Six decades on, Paris Blues retains its jazz appeal

    The 1961 film had its clichés and confections but it had a jazz theme and music by Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong

    Louis Armstrong in Paris Blues

    Paris Blues is a film with a sound jazz base, four A-list actors, a top director (Martin Ritt – The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Hud), plus a guest appearance by Louis Armstrong, ubiquitous in films of this type in the 50s and 60s. Arguably the icing on the cake is a score by Duke Ellington.

    The film excels on so many levels that it’s difficult to know where to begin. For one thing it was shot entirely on location in The City Of Lights (and who doesn’t love Paris?) but this isn’t the Paris of Gigi, Funny Face or even An American In Paris. In other words, it’s not a light romantic soufflé filmed against lavish travelogues in gorgeous technicolor. This was a more realistic Paris (in black-and-white) of small Left Bank jazz clubs where tourists seldom ventured.

    The plot was wafer-thin-to-gossamer. Two expat Americans, one white, one black, are settled contentedly in Paris, living comfortably by spending their evenings playing jazz. Into their lives come two American women – also one white and one black – schoolteachers on vacation, in search of culture rather than romance. This is cliché no matter how you slice it. But it’s cliché laced with weightier themes – racism, substance abuse, adult relationships.

    In place of the travelogue element, we get a lovely scene in which Sidney Poitier (Eddie Cook), and Diahann Carroll (Connie Lampson) stroll around the Bird Market on Île de la Cité. Although they are in love, Eddie is in Paris primarily because Parisians are noted for being colour blind and he is judged solely on his skill as a saxophonist rather than the colour of his skin. Connie, however, is active in the struggle for racial equality and urges Eddie to return with her to the US and stand up to be counted.

    The other relationship is more intense (Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were, of course, husband-and-wife offscreen, and this was the fourth time they had appeared together on screen). Newman’s Ram Bowen is both selfish, arrogant and ambitious, with eyes to become a serious composer, and not really prepared to take on Woodward’s Lillian Corning – a divorcee with two children – full time. Throw in a sub-plot about the group’s guitarist Michel “Gypsy” Devigne (Serge Reggiani) – a clear reference to Django Reinhardt – and his heroin addiction, and we’re looking at a fairly rich bouillabaisse, before we even mention the music.

    The music is nothing less than a delight. After scoring Anatomy Of A Murder, Duke Ellington had obviously acquired a taste for the silver screen and turned in something that was nominated for a 1961 Oscar (though it lost, unsurprisingly to West Side Story).

    We get to hear Take The ‘A’ Train and Mood Indigo in the jazz club sequences (Murray McEachern dubbing Paul Newman and Paul Gonsalves playing for Poitier. In addition, albeit uncredited, we hear on the soundtrack Sonny Greer, Johnny Hodges, Oliver Nelson, Philly Jo Jones, Clark Terry, Max Roach, Juan Tizol and Britt Woodman. And I still haven’t touched on the central jam session featuring Louis Armstrong, the pièce de resistance.

    Ironically, the one cast member who had claim to a musical background, Diahann Carroll (the following year she co-starred with Richard Kiley on Broadway in Richard Rodgers’ No Strings), was not called upon to sing one note.

    In sum: you don’t have to be a jazz buff to thoroughly enjoy Paris Blues, but if you are a fan you’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven.

    In Jazz Journal, March 1961, in an article titled “With Duke and Louis in Paris”, editor Sinclair Traill reflected on Paris Blues and interviewed Ellington and Armstrong:

    It is difficult to tell at this stage if the film Paris Blues is going to be any better than any other Hollywood production with a jazz background. It is possible it may even be worse, but that is doubtful for one or two reasons. Director Martin Ritt stepped off on the right foot when he engaged Duke Ellington to write the score; cast Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll to play leading roles; and last but by no means least hired Satchmo Armstrong to play a supporting part. Surely a film with music by Duke and trumpet by Louis is bound to come along swinging somewhere!

    The story is nothing too deep. Two musicians, one coloured, one white, meet up with two girls in Paris, and what one would expect to ensue obligingly ensues. The drug problem rears its ugly head; Paul Newman (Ram Bowen, a trombonist) writes a jazz concerto; but it all manages to end fairly happily. Louis plays the part of a visiting American jazz celebrity (Wild Man Moore), complete with his own band – not the All Stars – and mugs his way through his part with his usual infectious, gay abandon.

    As he said, “The part I play in the picture ain’t big, but it’s important – I see to that! It all takes place in one of them caves, those French cellars y’know. Sidney Poiter and Paul Newman, they’re supposed to be jazz musicians. Paul plays trombone; he’s really bin’ takin’ lessons from Billy Byers, who plays the music for the film. Sidney, he’s supposed to be a saxophone man. That French cat Guy Lafitte taught him to hold his horn right. Duke got the band sounding his way and some of the music is real pretty. When Hugues Panassié heard some of the tapes, he just lifted up his hands, French fashion, and cried with joy. ‘What are you doing to our musicians?’ he said. ‘You have inspired them!'”

    How, when and where much of the music for the film was recorded seems to be something of a mystery, but Duke says some of it (including some songs by Nan Wynn) was recorded in Hollywood before he left for Paris. The band used was not Duke’s, and the only musician Duke could remember as being on the session was the old Goodman trombonist Murray McEachern. But again some of the music was also recorded in Paris with French musicians, plus Duke on piano and of course Louis. One of the musicians on the recording and also in the film is Jack Butler. Louis on the subject is worth quoting: “My ace man out there is Jack Butler. Used to work with Lucky Millinder, Willie Bryant and Horace Henderson, an’ I’ve been knowing him since those days. When I saw him on the set I said to Mr. Ritt – he’s director of the film y’know – I say to him, you turn that camera on Jack, ’cause he’s my man. So he gets a nice little part, mugging with me and playing his trumpet, y’know.” For the record, a few names as supplied by Jack (Jacques these days) Butler may be of interest.

    In addition to Billy Byers and Guy Lafitte, Aaron Bridges is seen at the piano, the famed Moustache on drums, Jean Vees (Django’s cousin) on guitar, and the following musicians from Butler’s own group all appear – Roland Legrand, Germain Couvin, Maurice Longrais (t), Al Levat (tb) Silvie Mamie (g) and Barel Coppet, Emilien Antille, Louis Joseph Marel, Sian D’Albonne saxes.

    To digress from the film for a moment, a few comments from Louis and Lucille on the African tour, which was split to allow Louis to keep his contract for Paris Blues, may not come amiss. You can imagine Mr and Mrs Armstrong in a cosy room in a cosy hotel in Paris. There is always a happy warmth where the Armstrongs are; laughter is never far away. Pops with his white socks at half mast, prepares to envelop an outsize pork chop; Lucille is curled up on a settee playing Bing and Satchmo on a portable record player.

    “The treatment we got during the whole of our tour,” she says, “was wonderful. Everywhere they took to Louis’ music and came in thousands. It was different to last time – they seemed to appreciate the music more. Kinda’ got with it more. Danny Barcelona’s drum solos stopped nearly every show, yet the time before they didn’t take too much notice of the drums. Louis says they’re getting to know the beat. I was relieved they did like the show, as with all those bottles lying around it would have been dangerous if they hadn’t! Oh, they were Pepsi bottles – they must have drunk millions of gallons. You see the only entrance fee charged was a top from a Pepsi bottle. But they had to open the bottle before they could get in, because on the inside of the crown top was a picture of Louis – and that was what they had to show at the gate. We were entertained by all the rulers everywhere. Velma and I were even invited to visit a harem – a thing which had never been done before.”

    “Yeh,” broke in Louis, “but that old Sultana wouldn’t let me in, even when I tol’ him none of them ladies had anything Lucille hadn’t got – but better!”

    To return to film making and the music thereof . . .

    Duke Ellington’s suite in the same hotel as the Armstrong’s was of large enough proportions to comfortably house a grand piano. Duke composes at all manner of times and the resultant sounds echoed weirdly down the waste pipes into the bathroom below. Sometimes a series of preternatural sounding chords, sometimes one odd note which would be struck over and over again. It didn’t seem much like Ellington music, but it was all very fascinating, if somewhat disembodied.

    The Dukely presence was sheltered, and his wants attended to, by an old friend who saw to his meals (Duke is a somewhat exacting eater), acted as interpreter and whose extreme elegance would be enough to stir the muse in the most veritable clodhopper imaginable. And recently it should be noted, the Ducal muse has been working overtime. “I’ve written more in the past year, than I’ve done for the five years previously,” he said. “But one can’t keep it bottled up, can one? Like this good French wine, it doesn’t keep for ever you know.”

    It is not generally known that, whilst in Paris, attending to the Paris Blues score, Duke also undertook the writing of background music for an old French classic play, Tucaret. Written by Lesage some 250 years ago, the new production was being produced by Jean Villar, whose idea it was that the play would be enlivened and improved if a series of overtures to the acts were written by Duke. Ellington had little time to spare, Paris Blues was not completed, and he was due to leave in a week to join his band in Las Vegas. Nevertheless he read the play in English, accepted the commission and within the week presented the completed scores to the producer. Finally, on the last day but one of the old year, Duke (with the ever present Billy Strayhorn in attendance and with the help of sixteen top French jazzmen) recorded the themes on tape. It was a night-long session, but with Duke jumping from the piano stool to musician in order to clarify points as they arose, he achieved the band sound he was after, and eventually licked the whole thing into shape. The music is strictly Ellingtonian in tone colour and beat; it contains one very charming waltz, and the only soloist is Duke himself.

    “C’est moi,” he says, with that charmer’s grin, as the tape unwinds. “No, baby it’s not the first time I’ve written the music for a play, tho’ this production is a little different, a little older, or should I say more ancient than my previous effort. Six or seven years ago I wrote a complete musical play, libretto and everything you know. Nothing ever came of it – we lacked a backer. But things are more hip today, people are more swinging. The music for Paris Blues is I hope swinging music – I enjoyed writing it. Did I tell you, we even did a flamenco thing, gypsy music, you know. It is for two guitars and a . . . ahem, squeezeaphone.

    “I hope it will all turn out alright. I have used a few of my older tunes, Mood Indigo, Take The A Train, Sophisticated Lady, Clothed Woman, because I think people will expect and like to hear them. Some of the music was recorded in Hollywood before I left and the rest has been recorded here in Paris. We’ll have to come back here in March or April to finish it all off, but for the present, you know, it is all done.”

    Duke wandered off to the piano. prodded a few notes at random; some chords were added, a short flurry of notes, a return to the original chord, and Duke was alone with his music. A new tune was born.