Duke Ellington and Paris Part 1: Busy Winters

In this first entry of a two-part series, Matthew Asprey reflects on the relationship between the discography of jazz legend Duke Ellington and a city that gave refuge to many great American expatriates, Paris.

"I think this is the only band of its kind in the world... the equivalent to... a jazz festival that stays organised most of the time. Well, 52 weeks a year, anyway. We would do 53 weeks but there aren't 53 weeks..."

-- Duke Ellington, February 1963

Duke Ellington loved Paris à la folie.

The epitome of the 20th century man of the world, Ellington composed suites inspired by Latin America, Liberia, the Virgin Islands, New Orleans, Togoland, and the Far East. He wrote La Plus Belle Africaine and 'Serenade to Sweden'. But none of these places was Paris.

Miles Davis wrote in his autobiography:

"My first trip... changed the way I looked at things forever... I loved being in Paris and loved the way I was treated. Paris was where I understood that all white people were not the same; that some weren't prejudiced."

American bands toured constantly in the '50s and '60s. More importantly, Paris was permanent home to many black musicians. The most notable were Bud Powell, Don Byas, and Kenny Clarke. (Dexter Gordon, Our Man In Paris according to his 1963 Blue Note LP, actually lived most of the time in Copenhagen.)

Duke Ellington never really lived anywhere. His organisation -- the 14 cats in his famous orchestra and assorted entourage -- was on the road with hardly a break for 50 years, in endless transit by bus or train or boat or jet-plane. Ellington thrived as a composer in this circus, working in Pullman cars or in the backseat of Harry Carney's Imperial or in hotel suites in telephonic collaboration with Billy Strayhorn.

Why live this way, even when the band wasn't turning a profit? Ellington once joked that he was happy to give the musicians all the money. "I just take the kicks," he said. He had the luxury of a working orchestra on call. A new idea could be tried out on the bandstand within hours of conception. That was fortunate, because Ellington churned out new pieces. The hundreds of 78s and LPs released in his lifetime only document a fraction of the work. In later decades he would rent a studio at his own expense to tape new compositions for what he called "the stockpile", an archive of private recordings that have been drip-fed to the public since Ellington's death, gradually deepening our understanding of his scope.

In Paris, Ellington was a major celebrity. The city was more of a refuge for Billy Strayhorn, a quiet gay man who gave Ellington credit for much of his work. Strayhorn's former lover Aaron Bridgers was the house pianist at the gay-friendly Mars Club on Rue Robert Estienne near the Champs-Elysées. Bridgers appeared as a pianist in the film Paris Blues (miming to Ellington or Strayhorn's track). The Mars Club hosted Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Eartha Kitt, and many others. It was also visited by expatriate novelists James Baldwin, Irwin Shaw, and James Jones. When in town, Strayhorn sat in at the piano. He'd often remain in Paris during the band's annual European tour.

Still, Paris was no utopia of racial peace. On 17 October 1961 -- a few weeks after Paris Blues premiered in the USA -- as many as 200 peaceful Algerian protestors were massacred by Paris police, some driven into the Seine. By that time Ellington was back in the US re-recording excerpts from his Paris Blues score for the stockpile (these versions were finally released in 1984 on the French five-LP set Duke: 56/62).

In the first installment of this two part feature, I'll survey Ellington's activities in Paris during the band's busy European winter tours of the 1960s.


"Left Bank cafe

strolling the quays

watching the boats on the Seine

Come back again..."

-- Billy Strayhorn and Harold Flender, lyrics to "Paris Blues", 1961

Ellington and Strayhorn spent much of the winter of 1960-61 working in Paris on pre-production for Paris Blues. The film was directed by Martin Ritt, the script based on Harold Flender's 1957 novel. The project so occupied Ellington and Strayhorn that the orchestra, as always on the payroll, was sent on a European tour with alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges as nominal leader (see At Sportpalast, Berlin). The Paris work involved pre-recording performances to be mimed by the actors. Ellington's hotel room was below Louis Armstrong's. Ebony magazine reported that Duke was kept awake by Satch practicing his feature numbers "Battle Royale" and "Wild Man Moore".

Krin Gabbard provides a superb account the film's troubled history in his chapter "Paris Blues: Ellington, Armstrong, and Saying It With Music" from Uptown Conversation: the New Jazz Studies. During production the script was revised from an accurate depiction of the liberated Paris jazz scene (mixed race couplings, homosexuality) to a more conservative Hollywood narrative that actually derided jazz as an art form. According to Gabbard's interview with producer Sam Shaw, Ellington was disappointed that the initial black-white romantic pairings of Sidney Poitier with Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman with Diahann Carroll were discarded; this progressive depiction of inter-racial romance was the key reason Ellington wanted to be involved in the project.

The plot: Ram Bowen (Newman) and Eddie Cook (Portier) are expatriate musicians who play at a club called The Cave. Eddie is content to work within the jazz idiom. The humourless Ram aspires towards classical music. Ram asks the legendary "Wild Man" Moore (Louis Armstrong) for help. "Wild Man" sets up a meeting with René Bernard (André Luguet), a Nadia Boulanger type from the conservatory. Monsieur Bernard looks at Ram's score and points out the distinction between "a jazz piece of certain charm and melody" and "an important piece of serious music". Accepting this authoritative rejection, Ram is tempted to return to America with the tourist Lillian (Woodward) but ultimately decides to pursue his classical career in Paris.

It must have been a frustration to score a movie that tacitly endorsed Bernard's conventional aesthetic view. Nobody had done more than Ellington and Strayhorn to establish the serious credentials of jazz. In any case, Ellington hated the restriction of labels like "jazz". The highest praise he had for his own musicians was "beyond category". Krin Gabbard points out the ways that Ellington and Strayhorn "engage in a dialogue with the film at a few critical moments", subtly subverting the film's aesthetic outlook with their music -- not the least, I might add, in providing a score that is an important piece of serious music itself. In their background score, Ellington-Strayhorn adopt Eddie's discarded suggestion that Ram's "Paris Blues" theme from his classical work-in-progress be scored for oboe to avoid "heaviness". The finalé drowns out Ram's theme under a brassy big band cacophony. Jazz triumphs. Sort of.

For all its cowardice and conservatism, Paris Blues is a world away from the artifice of Funny Face (1957) and Irma La Douce (1963) by which contemporary Paris was represented to the wider American public. Christian Matras's cinematography captures the wintry city with a cold monochrome precision. There is a great scene of Louis Armstrong invading the Cave for a jam session. But the film fails to tell the truth about the liberated jazz scene in Paris. This must have deeply disappointed Ellington and Strayhorn. Bertrand Tavernier's ’Round Midnight (1986), starring Dexter Gordon, is the Paris Blues concept revisited and done right.

The complete Ellington-Strayhorn Paris Blues soundtrack has never been properly released. Approximately 50 minutes of background score -- including the cues 'Autumnal Suite' and 'Nite', beautiful developments of the Paris Blues theme -- was recorded in New York City in May 1961. An expanded reissue of the original LP is needed to make sense of this complicated, conflicted project.

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