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Paris Ile-de-France as seen by... Daniel Soutif
Finally, Paris continues to provide a truly enormous range of culture
Philosophy graduate and art critic Daniel Soutif, curator of the "Le Siècle du Jazz" exhibition, tells us what makes this music "Paris's own special soundtrack".
In what ways is Paris a jazz city?
Jazz is essentially an urban music, as we know, and Paris, along with New York, is indisputably the great world capital of jazz. "Being jazz" means being able to improvise, it implies notions of fluidity, rapidity, responsiveness - all qualities which can be found in most of the world's largest cities, it is not something unique to Paris. But jazz has a history and mental associations in particular with cinema. Clearly a certain image of Paris - promoted by many films from the 1950s and then by the New Wave - permanently established jazz as the city's own special soundtrack. Even television has been involved in this. I recently saw a short film by Pierre Dumayet, taken from the INA archives, dating back to the early 1960s, entitled "Harlem sur Seine", following the typical evening of a black American singer living in Paris. Filmed in a very beautiful black and white, there was apparently no difference between Pigalle and Times Square. And this was not a fabrication - in fact, the director captured something very true about the places and the period...
What are the meccas for jazz in Paris Ile-de-France?
There are many. Jazz settled in very well in Paris straight away and the city has consistently given it a role that it has been able to reinvent as it has developed. Originally, of course, there was the Le Boeuf sur le Toit, which was where the first jazz musicians appeared in the 1920s. But jazz has always moved around Paris. From the Champs-Élysées to Montmartre, from Montparnasse to Saint-Germain-des-Prés. During the 1930s, it was the era of cabarets with excellent jazz orchestras run by black Americans and West Indians. And French cinema of the period paid tribute to them in Le Roman d'un Tricheur by Sacha Guitry and L'Alibi by Pierre Chenal. As for me, I hung out in Saint-Germain-des-Prés when I was a student and the area was still very jazz, haunted by the names of legendary clubs like Le Tabou and the Club Saint-Germain. For my generation, places like Le Chat qui Pêche took their place. It was still a cellar and there was nothing to come between the sound and the audience, who literally had their noses pressed against the musicians... But there are many others and every generation of musicians and fans reinvents its venues: the Riverboat, Le Requin Chagrin, Jazz Unité, Le Petit Opportun, Le New Morning... Jazz is not an official music, it is itinerant music which establishes itself wherever it can, and not necessarily because it is chasing profits but simply because that's the way things are. It embeds itself somewhere for a while, then heads off to look elsewhere... In recent years, the most interesting and experimental jazz has certainly been played at the Instants Chavirés in Montreuil, in Paris's inner suburbs.
Is Paris still an inspiring city?
Definitely. I often go to New York and there is undeniably a form of tension there, which nourishes artists, that you don't find here. New York is made up of various centres which simultaneously oppose and attract one another and that creates real artistic synergies. By comparison, Paris is more homogenous and less tense. But it is still a fast city and one which knows how to adapt. You should think back to Paris in the middle of the 1970s, what the Beaubourg area was like before they built the Pompidou Centre there. Remember the Louvre before it was turned into the most beautiful museum in the world. That vitality is evident. And Paris is a large cosmopolitan city where you can see every colour, eat every colour, and where every language and every culture intermingles. In this sense, Paris has changed a lot in 30 years. The cliché of the unbearably egotistical Parisian is no longer true. There is more warmth to be felt now in the way people live, at the risk sometimes of a certain superficiality in the fashionable districts. Finally, Paris continues to provide a truly enormous range of culture. It is a city which certainly has a lot more to offer.
What would you advise somebody coming to Paris Ile-de-France for the first time to see first?
Apart from the major monuments, which there is no point mentioning but which it is inconceivable not to visit, I would definitely suggest people explore the Parisian passages. Readers of the philosopher Walter Benjamin already know about the charm of these places and they certainly put you in touch with the soul of Paris. And they should also take a walk through Paris's cemeteries: the one in Montparnasse and, of course, Père-Lachaise, in the 20th arrondissement. It is a wonderful place overlooking Paris and dear to readers of Balzac since it is from here that Rastignac launches his famous challenge to the city at the end of Père Goriot: "Now it's between me and you!".