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Paris • March 1967

One thing about us English is that we’re proud of being uni-lingual, assuming that everyone would, if given the opportunity, become one of us. And then there’s the French. Paris is something of a linguistic challenge, even with everyday functions such as purchasing a jar of baby food. Les ventes femme determined that I order in a language that doesn’t even rate – according to the Vancouver Sun – in the top eight on the planet. Languages that have more than 150 million speakers being Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, Bengali, Arabic and Portuguese. Using my Collins Gem pocket phrase book I manage “Je voudrai un pot de nourriture de bebe, par Gerbers, s’il vous plait – épinards seraient préférés”. To which she replied in English as she handed over the jar of spinach – “See it’s not so difficult.”

For what I know of Paris I’ve arrived too late, more than sixty years too late. The bohemians of the Left Bank, a Paris of another era, the Paris of artists, writers, and philosophers, when Picasso, Rimbaud, Matisse, Sartre, those old Yankee reprobates Fitzgerald and Hemingway, could be found making their hearts grow fonder with a glass of absinthe in a bistro along the Boulevard Saint-Germain. The bawdy night world of Montmartre – the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergère – captured so extravagantly in Lautrec’s and Manet’s paintings. Where the exotic Josephine Baker performed her extravagant dances, when one could rub shoulders with Modigliani, van Gogh, Jarry, Renoir, Degas, Utrillo, Dufy and Langston Hughes. When Erik Satie played the piano at Le Chat Noir.

But what of my own memories? No more daydreaming: Down the steps into a basement – cave-like is how Le Chat Qui Pêche on rue de la Huchette rematerialises – crammed with tiny tables and chairs, a stage scarcely large enough to contain the trio of Don Cherry, Karl Berger and Jacques Thollot, to hold them from spilling out into a darkness barely relieved by the flickering light of candles. The music, which I will hear again as a later reincarnation, is delicately formed, a potpourri of rhythmically shaded colours, Karl’s vibraphone melodically percussive, his ever changing landscape reinforced by Jacques’ urgent drumming. Don, as always, dancing nymph-like, singing happy songs through his pocket trumpet. Without a flash it is impossible to capture them on film, the light too dim for me to find images. Now I can just dig the music.

Guy Le Querrec lays down his Leica carefully on the red & white check table cloth then sets about setting-up a single flood lamp to the side of the stage. The brightness subdued with a cheesecloth draped over the reflector’s rim. One set and he’s finished, joining our group around the table. Later he will send me one of the photographs from that night, a close-up of Don’s face, cheeks puffed out, his civil war horn snug in his hands. Guy is a Parisian, knows where jazz is happening and directs us to a Sunday afternoon session at La Cigale, a popular café in Montmartre. Jacques Butler et son quintet avec Benny Waters – Matinée 16:00 – Samedi & Dimache

I’ve found
an old grainy photograph of the great swing saxophonist Benny Waters playing at La Cigale in the sixties taken by Harold Chapman, a photographer with more than a passing interest in Paris. In the fifties he lived at the Beat Hotel in the Latin Quarter, the same hotel where William Burroughs finished “Naked Lunch” and Brion Gysin introduced him to the cut-up technique. Allen Ginsberg wrote part of his poem “Kaddish” in one of the grubby rooms and Gregory Corso penned the mushroom cloud-shaped poem “Bomb”.

The restructuring of these memories has been brought about by the discovery of a CD, a broadcast from the French radio station ORTF on Monday, March 20. The same Don Cherry trio heard the previous evening at Le Chat Qui Pêche. A double-bill with Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake.

Many semi-expatriated American musicians had found a happy and spiritual home in Europe. Three such people are Don Cherry in France, Jeanne Lee in Holland and Ran Blake in Spain. It is because of Jeanne – who with husband poet David Hazelton I spent time in Amsterdam – that I’ve been invited to the recording.

It will be my last day before returning home to Canada, a departure that has been fortuitously delayed, running out of money, surprised by the accumulation of hotel extras and the unknown airport tax, waiting for a cash transfer to arrive at the Cook’s office.

The evening began
with Don’s trio, himself attired in a flowing African styled robe, surrounded by such a collection of instruments as never before witnessed. Gongs, bells, wood blocks, sculls, bamboo flute, harpsichord and clavichord. And his cornet.

My contact sheet
shows that I managed just four shots before the sound engineer came shouting and hollering out of his booth – pointing accusingly. My single-lens reflex Hasselblad 500 with German-made Carl Zeiss lenses, the Swedish Rolls Royce of cameras, too loud, transferring the noisy shutter clack to all his microphones.

This is the period of the Blue Note recordings Complete Communion, Symphony For Improvisers and Where Is Brooklyn which I shall review as a trilogy in the April 1970 issue of Coda Magazine. The brief statements used at the beginning of each piece appeared only for the convenience of some starting point. Immediately disposed of. Having played together for several months the cohesion between them was complete, perhaps the titles of the Blue Note recordings a clear enough description: complete communion within a symphony for improvisers.

Jacques Thollot’s percussion, including timpani and gongs, continually supplied a barrage of rhythmic sound, urgent and vibrating, filling any space that may have needed accentuating. Don’s cornet as always dancing a brilliant song, and the bridge between the two, Karl Berger’s vibraphone, half melodic, half percussive, an ideal instrument in such a trio.

he second segment
of the concert, the musical world of Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake, again presented an original notion, adding another level to the ever changing world of jazz. The selection of material allowed hearing the scope and varying textures the duo could attain. Jazz tunes such as “Retribution”, “Caravan”, “Take the A Train” and “Parker’s Blues”; from the book of standards, “Night and Day” and “You Stepped out of a Dream”; from the popular music idiom, “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “A Hard Day’s Night”, to the final traditional “Jada”, illustrated how their personalities could fashion a program of original musical portraits .

Jeanne Lee’s interpretations are so much her own, occasionally one can hear briefly and sparsely scattered Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln inflections, a natural influence from her-story. Ran Blake’s solo contribution – “Birmingham U.S.A.” – changes the mood, the title alone leaving a peculiar taste in one’s mouth. Thunderous claps of chords – trembling, rising, falling, punctuated with singular vicious jabs – filled the air like the crack of a whiplash leaving a scar on the minds of white America’s conscience.

End Notes:
The complete broadcast on the French radio station ORTF of Don Cherry’s trio at Studio 105, Maison de l’ORTF, Paris on March 20th 1967, can be found at HiHat Records: http://www.odmcy.com/catalog/index.php/catalogue

[This sound sample is the opening 2 minutes of Symphony for Improvisers]

Don Cherry photograph Guy Le Querrec [type his name into your Images search engine for a delightful variety of photographs]

Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee photograph Max Resdefault

La Cigale photograph Harold Chapman
The Beat Hotel documentary: http://www.thebeathotelmovie.com
For residents of BC this film can be found at the library via Kanopy
The Beat Hotel: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beat_Hotel

Two other recordings listened to while writing this post:
Jeanne Lee & Mal Waldron – After Hours [Owl]
Andrew Cyrille, Jeanne Lee, Jimmy Lyons – Nuba [Black Saint]
Samples of both available on YouTube