Paris is supposed to be one of the great jazz cities. They loved Monk before New York did, hailed Miles as a genius and provided a fertile, non-segregated arena for greats like James Reese Europe, Josephine Baker and Django Reinhardt between the two World Wars. There’s a great documentary called Harlem in Monmartre, based on the book by the same name written by William A. Shack, that does a good job exploring the scene that sprung up there between the wars. So when my wife and I decided that Paris would be our next big trip, I was excited to see if the old reputation held true.
Unfortunately, jazz in Paris is about the same as anywhere else: struggling to hang on. We did make it to one good jazz club, La Caveau des Oubliettes, for what was a fun Tony Williams tribute night. The space is crazy, a tiny stage packed in a cave-like cellar beneath a bar. The date on the stonewall next to me said 1610, which I think pre-dates the Vanguard by a couple years. The music was straight up fusion, loud and electric with a guitar player who would make McLaughlin sound restrained. Everyone in the quartet could play, but they were a little too eager to prove it. Unfortunately, from what I could gather, this was the only “real” jazz club in the city. There were a few places that billed themselves as jazz clubs, but from what I saw it was lot of torch singers and dueling pianos.
I decided to turn my attention to vinyl. I’d read a few articles about record shopping in Paris, so I set aside a day to try and explore the stacks. Most of the shops are located fairly close to each other, in the Latin Quarter near the Sorbonne. Here’s how the day went:
First stop: Boulinier– A pretty large shop, but definitely more focused on current music. Felt like a cross between a very busy Tower Records and a flea market. Haphazard organization, and what little vinyl they had was geared towards the DJ set. I had been told this was the best place for crate digging, so I was pretty disheartened. I did grab a used Brad Mehldau CD for $3, just in case this really was the best it was going to get. I’d say skip this one.
Second stop: OCD– This is a chain shop, with locations all around Paris and the rest of France. There was a decent vinyl selection, and I grabbed a couple of Jaco titles: a live duet with Rashid Ali on the B13 label and another live set, this one with Birelli Lagrene and a full band. Both are good records, the Ali date especially. The B13 label has caught my eye lately with mostly live, bootleg-type releases. I’m sure they’re all unauthorized, so I have mixed feelings about buying them, but the quality is usually good and the music always interesting (if atone has more info on them, I’d love to hear it). The day was beginning to look up…
Third Stop: Crocodisc– …until we got here. A lot of shit in Paris is closed on random days. In this case, Crocodisc (and their sister store, Crocojazz) are closed on Mondays. I guess it makes sense: Mondays suck. Maybe I should’ve checked the website before heading over there, but if I’d done that I never would have stumbled into the place across the street…
Last Stop: La Dame Blanche- I spotted the racks outside first, and took a quick run through them. I grabbed a Steps Ahead record, and the old man working the shop came out and told me there were much better records inside.
You can tell a good record shop by the smell, musty like an old basement, the smell of treasures forgotten by too many for too long. There were only about six crates of jazz records, but there were some great titles in there. I picked up some Herbie Hancock, Miles & Monk at Newport, Jaki Byard Solo Piano and Miroslav Vitous Mountain in the Clouds. Everything was in amazing condition, and even with the bad exchange rate was cheaper than I would pay in the U.S. The Byard record is particularly strong, and in immaculate condition.
After I paid, the old man asked me if I wanted to see the back room…around the corner…where they kept the good stuff. Yeah, I definitely wanted to see that, so I followed him around the corner, through an alley and up to an unmarked door that looked like any other building on the block.
I had already past the token budget I set for myself and was resting comfortably at the budget I had really set for myself, so I didn’t plan on buying anything else, but the room was just too perfect. Shelves from floor to ceiling. No kind of labeling, except a few of the shelves would have a little white paper that said “classical” or “jazz”. The first thing I grabbed was an regional pressing of Eric Dolphy At The Five Spot, Vol 1. The younger guy working the back room (and by working I mean hanging out, listening to records) told me the record was a mis-pressing, with warping in the grooves that added some noise. He offered to put it on the stereo while I kept looking.
The next record I saw was another first pressing, this time Ornette Coleman’s The Art of The Improvisers. This is a really interesting record to me because you hear Coleman with different musicians. The main quartet of Coleman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins is there, but most of the tracks have Ed Backwell on drums, and one features Scott LoFaro on bass and another has Jimmy Garrison. It really surprised me when I listened to this just how much I expect to hear Haden behind Ornette.
Next I grabbed a duo record, Paul Bley and NHøP. I haven’t really delved into Niels Pedersen’s work, probably because I’m years away from being able to play it. His skill shines through at times, but he doesn’t overplay on this record, something I’ve heard him accused of. I decided to grab this and the Ornette record (the Dolphy was almost unlistenable) and leave before I spent the rent money. As I was walking out, the clerk asked me if I’d like to see the drawer of records he keeps locked away, just for collectors. I looked at my haul for the day: 9 records and a CD, and decided I should quit while I was ahead.
Besides, now I have something to look forward to when I go back…