Paris may be known as the city of romance, but to ROB GARRATT it had always conjured images of pokey jazz clubs and quaint café chanson. He hopped the Eurostar in search of music.
Paris — a city of love. A city of food and art, of culture, of romance against a cinematic backdrop. A city tinted in a perpetual sepia glow. A city of a thousand clichés, even to those who have never set foot on its wide streets. But also a city of music. And this is the Paris I set out to find.
My goal was an uncomplicated one. Amongst all the other Parisian images rattling through my brain was the image of Paris as a thriving hotbed of music, and especially jazz. From the aching standard April in Paris, to Dexter Gordon’s spell as a fulfilled expat (caught at his best on the Our Man in Paris LP), to Miles Davis’ iconic soundtrack to Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold… to – of course – Django Reinhardt and the Quintet Hot Club de France themselves; jazz and Paris have gone hand in hand.
Every June France celebrates Fête de la Musique, a nationwide public holiday where it is the streets, not the hills, which very literally come alive with the sound of music. Busking is not only allowed but encouraged, while every bar or café worth its salt has booked a live act.
My 2010 festival experience started in the best possible way. As a visiting journalist, I was lucky enough to wangle an invite onto a celebratory boat cruise run by a national radio station. Cruising the Seine and with an open bar, there were sets from a half-dozen fantastic bands blasted out from the open deck, in front of sweeping iconic views of Paris, the whole thing broadcast across the nation.
Keeping the music vibe alive I dined at an utterly unique restaurant, Alcazar, where a trio of opera singers walked amongst the tables theatrically bellowing memorable arias, backed by a pianist in the centre of the room.
The problem with trying to absorb Fête de la Musique in Paris was the sheer scale of it. Handed a programme written in French, every arrondissement of the city hosted dozens of acts and in a bid to see a lot of it, I ended up seeing little at all. Instead of happening across swinging jazz groups on street corners and crooning chanson in quaint café-bars, I trawled the wide, packed streets, each one lined with bad teenage rockers liberated by the one night of the year they could turn up as loud as they liked.
In a bid to be more selective, the next night I hit a jazz club. Duc des Lombards is small and poky, packed with couples cowering on tiny stalls just inches from the stage, while mediocre food is served with plastic cutlery. But I hit the jackpot, catching an early set by the Baptiste Herbin 4tet, an assured group of hard-boppers not afraid to stretch things out, wringing each of the tunes dry, Herbin’s alto sax blasting out just metres from my face.
There’s more to music than gigs. I went backstage at Le Lido, a legendary cabaret venue, and saw the remarkable work that goes into making its show happen. I wandered around the breath-taking national opera house, a building of great extravagance that came from a turbulent time. I visited a trendy new nightclub hosted on a moored tall ship, the rocking of the ocean no doubt a delight for queasy drinkers.
Rising early the next morning, I bused out to the Musée de le Musique, an epic educational complex which lovingly charts the development of Western instrumentation with historic finds and hundreds of audio clips. I even let out the rocker within and had lunch at the Hard Rock Café, the walls lined with guitars that once belonged to legends and teenage heroes alike – BB King, Bill Wyman, Angus Young and Slash.
Yet my most memorable musical experience though was an understated visit to one of the world’s most treasured stringed instrument makers. Holed up in a tiny Parisian workshop, “master luthier” Liberto Planas painstakingly crafts some of the most exquisite acoustic guitars on the globe. Retailing at well into the five-figure mark, the bandana-clad Spaniard tells me he has made at least three for flamenco godfather Paco de Lucia, with another reserved for collection. Jazz legend John McLaughlin bought one, but sold it on at a profit – only after a courtesy call to the luthier. And while we chat, I notice a guitar case branded with a Post-it which reads “Réservée pour les Gipsy Kings”.
The crossover stars were lucky – it’s a long waiting list, with the average guitar taking Planas more than a decade to complete, while some orders are still hanging on his wall unfinished more than 15 years after customers have placed an order. “You can’t rush it,” he says simply through a translator.
The night before heading home I resignedly climbed the iconic steps Basilique du Sacré Cœur at midnight. Perhaps my quest to get under the skin of the city’s music scene was always going to fail – a place of this size, culture and history. Starring down on the irregular peaks and domes of the Parisian horizon, contemplating all the music I’d heard, I realised the Paris I set out to find would always look better in black and white.
Rob Garratt travelled from London St Pancras International with Eurostar, who operate up to 18 daily services to Paris with return fares from £69. Tickets are available from www.eurostar.comor 08432 186186. He stayed at the Hôtel Joyce, 29 rue de la Bruyère Paris 9e (www.astotel.com/hotel-joyce-paris.php)
For more details about Duc des Lombards jazz club visit: www.ducdeslombards.com. The visit to Liberto Planas was arranged by Meeting the French (www.meetingthefrench.com).www.fetedelamusique.culture.fr