To this day Guy Lafitte still speaks with the rich, dark accents of France’s southwest, of which perhaps the nearest British equivalent is the deep burr of Devon. And it is in a remote converted farmhouse about an a hour’s drive from Toulouse that he and his wife now live, just a couple of miles of gently undulating valley away from Lily Coleman, Bill Coleman’s widow. Indeed, it was because of his close friendship with Guy that the trumpeter finally settled in that area of France, where he today lies buried ‘in his little cemetery’.
‘I must say that when I play with Americans I feel something more authentic in the language. Often, European musicians are better, but. . . jazz music, even today, belongs to a people who have a different accent from ours’
Guy Lafitte was born a country boy (on January 12, 1927) but considers himself ‘a child of Toulouse’, for he grew up in that city and knows it intimately. All too intimately, perhaps, for it was there as a teenager that he ‘played an altogether different instrument.’ In defiance of the German occupation: a machine-gun, he’ll tell you reluctantly. Today he is an ardent pacifist.
Guy started out in music on clarinet, playing with local gypsy bands. And one senses something of the gypsy in him, as he recounts with pride: ‘My grandmother was found on a doorstep, a nice little mystery I like to cultivate. I’m proud of not knowing where I come from!’ When he switched to saxophone, it could only be a tenor, for him ‘the only real saxophone’; perhaps, he muses, because it best matched the deep pitch of his voice.
He read me his account of the day he bought his first saxophone, a touching paragraph from a typescript of some 50 pages, the beginning of an unfinished book. Like the story of a first love affair (‘You’re mine, I’m yours’), he read it with great passion and was literally choking back tears as he finished. Hawkins was of course his idol in those late forties: ‘I felt the profoundness of a discourse, someone who weighs his words . . . and who moves you because he goes straight to the truth’.
The Lafitte career really began to take off around 1950 when Hugues Panassié recommended him to Big Bill Broonzy, about to set off on a summer tour of French seaside resorts. At the Biarritz Casino, Broonzy and Panassié introduced him to Mezz Mezzrow, and it was with Mezz that in November 1951 Guy made his first record – for Vogue, with New Orleans stalwarts Lee Collins and Zutty Singleton in the line-up. In 1952 came the glory of a concert at the Salle Pleyel with trumpeter Bill Coleman, the start of a lifelong musical and personal friendship.
Guy also played and recorded with trumpeter Peanuts Holland during those early fifties, and in 1956 was teamed with yet another trumpeter, Emmett Berry, for the now near legendary Swingin’ The Berry’s album. A few months later came a session with Lionel Hampton, with Guy audibly less at ease: ‘I still wasn’t really sure whether I was Guy Lafitte or Chu Berry’, he admits. Difficult to be consistently at ease, perhaps, playing alongside Pops Foster one moment, Lionel Hampton the next, and within weeks, Lucky Thompson. That Lucky Thompson LP, unlike all the rest, was relatively recently available, on the DRG label (SW 8404). ‘When I listen to that record’, he confesses, I realise what an enormous difference there is between his talent and mine’. Maybe, but what strikes you repeatedly as you talk to Guy is his frightening, self-deprecating modesty.
From 1955 to 1967 Guy Lafitte was on contract to the EMI-Pathe Marconi group, and he made literally dozens of records, some purely jazz, many in the domain of what the French call ‘variétés’. Until the early sixties, remember, jazz was still popular music in France. In 1960 he scored a hit with his own Twist In St Tropez, a disc that still brings him and arranger Martial Solal royalties today.
But after this saturation exposure came a period of calm, beset by artistic doubt. Signing with RCA in 1968 didn’t break the inspirational deadlock, especially as he felt people expected him to play ‘modern’. After all, Coltrane had now left his mark. ‘I wasn’t being myself, and was seeking to play for the musicians rather than for myself. I didn’t really know what I was doing.’ With the last of his several albums for RCA (the 1972 Sugar and Spice), he seemingly came to terms with himself: ‘I decided to hell with everybody else, and with what they thought. I would play just the way I wanted.’ An excellent album probably impossible to find today, it contains a moving duo interpretation of God Bless The Child by Lafitte and pianist Raymond Fol.
‘1973, that was the beginning of a lot of things, and I came down here and started to raise sheep. Five years of raising sheep, that helped me settle down, to take a more objective view of things!’
The following year, Guy teamed up once more with trumpeter Bill Coleman to play the Montreux Festival, but still hadn’t really come to terms with himself. No doubt personal relationships were at this stage taking precedence over career considerations, but Guy clearly didn’t want to be specific. What is clear is he was standing at the threshold of a long sabbatical: ‘1973, that was the beginning of a lot of things, and I came down here and started to raise sheep. Five years of raising sheep, that helped me settle down, to take a more objective view of things!
‘Then in 1977 I began playing again and went on tour for Sud Radio. In ’78 I was in Nice. Already I was calmer. I returned to Nice in ’80.1 was once again getting back a bit more into the intensity of a musician’s life.’
This comeback marked the beginning of what can be called Guy’s Black & Blue period. He made an album in their very successful Midnight Slows series (with Milt Buckner and Sam Woodyard), and this was followed by a further six Black & Blue issues: one with Bill Coleman, two with Hank Jones, two with Wild Bill Davis, and one in an agreeably different mould, Guy Lafitte Plays Charles Trenet. The 1978 Corps Et Ame (Body and Soul) album with Hank Jones is among the best, but remains long overdue for reissue in CD format. The Coleman and highly recommendable Trenet albums are already out again on CD, whereas the album with Wild Bill entitled Lotus Blossom (the title track one of Guy’s own favourites) is a specifically CD issue.
Throughout his career, Guy has been constantly cast with American artists, both for live performances and studio dates. How does he feel about the respective merits of American and European musicians? ‘Even at the risk of hurting the sensibilities of certain French musicians . . . I must say that when I play with Americans I feel something more authentic in the language. Often, European musicians are better, but . . . jazz music, even today, belongs to a people who have a different accent from ours.’ To deal with the accents of the aforementioned Trenet album, the first with which he personally is at last really satisfied, he deliberately avoided an American presence.
‘For several years I’ve been very influenced by Rollins. There are times when I just can’t shake him off, much as I might try. Yes, Rollins is present nearly all the time, but Don Byas is now also coming very much back’
Guy Lafitte’s earliest influence, even before Hawkins, was Chu Berry. The latest, Sonny Rollins. ‘For several years I’ve been very influenced by Rollins. There are times when I just can’t shake him off, much as I might try. Yes, Rollins is present nearly all the time, but Don Byas is now also coming very much back into the reckoning. So what is this strange mixture? Because Hawk is still there too, as are so many others . . . Paul Gonsalves . . . Lucky Thompson. Ben Webster, sometimes, but not in any preponderant way, because for my taste he was well below the level of the others.’
Whatever the precise amalgam, it is a beautiful one: the Lafitte sound rich, majestic and sensual; the style long on melody. ‘I try to seduce’ he declares. Guy recorded a new album for Black & Blue last summer (with Jacky Terrasson on piano, Pierre Boussaguet on bass and Al Levitt on drums). Aptly entitled The Things We Did Last Summer, it has just been released on CD 59 192 2. Judging by the extracts I’ve heard it’s a beauty, probably his best yet, and should provide the ideal aural illustration of a conversation I hope has made you freshly aware of an important, underexploited talent.