On my most recent visit to Paris, I was on a mission: Mission Jazz Manouche.
There are many reasons I love Paris, among them architecture, walkability, dining options and the café culture. Therefore, each visit to the city involves long strolls, hour spent at bistros and many cups of café crème. A new addition to the list is gypsy jazz, a music genre that originated in Paris in the 1930s.
Ever since I took interest in jazz manouche, as the style is commonly referred to in French, I wanted to hear it live in Paris. I imagined that I would sit in a cozy club with a glass of wine and feel like I’m back in time. A few months ago, I did just that.
My plan involved stopping at La Chope des Puces, a venue that pays homage to the pioneer of gypsy jazz, guitarist Jean Baptiste “Django” Reinhardt. It is located in the north-suburban town of Saint-Ouen, near the place where Reinhardt lived. Unfortunately, there were no scheduled performances at Chope during my stay in Paris, so I needed an alternative.
After doing some research, I identified three jazz clubs with shows later that day, and I also found out that there was a street in Paris named after Django Reinhardt. The decision to look for the alley was made easy by the fact that it was near Place d’Italie, an area I remembered from my previous trip to Paris and one I wanted to see again. Without thinking twice about it, I got on the subway and headed south-east.
Despite my familiarity with the neighborhood, finding Django’s street was not easy. The map I carried wasn’t very detailed and it pointed me to a farther-away area with high-rise apartment buildings, surrounded by many parking lots and driveways, but few “proper” streets. After wandering around for a while, I was ready to leave when I finally spotted a navy-and-green street sign, attached to a white metal fence: Allée Django Reinhardt. There it was!
Feeling a bit disappointed by the setting that didn’t seem to match the extent of Reinhardt’s contributions to music, I was nevertheless happy to have found the street. The outing was an important part of my gypsy jazz exploration and made me even more excited about the performances to come.
(click images to enlarge)
Even heavy rainfall in the evening couldn’t stop me from enjoying live music. With a rainproof coat on, I took the subway to the Ménilmontant stop in east Paris and quickly found La Locandiera on Rue Oberkampf. However, it turned out that the night’s performance had been cancelled. Once again, I had to change my plans.
Without enough time to get to another club in Montmartre to the north, I opted for a place a little closer – L’atelier Charonne near the Bastille metro station. At first I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of a dinner show (I prefer to focus on music alone), but all my apprehension was gone once I arrived at the club. Since I got there later than other guests, I wasn’t required to order food. Relieved, I settled into a seat near the stage, with just a glass of Bordeaux.
There were two performers that night, both playing acoustic guitars and one of them also singing. That was a change from what I’m used to seeing in the US (guitars supported by upright bass and violin), but interesting in that it was both so familiar and so different at the same time. I heard several known tunes, but the way the musicians approached them was novel to me.
When the show was over, I knew that I wanted to experience more live jazz. Back at the hotel, I looked up what shows were scheduled for the following evening. I would be going to Montmartre after all.
The next morning, I had lots of exploring to do around the city and decided to (finally) visit Musée d’Orsay. As luck had it, there were hundreds of people in line and I needed to rethink my sightseeing itinerary. But before I could leave the museum plaza, I heard the unmistakable sound of la pompe, the special style of guitar strumming used in gypsy jazz. I turned around and saw a group of street musicians performing for the crowd. This time, there was one guitarist, an upright bass player, a clarinetist and an accordion player. An unexpected treat and another entry on my jazz manouche check list.
In the evening, I took the metro to the Abysses station in Montmartre and, after a few wrong turns, arrived at Au Clairon des Chasseurs at Place du Tertre. The venue is a restaurant, but there were just a few other people in the audience, which made the space feel more intimate and more club-like.
The two guitarists who performed took turns playing rhythm and soloing, then played alone and back together. Yet again, I experienced a performance much different from what I am accustomed to. This versatility of gypsy jazz and the many ways in which it can be interpreted has deepened my already strong appreciation for the genre.
I wished I could stay until the concert was over, but it was time to leave if I wanted to view the midnight illumination of the Eiffel Tower and get any sleep before my early-morning train out of Paris.
With a new CD for my collection stuffed in the purse, I hurried down the winding streets of the Montmartre Hill. I felt that my Mission Jazz Manouche had been accomplished, if only partially. As I was waiting for the metro, I opened my notebook on the Paris to-do page and underlined La Chope des Puces.
A Swinging Journey – interview with Alfonso Ponticelli, a gypsy jazz guitarist from Chicago