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PARIS BLUE

Radio 4 Monday 4th February 2019

When African American jazz met the French new wave in Paris.

Jazz writer Kevin Legendre explores the encounter between modern jazz and French cinema in Paris in the late 1950s and ‘60s. Paris in the civil rights era was a hub of artistic collaboration as well as a kind of refuge - a destination for American jazz musicians escaping racial prejudice and turbulence at home, finding new creative encounters abroad.
As segregation raged in the US these artists – from Miles Davis and Bud Powell to Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk – felt liberated in the city. Paris was the first foreign city Miles Davis ever visited, it was here he met Picasso. Sartre and Jean Cocteau. "It was the freedom of being in France and being treated like a human being...” he wrote, “It changed the way I looked at things forever. I loved being in Paris and Paris was where I understood that all white people were not the same; that some weren't prejudiced." 
 
The admiration was mutual, new artistic relationships flourished. A key area of collaboration became the film score, with jazz musicians working closely with a younger generation of radical directors that made up the French ‘new wave’: Miles Davis’ 1957 score to Louis Malle’s brooding thriller Ascenseur pour l'echafaud; Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ soundtracks for Roger Vadim (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) and Edouard Molinaro (Des Femmes Disparaissent) as well as cues by the Modern Jazz Quartet. French film composers listened closely and began writing their own scores based on what they had heard – a standout being the score for Jean Luc Godard’s debut, A Bout de Souffle (1959) composed by jazz pianist Martial Solal.
 
These scores elevated French films to new levels of intensity, cool and atmosphere. Sequences were shot on handheld cameras in and around the streets of Paris, especially at night - musicians would be asked to improvise as they watched the rushes. Miles Davis recorded Ascenseuer pour l'echafaud with the film projected on the studio wall as Jeanne Moreau, its star, poured the drinks. Godard used experimental editing techniques that matched the rhythm and dissonance in the jazz. Some of these musicians' great but little known work is recorded in these movie cues. But underlying the beautiful work, this story is one of political exile as well as cultural refuge. For a moment Paris became a jazz capital of the world as it already was the free-thinking centre of Europe, a rebuke too prejudice in America - even as it had growing racial tensions of its own.
 
Recorded in and around the city, jazz critic Kevin Legendre meets musicians, filmmakers and writers to explore this incredible moment of exile and exchange, and asks if Paris is still the city of freedom and tolerance it once was for Black artists.
 
Guests include jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, sax player David Murray, composer Martial Solal, jazz writer Geoff Dyer, bassist Henri Texier and playwright Jake Lamar.