overlaps, while many of the hip hop records coming out of the Parisian banlieues are still powered by vintage jazz samples.

For record shopping, head straight to the 5th arrondissement, where nearly all the great jazz CD shops are congregated around just a few streets, including Rue Navarre and Rue de la Montagne Sainte-Genevi�ve.

As for the clubs, the decline in tourism sparked by the global economic slump has forced a number of them to shut in recent years, with the Marais’ 7 L�zards among the most notable closures. The club remains a favourite of Duthie however, after the launch party for his second album, The Sky Was Blue, gave him a true taster of Paris’ uniquely cosmopolitan audiences. “What I hadn’t expected was what it would be like performing in front of the kind of international crowd that the Paris jazz clubs bring in. We had offers to play in Florida, we had a group of Japanese tourists…

“It was amazing to think that all those people from all over the world were enjoying our music.”

Among the developing acts worth looking out for on the Paris circuit at present are Jobic le Masson’s free jazz trio and young post-bop pianist Carine Bonnefoy. But whether you seek out these acts in one of the authentic venues detailed below, or stumble across a quintet on a Saint-Germain street corner, you can’t escape the fact that the City of Light continues to be illuminated by the ever-shifting boundaries of this most inspiring and exploratory of musical styles.


Le Petit Journal Saint-Michel

71 Boulevard Saint-Michel, 75005 Paris

Tel: (Fr) 1 43 26 28 59

Although it may lack the slick cabaret-stylings of its more popular Montparnasse namesake, Le Petit Journal Saint-Michel is a much more authentic proposition. For more than 30 years, this small, Latin Quarter cellar has thrummed to the sounds of New Orleans ragtime jazz and imported

Dixieland favourites.


60 Rue des Lombards 75001 Paris

Tel: (Fr) 1 40 26 46

The original Sunset club was opened in the venue’s basement back in 1983, the first jazz venue on the now-crowded Rue des Lombards. After developing a reputation for hosting smooth bebop performances and improvised jam sessions attended by Wynton Marsalis and even Miles Davis, the restaurant was sacrificed in 2001 to make way for the ground floor Sunside stage. Now queues often tail down the street, not least because of the sheer wealth of music on offer, with both stages offering two performances every night of the week.

Duc des Lombards

42 Rue des Lombards75001 Paris

Tel: (Fr) 1 42 33 22

A favourite of the local performers, with the audience split across two floors around the intimate circular stage. Opened in 1984, this Marais favourite (pictured below) relies heavily on tourist traffic yet the venue and booking policy is still geared to the jazz buff. With two performances most nights, you can expect quality vocal jazz and hard bop. Definitely recommended.

New Morning

7-9 Rue des Petites-�curies75010 Paris

Tel: (Fr) 1 45 23 51

This large 10�me mainstay held the distinguished honour of being Chet Baker’s favourite haunt and also the last stage he played upon, just four days before his death in May 1988. Octagenarian proprietor Eglal Farhi’s habit for laying on champagne for her favourites ensured that greats such as Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins and Nina Simone were welcomed back as old friends, while the lack of a menu and an early curfew means the focus is firmly on short blasts of exquisite music. Nowadays, you’ll often find musicians lurking among the crowd too, thanks to the venue’s habit of inviting extra performers up from the floor. Get there by 8pm to get a good seat.

Caveau des Oubliettes

52 Rue Galande 75005 Paris

Tel: (Fr) 1 46 34 23 09

Opening a jazz lounge in a former 12th-century prison means you were never likely to be overwhelmed by home comforts, but the smoking ban has gone some way to ease the claustrophobic atmosphere at

des Oubliettes. A cover charge applies for the main performances on Fridays and Saturdays but drop by early during the rest of the week to catch spirited jazz fusion, blues and Latin jam sessions backed by the various house rhythm sections.

Caveau de la Huchette

5 Rue de la Huchette 75005 Paris

Tel: (Fr) 1 43 26 65 05

This 16th-century building reportedly housed a freemason’s lodge during the French Revolution, but by 1946, 5 Rue de la Huchette had been converted into a small jazz dive, to capitalise on the music’s popularity among American GIs still living in the capital. Styled as a temple to bebop and New Orleans jazz, the arched venue welcomed the likes of Art Blakey, Lionel Hampton and Count Basie and even doubled as a set for a number of French films. Today, it still boasts a fine programme of international acts, even if the rest of the road has become a tourist trap in recent years.

Le 9 Jazz Club

9 Rue Moret 75011 Paris

Tel: (Fr) 1 58 30 67 52

Open for less than a year, Le 9 Jazz Club has already replaced the now-defunct Habana Jazz in the locals’ affections. With a packed line-up (mainly female chanteuses and lively piano jazz) and a €35 three-course meal with wine option, this a cheap way to enjoy the traditional Parisian supper club experience. However, an 8.30pm start for mid-week performances and Mojitos to die for, also make this popular with the post-work crowd.

Jazz Club �toile

81 Boulevard Gouvion Saint-Cyr 75017 Paris

Tel: (Fr) 1 40 68 30 42

Located in the stylish and somewhat space-age surrounds of the Le M�ridien �toile hotel, this plush supper club is the connoisseur’s choice for high-end jazz thrills. Despite only opening in 1975, the venue has played host to countless jazz legends, including Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie and Cab Calloway, although it has recently widened its remit to take in blues and world acts too. For food and cocktails, �toile is unsurpassed too: manager Stephen Martin is a skilled mixologist, while the neighbouring L’Or�noc restaurant offers a ticket to a show with a five-course meal, starting from €102.

Baiser Sal�

58 Rue des Lombards 75001 Paris

Tel: (Fr) 1 42 33 37 71

With its red neon sign and steady stream of single male visitors, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a Pigalle side street at Baiser Sal�. In actual fact, it is testament to the friendly atmosphere and eclectic booking policy that local jazz fans return again and again. Now in its 25th year, you can often catch promising talents on the rise here, with vocalist Deborah Claude and fusion bassist Etienne Mbapp� among the recent highlights.

Satellit Caf�

44 Rue de la Folie M�ricourt 75011 Paris

Tel: (Fr) 1 47 00 48 87

Satellit Caf� is typical of Parisian venues’ attempts to diversify in the 21st century, with the mid-week concert programme offering up Latin jazz, afrobeat and even Balkan gypsy rhythms. If you have the stamina, head down on a Friday or Saturday when the curfew extends to 6am and the resident DJs can be relied on to spin a jazzy mix of rarities and classics. If you need a breather, opt for one of their fine selection of whiskies, prop up the bar and soak up the anything-goes vibe.


Paris Jazz Festival

For more than 15 years, the Parc Floral has come alive every weekend in June and July for a series of free afternoon concerts. Trumpeter Erik Truffaz and the Vienna Art Orchestra were among the acts on the eight themed line-ups in 2009.

Jazz � la Villette

With open-air performances and professional masterclasses, this fortnight

has become a highlight of the Paris jazz calendar. More than 25,000 visitors in 2009 enjoyed appearances by the likes of free jazz legend Ornette Coleman and avant-garde composer John Zorn. Next year’s event will run from 31 August to 12 September.

Tel: (Fr) 1 44 84 44

CareFusion Paris Jazz Festival

The city’s major concert halls and jazz clubs are treated to a host of jazz greats during this nine-day October shindig, with Branford Marsalis at La Cigale among this year’s biggest draws.

Tel: (Fr) 1 46 21 08 37


Although the nearby Champs �lys�es no longer boasts the theatrical jazz review shows it did in the roaring 1920s, there is still only one hotel that stands head and shoulders above the rest for jazz aficionados.

H�tel de la Tr�moille regularly welcomed jazz legends to stay and in 1960 they scored a great coup. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington had both checked in and a photographer for Paris Match managed to tease them out on to adjacent balconies to pose above the waiting crowd. If jazz musicians were treated like royalty in their heyday, then finding the Duke and the “world’s greatest trumpeter” in the same building was cause for some celebration. A photograph of the occasion currently takes pride of place in the foyer.

The musical duo have proven the inspiration for an 18-month long, €24 million renovation period that was completed in 2002. The interior was redesigned by St�phane Satorra and David Duron of interior architects SDA, with a perfect pitch between traditional Parisian glamour and slick, jazz-inspired Modernism. The building’s imposing Haussmann fa�ade provided a stunning canvas to work with, while the � la carte Le Louis� restaurant has all the smart lines and understated style of a classic Blue Note record sleeve.

If you really want to visit in style, opt for the Duke Ellington Suite. Four double doors open out on to a balcony overlooking the Eiffel Tower, while the spacious bedroom, twin-bathroom and separate lounge are large enough to house your own ragtime orchestra. And when night falls, there’s even original Abstract Expressionist-style artwork adorning the walls and an iPod-powered sound-system stacked with jazz standards to truly set the mood.

H�tel de la Tr�moille

14 Rue de la Tr�moille, 75008 Paris

Tel: (Fr) 1 56 52 14 00

Doubles from €485

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