I moved to the city of Paris in 1995, my first contact with an urban area of any worth. I came from the hills of Vermont, and the City of Light may as well have been Jupiter in its size and differing realities. I was certainly excited for the professional opportunities, working as I was at the American Chamber of Commerce in Paris, but I expected a certain level of advanced culture, too. It was, after all, 12 million people and home to Jacky Terrasson, Michel Petrucciani, Edith Piaf, and a certain gypsy jazz luminary by the name of Django Reinhardt. Surely there would be great music.
The reality of 1995 was not quite so bright. The scourge of techno gripped Europe, and noise ordinances made live music quite rare and difficult in Paris save for a few venues. As a result, the level of certain types of music seemed unusually awful for such a large city. Don’t get me wrong, these guys still own Mahler and Debussy. But Rock and Roll? Forget about it. Funk? These were not a funky people. And jazz was shockingly terrible. I remember going into the New Morning Club to hear four super-serious music types just absolutely butcher their interpretation of free jazz. It was the equivalent of watching frat brothers in Indiana try their hand at Marcel Marceaux – rotten. Oh, and did I mention that New Morning wanted $18 a drink?
But there was a major highlight. High up in the hills of Montmartre there sits a café called Au Clairon des Chasseurs which was nothing special except for the two-man gypsy jazz guitarists they had with surprising regularity. The music was incendiary, sophisticated and utterly French. This was the good stuff.
If you can, rent a movie called Life After Django or La Vie Django which shows the amazing influence of Le Manouche on the French jazz scene, which is as vibrant today as it was 75 years ago. Here’s a little chunk of what you are missing. Angelo Debarre, Romane, David Reinhardt, Boulou Ferré and 96 other great players are waiting to show you that this isn’t just music, it’s a lifestyle.