Paris Blues

When B.B. King said, “The blues are all around,” he must have been thinking of Paris. Every “world city” has its own “house of blues.” Here in Vancouver we have The Yale Hotel, but in Beijing it’s The Big Easy, The Muddy Waters Blues Bar in Oslo, and The R&B Lounge in Mumbai. Some cities, such as Paris, are blessed with competing cathedrals.

I’m a musician. Lately I’ve been playing a lot in Europe: The UK, Ireland, Spain, France, Germany, and Norway. When travelling abroad, it is my habit to search out the local blues scene. I find it a great way to explore the town and meet real people. I call it “blues tourism.” Paris-London? Don’t fly. Take the train. Eurostar First Class – it’s the “only” way to go. Long John Baldry.

A recent trip to Paris included a week-long stay at the modest Hotel Suez, centrally located on Rue. St. Michel, a few blocks up from the Seine, near the Musee de Cluny. Restless one evening, I decided to take a solo midnight walk along the embankment. Crossing the river at Pont des Arts, I wandered downstream towards Notre Dame, pausing briefly to savour the floodlit spectacle before making my way back to my hotel via Pont Neuf. Ambling by the 13th century Gothic Church of St. Julien de Pauvre in Rue St. Jacques, my ears were drawn to the faint sound of live music emanating from a dimly-lit building across the street.

The ice-blue neon sign above the doorway said “Who Bar.” It was a small L-shaped room – dark, smoky, and full of people. A 5-piece band was working the audience from a stage in the corner. Their repertoire ranged from the traditional Chicago-blues to contemporary Clapton and Stevie Ray. I approached the bandleader between sets and struck up an awkward conversation (his English was as bad as my French). The universal language of the blues prevailed however, and I was invited to sit-in. Afterwards, he gave me his business card, and suggested I drop by to catch his Saturday afternoon gig at The Club 50, now known as The One-Way Cafe. It was a rough-hewn joint in the ramshackled flea-market district at the far northern end of the city, distinguished by the row of motorcyles parked out front. Like the cuisine (beer, wine, cheeze and saucisse), the blues on offer were strictly local – a bit dodgy after dark perhaps, but well worth an early evening visit. (50 Rue Jules Valles, Metro: Porte Clingnancourt).

If you like your blues a more upmarket, you might want to try Caveau de la Huchette or The Lionel Hampton Jazz Club, located in the 5-star Millenium Etoile Hotel. () Since opening in 1976, this “temple of R&B and jazz in Paris” has presented all the great American artists – BB King, Cab Calloway, Fats Domino, Count Basie, and many others. Vancouver piano-man Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne” plays there too, most recently with Whitehorse born guitarist Yukon Slim. To find it, walk straight up the Champs d’Elysees, continue past the Arc de Triomphe, and turn right at Boulevard Gouvion Ste. Cyr. Or, take the Metro to La Defense. By the way, some of the most honest, heartfelt blues in Paris is performed in the Paris Metro, a daily showcase of proletarian musical talent from all over the world.

The Chesterfield Cafe, tucked away off the Champs d’Elysees, near Montmartre, on Sundays offers an American style brunch with champagne accompanied by a soul stirring gospel concert. (124 Rue la Boetie, Metro: Franklin Roosevelt) The big names play there too, but Vancouver blues brother Jim Byrnes thinks the room is too big. “It’s twice the size of the Yale,” he says, “and sounds terrible.”

Our mutual friend, the late British bluesman Long John Baldry, was known to share JB’s preference for the Quai du Blues), a “pleasant spot” located upriver in the leafy western suburb of Neuilly sur-Seine (17, boulevard Vital-Bouhot. Metro: la Defense). Billing itself as “the Parisian haven for Blues, Gospel, Soul, and R&B,” this replica of New York’s Cotton Club c.1930 has featured the likes of Koko Taylor, Eddie Kirkland, Otis Redding, and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. Host Gérard Vacher is rightly proud of the place’s “scorching” music and “succulent” soul-food menu.

The hottest neighbourhoods for live music in Paris these days are in the northeast, particularly in the trendy bars and bistros around Ménilmontant, Oberkampf, and Belleville. Expatriate Vancouverite guitar-slinger Jimmy “C” Coletsis is often featured with his London-based band “the Bluesdragons” The Utopia Blues Bar in Montparnasse on the south side of town offers a similar combination of down-home atmosphere and high-toned entertainment. (79 Rue de l’Ouest, Métro: Gaïté) Sardinian born guitarist/singer Mauro Serri is a popular local attraction.

Paris was first introduced to the blues in 1918 by an all-black U.S. Armed Forces military orchestra. African American musicians, writers, and artists flocked to Paris after WW1, attracted by the relaxed racial atmosphere. The 1920s saw legendary black burlesque queen Josephine Baker holding high court at the St. Louis Blues Club near the Bastille. Blues, jazz, and R&B were popular with Parisians throught the 1950s and 60s, especially with the Left Bank’s existentialist elite. Mississippi bluesman Memphis Slim, composer of the classic “Every Day I Have the Blues,” emigrated to Paris in 1961. Two years before his there in 1988 at age 72, he was named a Commander in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of France.

Today, these “same old blues” can still be heard, reverberating throughout the city. To discover an “other” side of Paris – just follow your ears.

I think I’ll go on over to Paris, and sleep under the Eiffel Tower
Yes, I think I’ll go on over to Paris, and sleep under the Eiffel Tower
Where a man is a man, and everybody’s got the same power.

Memphis Slim, Paris Mississippi Blues, 1961