The romance of jazz in Paris still resonates. Take a walk up rue Mouffetard or the little knot of streets around St Germain and you keep bumping into tiny fragments of it. The postcard photos of Miles and Charlie Parker evoke that postwar period where the Left Bank Paris of Sartre, cafés and long cigarettes jumped off from reality into myth.
Fifty years on, if more by chance than design, the focus of jazz in Paris has moved from the Left Bank to the Right and especially a handful of clubs on a street near central Châtelet: the Sunset-Sunside, the Baiser Salé, and the Duc des Lombards, which reopened in February after seven months of renovation.
Comparing rue des Lombards with New York’s 52nd Street in the 1940s would be an overstatement (though a French newspaper couldn’t resist recently), but its vibrancy is testament to the elevated position that jazz still holds in the cultural reckoning here. Jazz provided the soundtrack to the “literary genius” and archly leftwing politics of existentialism, and later, French cinema’s nouvelle vague. Today, like France itself, jazz has moved to the right – outwardly at least. The revamped Duc des Lombards, with its muted interiors and designer chic, looks like the kind of club that President Sarkozy and his wife Carla would visit.
For years, patrons of “Le Duc” were greeted by a giant exterior mural of saxophonist John Coltrane. With investment from new owner Pierre Vacances and chief executive Gérard Brémont, the club has been refurbished using the music of “The Duke” (Ellington) as the leitmotif. “Black, Brown and Beige”, the title of the master’s extraordinary suite, are the colours of the main ground floor room, while an electronic curtain behind the bandstand reproduces images inspired by Ellington songs.
The Duc has overturned the old jazz club practice of three separate “sets” until the wee hours, with two concert performances of 90 minutes at 8pm and 10pm. In a stroke, artistic director Jean-Michel Proust has made a weeknight outing to a jazz club something conceivable for locals and visitors.
In an ambiance that a local critic called “San Francisco beatnik”, an outsized pole used to obstruct views of the stage but now vision is good, including from upstairs. And with food on offer by Alain Alexanian, Michelin-starred for a restaurant in Lyon – reckon on spending about €35 for a meal – “Le Duc” feels like a very classy act.
A stone’s throw away, Le Sunset-Sunside is in fact two clubs – two bandstands, bars and two club rooms – accessible via the one entrance. The Sunset was the first club on the street, established in 1982, and began life with a jazz-rock bent (interestingly, that stream of jazz came to Paris later than London or New York).
But programming became eclectic long ago. Joined by the Sunside in 2000, the Sunset has always sought to highlight the best French players – early in the week, when it’s hard even in Paris to fill a jazz club, Monday nights are a jam session and Tuesdays are given over to the “New Generation”.
Yet top-flight Americans also feature: Brad Mehldau, Steve Grossman and Wallace Roney, in the last year or so. “I don’t like jazz in compartments,” says owner-programmer, Stéphane Portet. But it’s fair to say, as at Le Duc, a modernist brand of hard-bop dominates. Sit up front and the closeness of the musicians – of the sound of wind on brass – makes both clubs excellent places to hear modern music.
Just next door, Le Baiser Salé is home to African jazz in Paris – but by no means exclusively so. Last weekend, one of the most exciting of the current French players, Pierre de Bethmann, performed a tribute to Herbie Hancock’s post-Miles Davis electric music. Jazz or jazz-related singers are also a regular fixture.
If nostalgia for Left Bank Paris takes hold, Le Caveau de la Huchette is a venue where time seems to have stood still. Swing and boogie-woogie are the main events, in a setting to soften the heart of even the most avant garde tastes.
By all accounts, “Le Caveau” hasn’t changed much since the Left Bank New Orleans revival – which happened about 40 years ago. The Doriz family have been its proprietors since 1969 and have hardly ever missed a night.
Where to hear it
Le Duc des Lombards, 42 rue des Lombards, tel: +33 (0)142332288
Le SunsetSunside, 60 rue des Lombards, tel: +33 (0)140264660
Le Baiser Salé, 58 rue des Lombards, tel: +33 (0)142333771
Le Caveau de la Huchette, 5 rue de la Huchette, tel: +33 (0)143266505