A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
On Jazz in Paris
My jazzy heart is broken. After many months away, we’ve returned to find the jazz club we’ve loved for fourteen years on rue Lepic gone.
Autour du Midi (et minuit) was its name—an homage, of course, to Thelonious Monk’s widely popular “’Round Midnight,” those phrases etched into our memories especially via Miles Davis’s versions of the song. Around Noon—for the place was a restaurant—(and midnight)—the lower case & parentheses perhaps representing the tone & shape of what went on downstairs late into the night.
It was around 9:30 or 10 when things really got going. Often, because this was a jazz club and lovers of jazz are animals of the night, the place kept going until 2, 3 in the morning. The latest I ever left was 3, on a night when my psyche couldn’t take another note of great music; only five or six of us were left in the audience, and I faded toward the stairway slowly, trying nonetheless to make eye contact with the musicians, give a quick wave of gratitude, acknowledgment.
A picture of the place: on a steep hill up rue Lepic, one of the main shopping streets in Montmartre, where my family & I have had a place for fourteen years. The street’s gone through many changes since we moved in: Montmartre’s become “bobo,” (bourgeois bohemian) gentrification having insinuated itself, similar to what’s happened in Brooklyn. Basic services have disappeared, pushed out by boutiques. The excellent butcher shop, where whole pigs & quarter-steers were delivered daily, had to remake itself and is now part minimalist butcher, part prepared-food deli. Bobos don’t like to cook, apparently.
Each arrondissement of Paris (there are twenty) has its own mayor & council, and it’s clear that the elected officials of the 18th, Montmartre, were asleep at their desks, that their inaction allowed chains & boutiques swiftly to sweep in.
The officials of the 9th just downhill from us (Paris’s arrondissements are spiral, escargot-like, hence the illogic in numerical proximity) were a little more visionary, conferring historical status on their lovely shopping street rue des Martyrs. Lepic should have been accorded the same.
Autour du Midi planted itself just across from Lux Bar, one of the oldest bars in Paris, scenes of old boulevard de Clichy and the Moulin Rouge in ceramic on its walls, the lyrics of riverain (resident) poet & musician Bernard Dimey emblazoned, too, in that ceramic.
A good spot to start a jazz club.
The upstairs restaurant of Autour was rather modern, good food, fair prices. The daily menu was to be found on the ardoise (chalkboard), and often included delicacies such as grilled pigs’ ears, tete de veau, and breaded pigs’ feet. Apparently the very underbreath uttering of a desire for French fries by an unsuspecting customer was enough to send Autour’s chef into a choleric fit.
The beating heart of the place, though, was down the narrow stone stairs: a classic French double-barreled petit cave voûtée, all brick. A wall separated the performance vault from a lovely bar—no barstools, but a few tables near, enough space beside the tables for people to belly up to the bar, order their drinks. Beyond the bar, a large video screen to capture the action on stage inside the second vault, both for bartender & for overflow crowds.
In that larger second vault a slightly raised stage, well-tuned upright piano, set of house drums, high-quality amps & speakers, proper stage lights wired into the ceiling, green faux-leather banquettes lining the sides of the room, little cocktail tables throughout (a candle on each), & compact low-backed chairs arranged to maximize capacity. I never counted what the place could hold: maybe forty, with eight more standing at the back.
It was beautiful. The quality of sound, exquisite.
And all of this—the restaurant, the booking, bartending, the occasional bouncing, the opening up/closing up/cleaning up, presided over & usually physically done by owner & impresario Monsieur Yves Faucher, consummate lover of jazz in all its forms. A quiet man, tall, balding, thin, close-cropped gray beard, scholarly glasses, Monsieur Faucher never once, in my experience, took the mike to emcee; he simply tended bar, threaded himself through the club to pick up empty glasses, served.
Monsieur Faucher had the formula down: one night traditional jazz (New Orleans style—mostly older players drawing an older crowd), two nights of jam sessions where the house band played a long first set, a few nights each month for high-schoolers to show off their skills, an occasional vocal jam session, and Fridays and Saturdays reserved for bigger names.
Except for those Fridays and Saturdays, admission was free. Zero. The requirement: one drink minimum. The cost of that drink? A beer or glass of wine, five euros (about six bucks at this writing), a price that didn’t change in fourteen years. A jazz fan could stay five hours for five euros, and perhaps too many did.
Paris of course has been a mecca for jazz musicians for almost a century. Mulligan, Gillespie, Williams, Baker, Fitzgerald, Coleman, Simone, Davis, Evans, Peterson, Young, Vaughan, Mingus, Hawkins, Benny Carter/Ron Carter/Betty Carter—it’s near-impossible to name a great jazz musician who hasn’t played here.
And for almost a century Montmartre’s clubs hosted many of them, the arrondissement itself once considered a libertine faubourg (suburb), a place where one could carouse cheaply and find both decent & indecent entertainment at the boîtes de nuits, the nightclubs.1 It’s tamed considerably since days when the very names of those clubs lured people up the hill: Le Rat Mort, Le Chat Noir, La Silhouette, Bal du Moulin, Le Monaco, Chez Eve, Le Heure Bleu. And of course sexy Josephine Baker’s Chez Josephine, as well as red-haired Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith, a.k.a. “Bricktop”—her eponymous club.
The clubs came and went, as did the musicians. Those who loved playing in Montmartre included Sidney Bechet, Django Reinhart, Garland Wilson, Alberta Hunter, Duke Ellington, Una Mae Carlisle, Florence Embry Jones, all over many decades. Reinhart and Stephane Grapelli got the Hot Club going on rue Chaptal, just blocks away in the 9th.
Hitler banned American jazz during the Occupation, and American musicians (mostly Black, respected deeply in ways they never were in the U.S.), were either forced to leave France or chose to leave until the war was over. The late scholar William A. Shack’s deeply-researched Harlem in Montmartre2 details a “10% Rule” once passed by the French General Assembly, mandating that no band or orchestra could consist of more than 10% non-French players. That didn’t last long, for obvious musical reasons.
In the 1950s Black musicians came streaming back (many “Live in Paris” albums were produced during that period), and many stayed.
So many stellar musicians, Black and white, played Autour du Midi, often in gigs of their own, occasionally popping in at jam sessions days before or after the weekend nights they were featured at Autour or other clubs. Monsieur Faucher was committed deeply to French jazz artists—wisely, for jazz is alive and well in France, still appreciated in ways that have dropped away in the States. (This appreciation might change; I’m seeing more and more fine jazz groups playing corner-stuck in restaurants as background music, often regarded as irritant, the diners’ volume increasing, competitive…)
The house band was all French, led over the years frequently by the estimable Laurent Epstein3 on piano, accompanied by bassists Jean Wellers or Olivier Rivaux and drummer André Kechida.
I don’t know if Epstein had a day gig, or, if so, what it might have been; he could have been a neurosurgeon or a bank officer, for all I know, and if you passed him on the street you’d never guess that by night he’d guide listeners through a journey not only of jazz classics pushed to a transcendent level, but also of original compositions played his way: no long-fingered classical fluidity glissading across the keys, but an impressive range of style: sometimes a bent-knuckled honky-tonk attack banging that upright into Walleresque submission, other times possessing a tenderness that carried a physical, emotional weight—a weight one felt as cleansing, clarifying, but never sentimental. Epstein was always a team man: loved holding back, featuring his fellow players—even those jammers whose skills floated far below his. The man was a jewel.
Monsieur Faucher featured many other French players in the club, few of whose names were familiar to me, but who included Hervé Meschinet3 on sax, Fabien Mary on trumpet, pianist Alain Jean-Marie, fiddler/violinist (depends on the piece!) Aurore Voilqué4, bassist Yoni Zelnik, percussionist David Georgelet, guitarist/bassist William Brunard and vocalist Laurence Masson: all musicians of the first caliber, familiar to French jazz fans.
As to the Americans, among them was the legendary bassist Butch Warren5, (who played with Thelonious Monk, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Clark, Herbie Hancock), bebop trumpeter Louis Smith6 (who played with Cannonball Adderley, among others), the spectacular trombonist Sarah Morrow7, vocalist Molly Ryan8, swing reed man Dan Levinson, bassist Doc Scanlon, saxophonist Timothy Hayward (a Paris native), bebop pianist “Spike” Wilner9, and others, many of whom live in the city: Bobby Few10, Eddie Allen, Sylvia Howard, Ronald Baker, Ron Meza, Razul Siddick, John Betsch, Peter Giron, the Ronében Quartet11… the list goes on.
The jazz we heard there: the great manouche guitarist Patrick Saussois12 before he died. Guitarist Angelo Debarre13. The versatile drummer Julie Saury14—one of the best I’ve ever heard, daughter of French traditional jazzman Max Saury. And dozens of musicians, men & women, from all over the world, often waiting patiently, instrument cases in hand, at the back of the dark cave, who when they stepped up & took out their fiddles or saxes or trumpets or trombones simply blew us away—that feeling you get when we’re hearing great music ex tempore—truly outside the passing of time, when your mind feels it and your body feels it & the musicians up there are themselves of one body, and they know it, ride with it bar after bar, until at last some signal from the gods, some warning against hubris, expels us from that jagged orbit & we’re back to earth, feel the old gravity-pull again, and the song ends.
Of course, there were times when the music was god-awful, but those nights were few, and often salvaged by the fine work we’d earlier heard from the house band.
Our apartment was only a five-minute walk to Autour, and that was lovely, too; when some of the crowd had to leave to catch the night’s last metro, we could stay, linger long past 2 if we wanted, stroll home.
And of those late nights.
Montmartre, as you know, is one of Paris’s “mountains”; parts of it are quite touristy, and it vies with the 20th for the most densely populated arrondissement. There were many nights when we left late—let out ceremonially by Monsieur Faucher himself, for after midnight he’d locked the upstairs restaurant door that so no one would wander in, the restaurant staff gone home—and what’d we’d emerge into was… nothing, everything.
Those were nights whose mark in time I don’t remember, nights that come back to me randomly in ways beyond temporal marking, nights perhaps after a day of writing, when my psyche’d been wrenched open a little more than usual, vulnerable, when I thought I’d eat a quick dinner at home & pop over to that dark cave & take in a little music. Nights when I’d order my beer, settle in on one of the banquettes, put my beer on the tiny table, my mind tabula rasa, and, maybe four hours later, emerge into the streets of Montmartre as if my body had been through something it didn’t quite understand, as if new neural pathways had been not carved but downright bulldozed, and I’d emerge in that dazed state into the late-night fog of Montmartre & the private silence fog provides, no one around, then head down the alley toward our place, climb the five flights up, go to bed. Those nights were many, and they arrive in memory often, and feel interstitial, sacred in their way, the nimbus of that fog still moving in the way the liminal in us does, important and useful, altering us in ways we do not know.
I think back on nights I went back to the bar for a second beer and I’d see Monsieur Faucher—who might have been sixty the last time I went, standing behind his bar, listening intently to a terrific solo—his eyes closing, his head moving almost imperceptibly. I’d wait before defiling the moment in asking for the beer—an agreement of sorts. We’d say a word or two about the solo, which we could hear fully but see only on the overhead monitor at the top of the vaulted ceiling (what torture that must have been for him) then he’d get on with the pouring of my Grimbergen, and I, the lucky one, would go back & join the crowd.
Then the players might call a break and Monsieur Faucher would put on music—the greats: Bill Evans, Ella, Dexter Gordon, Mary Lou Williams, Clifford Brown… and Miles, of course.
When the musicians were taking their break they’d sit at the tables beside the bar, and sometimes they’d get to drinking & time would pass & more time would pass & at a certain point the wait would become excruciating for us behind the brick wall in the second vault. One of those nights my brother & I were there—my brother a jazz fan of the first order, loved Autour as much as I. Patrick Saussois & his pals had been playing, took a break, got to drinking & laughing & smoking their Gauloises out there (smoking in bars allowed then), half an hour passed, forty minutes, the substantial crowd started filtering out, more laughter from the players, more smokes, maybe four people were left in the audience (we two comprising half of that number), then Saussois poked his head around the corner & said, “Nobody’s left. Let’s go home.”
And that was it.
Never once did we hear Monsieur Faucher tell the musicians to get back to work. It seemed he regarded Autour as their club as well as his. Perhaps that was a failing, but I think they loved him for it.
The rolling metal door of Autour du Midi (et minuit) is closed now, and emblazoned on its blue is a clumsy graphic advertising a new coffee shop soon to be opened. Something about grains, and there’s a music motif there, a few sparse notes painted in. I asked around, and no one I spoke with had hope for any music there; those eighth-notes/those quarters seeming only residual grains of the true jazz swept from the floor of the elegant cave, slapped onto the graphic to appease Montmartre: if not les riverains, then maybe to appease the calcic mountain itself, expiate one jazz club’s disappearance from the streets of Montmartre, Paris, in this early part of the twenty-first century.
Goodnight, Monsieur Yves Faucher, wherever you are, and thank you.
1 To get a sense of the tone of the old district, the reader might get a kick out of punching into an internet image search “l’Enfer nighclub Paris” and “Le Ciel nightclub Paris”: twin clubs on boulevard de Clichy, quite close to Autour. (Long gone, of course, by the time Autour opened its doors.)
2 William A. Shack, Harlem in Montmartre (Berkeley: University of California Press) A beautifully researched work. Shack pushes the physical boundaries of Montmartre somewhat in the book—some of the clubs he cites were in the 9th or the 17th—but for many Parisians the precise lines of what constituted Montmartre weren’t important.
3 It’s difficult to find representative Youtube clips of Epstein at Autour. Here’s one with Hervé Mechinet, where Epstein has a solo. Bassist Wellers and drummer Kechida are well represented: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqIK-zzWtNA
4 Voilqué: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VsXhktYPD8
11 Ronében: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VK3KFo_mot0
12 Saussois: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usQoL1zGtNE
13 Debarre: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpaEkrl4f9w