JJ 02/63: Montmartre Mainstream

Sixty years ago Peter Vacher got a picture of the American mainstream presence on the Paris jazz scene via Jack Butler and Benny Waters. First published in Jazz Journal February 1963

The Brasserie de la Cigale, in a scene from Alain Jessua's 1964 film La Vie à l'envers

Visitors searching for jazz in Paris these days tend to look towards the Blue Note, where such well-known names as Bud Powell, Jimmy Gourley or Kenny Clarke are to be found. There are other clubs which feature fine musicians, both French and American, but certain jazzmen continue to make music in the French capital, well away from the forces of publicity. Such a pair are trumpeter Jacques Butler and tenor-man Benny Waters, both American expatriates, who play nightly at La Cigale, a Montmartre bar on Boulevard Rochechouart. Their efforts seem taken for granted; certainly there is no critical comment on their performances in French magazines, and their recordings in France have been few so far.

The description as written up is: ‘Jacques Butler et son Quintette avec Benny Waters’; the small bandstand is set to one side, away from the bar. As decor, there are large photographic murals depicting musical instruments. Tables and chairs for the listeners. No dancing. There seems always to be a number of genuine jazz enthusiasts present, together with the inevitable tourists and neighbourhood relics. There is no entrance charge but the first drink is expensive. The place is well lit, it’s easy to see the band and an amplification system allows everyone to hear.

The band works every night from 9.30 p.m. to 1.30 a.m. with an extra three hours each Saturday and Sunday afternoon.

An erect, neat man, dark-suited, Butler leads the band, playing hot trumpet, singing warmly, all with apparent relaxation and good humour. He smiles to many old friends, some of whom call over to shake hands. Shorter, fatter, Waters is the featured soloist, extrovert in his use of phrase and confident, again with that underlying good humour and relaxation.

Jacques Butler, in pre-war days known more simply as Jack, spent many years in Europe with the band of Willie Lewis. Prior to that, he had worked in America with Willie Bryant, Horace Henderson and Lucky Millinder.

Butler’s trumpet style owes much to Armstrong and Eldridge; his tone is broad with much vibrato. His playing is generally fiery and brassy; on ballads he often uses a felt mute and has a mellow, lyrical quality. His phrasing on the up-tempo riff tunes that the band uses is in the big-band tradition, build­ing to grandstand climaxes; on occasion, though, control is erratic and the striv­ing for effect is too marked and sometimes unsuccessful. However, he plays with conviction and genuine heat and can produce solos of quality. His all-round musicianship in ensemble work cannot be faulted.

His front-line partner, Benny Waters, is a jazz phenomenon; at 62 years of age, he can look back on recordings in the ’twenties with the Clarence Williams groups that also featured King Oliver, followed by periods with Claude Hopkins, Fletcher Henderson, Jimmie Lunceford, Hot Lips Page and Jimmy Archey. He came to Europe some years after World War 2 and has played in several countries since then. Today he plays with the passion and interest of a young­ster; his invention and drive seem never-failing.

He is broadly of the Hawkins persua­sion with a full rich tone and swinging, turbulent phrasing. His inspiration seems constant and he seems to avoid the ex­cesses of romanticism and only occasion­ally allows any “tourist” element to creep into his playing. His tenor is still brisk and sparkling, after a lifetime career; the pity of it is that his appearances on record have been limited since his stay in Europe. There is some solace in the fact that he has just recorded an album with blues singer and pianist Memphis Slim, another Paris resident. Ideally, he should have an album of his own to demonstrate his multiple talents with the men of his own choice.

In sessions at La Cigale Waters ably complements Butler’s trumpet work – their musical ideas are compatible and the choice of material provides both with apt vehicles for improvisation in the grand manner. The band occasionally perform numbers from traditional jazz such as Muskrat Ramble and Waters here plays clarinet in the New Orleans style, similar to, say, Edmond Hall. His tone and vibrato are broad, with flaring accents in ensemble work and dynamic command of all registers in solos. On a show-case such as Petite Fleur, Waters will play soprano sax, respecting Bechet’s conception of the tune but always going his own way. His command of the in­strument is again completely sustained. Waters knows the language of jazz and his exemplary musicianship enables him to communicate the full effect of his inventiveness.

The band play in a tightly knit, small-group swing style, something akin to Harlem bands of the late 30s and early 40s, choosing standards as vehicles for their improvisations most of the time; neat riff-based arrangements give added force to these often well-known items. Diverse instrumental com­binations are featured between the two horn-men: open-trumpet/tenor, felt-muted trumpet/soprano, trumpet/clarinet, etc. When Jacques sings, for instance, on rarely heard pieces such as Poor Little Rich Girl, Waters adds a subtle accom­paniment on soprano. Their command of dynamics and facility of execution is shown in crisply taken breaks in both solo and ensemble.

The rhythm section is concerned with swinging all the way, with a commend­able lack of fussiness and encumbrance. Indeed, when the right groove is there, their pleasure in playing conveys itself quite insistently. Pianist Jean-Pierre Louis, a huge man, huddled behind a fairly puny piano, plays in the Hines-Wilson style. Well suited to the band his introductions and solo choruses set and maintain an admirable level of perform­ance. Bassist Roger Tripoli plays in the decisive, modern manner and works and swings hard. Carl Regnier the young drummer, is a former pupil of American expatriate drummer, Carl ‘Kansas’ Fields, another Paris resident. Regnier has caught much of his mentor’s infectious drive, and his cymbal work, snare drum accents and control of dynamics push the band in stimulating fashion.

A team effort, this, not noticeably the worse for tourist requests or nightly repetition of international ‘favourites’. They seem aware that each audience will include people who are hearing the band for the first time.

A refreshing reality in performance remains: away from the restraints of the concert hall, a direct and natural inter-communication is always there.

The group, as it stands, deserves to be recorded, preferably selecting a few of the medium-tempo ballads that seem to serve individual stylists and ensemble equally well.

Talking to Butler during the course of several evenings spent listening to the band this summer, I first of all queried the adoption of ‘Jacques’ in favour of Jack. “Well, that just helps a little with the tax problem,” he smiled, avoiding further explanation!

We then talked a while about the band. “We’ve been here at La Cigale for about ten years now. I came in one time when the owner was just getting going with a new dance called the beguine. I played then, and I’ve worked here since that day. Yes, Benny Waters has been with me most of the time from 1953, except for a short while ago when he was in Germany. I’m only really happy with Benny in the band, you know!

“The pianist was born in Bordeaux but his parents originally came from Guadeloupe and the bassist also comes from one of those French islands in the West Indies.”

I then asked Butler to tell me some­thing of his career. “Well, I was born in Panama, you know, under the pro­tection of the U.S.A., but I was really raised and I went to school in Washington, D.C. I first came to Europe in 1929. I was in London in 1934 at the Pal­ladium – I was both a dancer and trum­peter then in a revue featuring people of colour. I enjoyed London and we made plenty of friends. I was caught in Norway when the war started but man­aged to get back to America. I came back to Europe in 1950 and I’ve been here ever since.”

Talk turned to some of the American jazz musicians now living in Paris. “There’s Bill Coleman – he’s just back from Spain. He was over my house to see me last Monday, telling me that things went very well. Arthur Briggs is still playing good jazz trumpet – he’s at Aix-les-Bains for the summer. He usually goes there and is very popular. Kansas Fields is in town, not working regular, playing a few concerts. I’ve been trying to get him in the band – without sucess so far. Maybe he’ll join us later on.

“We see Mezz Mezzrow and Albert Nicholas now and then, they do a few concerts around Paris. You know, Mezz’s son, Milt junior, is going to be a fine drummer.

“Who else? There’s George Johnson, an excellent alto player from around Detroit who lives in Paris now. There are two other names that you should write down, two Frenchmen, Philberto Rico, a fine trumpet player in the Afro-Cuban style and Robert Marounzy, an alto player of the Charlie Parker type, really something special. These are guys that you are going to hear from one day.”

There we left Jacques Butler, an American in Paris, married to a French girl and raising a French family. Ap­parently content with Parisian life, en­joying good food and a little wine and leading a band, which features a super­lative musician in Benny Waters and playing some relaxed, rocking jazz in the mainstream manner.