Ken Beilman the Author:

Jazz In Paris - An American Perspective

I find it strange that jazz, America's only native art form, has been, and apparently continues to be, more popular in Europe than in America. Perhaps the old saying "No one is a prophet in his own country" expresses this phenomenon. Ever since the end of WWII, when a long line of expatriate American musicians and their fans crowded the Parisian jazz clubs, American jazz has been chic in Paris. Today, American jazz remains more popular in Paris than in most US cities. Americans who play it are still the prophets on the scene.

Available for three francs (about 60 cents) at newsstands, the very informative and up to date "Pariscope" magazine publishes much cultural information. In the music section is a listing for several clubs that feature big name jazz players in a variety of club settings. My companion and I were fortunate enough to visit two of these clubs, Le Petite Opportun and La Villa where we heard, respectively, Ray Bryant and Geoff Keezer.

Le Petite Opportun is an interesting club located on a street of the same name in the Right Bank of Paris (the Right Bank of Paris is north of the historic river Seine and the Left Bank is south of the river). The owner is, himself, a jazz pianist with an abiding interest in keeping jazz music alive.

Despite its obvious historical location (everything in Paris is historical), the club was unassuming and intimate by any measure. It could hold 30 people at most. It featured a small bar upstairs and a very small downstairs music setting. As a testimony to the club's intimacy, we greeted Ray Bryant at the top of the stairs that led to the club below. We took our seats at a table that we shared with another couple next to the Yamaha studio piano. The club had textured masonry walls that reminded me of an ancient wine cellar. Its ambience was authentic Old World.

Our timing was good, as Ray Bryant made his entrance shortly after we took our seats. He was accompanied by two able Parisian musicians on bass and drums. The set began with my companion and me so close to the piano that I thought Ray Bryant wouldn't have room to hit any keys above middle C. But, being an aspiring amateur pianist myself, I welcomed the opportunity to closely witness Bryant's technique. And I wasn't disappointed. The intimate trio setting showcased his brilliant bluesy jazz styling. While Bryant's style was mostly bluesy, his versatility was evident as he displayed his talents on a variety of standard tunes. His playing experience with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and other notable boppers was apparent throughout the sets. As further evidence of his eclecticism, Bryant performed a solo boogy woogy version of "Take the A Train" at the end of his first set.

I had the opportunity to speak to Bryant between sets. He impressed me with his genuine friendliness and humility. When asked how he plays differently now than 30 years ago, he replied "Better, I hope. I would do some things differently now than before, but that's just a matter of evolving. But when I listen to some of my old stuff, I think, say, that's not bad."

We talked about the jazz scene in Europe where Bryant works the most. However, he does get back to the States now and then. He noted that he has played with Louisville's late Helen Hume in the past and he even offered to drop by my house should he ever be in the Louisville area. As proof of his sincerity, he asked for my phone number and address which I readily gave him. Realizing that my collection of Ray Bryant CD's amounted to only one, I stocked up the next day at one of Paris' record stores on the Champs De Elysees.

The second club that my partner and I visited was La Villa. This is a club in the basement of the hotel by the same name. It is located in the Latin Quarter of Paris. This part of town is a much older version of New York's Greenwich Village. It is an area where you can retrace the footsteps of Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry Miller. The Latin Quarter is filled with students, cafes, bistros, various jazz clubs, and many good budget hotels and restaurants.

La Villa's room is modern and small, though mirrored walls make it seem larger. Artists that have appeared at La Villa include George Coleman, Von Freeman, Vincent Herring, Art Farmer, Teddy Edwards, Oscar Peterson, and Clifford Jones.

We were fortunate to be in town when Geoff Keezer was playing at La Villa. His trio provided a good taste of the New Guard's style of jazz. Geoff's dazzling piano virtuosity was evident throughout all the tunes. It is no wonder that, at the tender age of 18, he was one of Blakey's Jazz Messengers.

Keezer's style is different from Ray Bryant's. While certainly versed in bebop, Keezer's style departs from the bebop tradition by relying less on the typical fundamental blues idiom. His voicings are less bluesy, more dissonant, and his rendition of the melody is less recognizable than the usual bebop interpretation. Throughout is a stunning command of the piano. Judging by his sheer technical brilliance, I presume that Geoff is classically trained. Two American musicians on bass and drums accompanied Keezer. Geoff's sidemen were competent but were not impressive. The drummer was positioned on the front of the small stage platform and he overplayed a bit. This produced a loud and distracting drum part. The bass player was adequate but not quite loud enough. Nevertheless, the music was exciting, enjoyable, and satisfying. We stayed for two sets.

If you decide to go to Paris for jazz, you have made a good choice. However, the jazz scene is a bonus to the remarkable beauty and history of Paris. Remember to check out the Pariscope magazine to get up to date information on jazz, restaurants, historical sites, and happenings in Paris.

Ken Beilman

Reprinted from the Louisville Jazz Society Newsletter October- November 1993.