It was a real honour to be asked to write an essay for the new Paris Blues Blu/DVD combo as part of their Black Star season. As with all BFI releases, the discs come with a beautifully designed booklet; this one has my essay on the film, one by Rashida K Braggs and an assessment of the director Martin Ritt by Philip Kemp.
I was asked to concentrate on the contributions of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong to Paris Blues. The assignment gave me the opportunity to revisit a film I hadn’t watched since writing my MA dissertation in 2005. Back then, I was rather sniffy about its presentation of nightclub subculture. I’ve obviously mellowed – I rewatched the film twice while writing my liner notes and found new, wonderful things in the film both times.
What’s changed? Well, since 2005, I’ve got to know Paris quite well. I think it’s a great film about tourism, portraying that feeling of falling in love with a city and learning something about yourself in the process. Also, my ideas about ‘authenticity’ and the jazz film have shifted a great deal since my MA days (I’m far less hardline). I decided to call the essay ‘That Autumn in Paris’, in homage to my grandad who many years ago encouraged me to read Morley Callaghan’s That Summer in Paris, a book which shaped a lot of my ideas about the city as a site of romance.
In this extract from my liner notes, I try to link up various threads in the film which have great significance for me: its invocation of black history and the writing of James Baldwin, as well as its challenge to stereotypes of the black jazz musician through the performance of Sidney Poitier.
As the film makes clear, Paris was also a refuge for those black Americans lucky enough to get there. Among those was Aaron Bridgers, the pianist seen in Paris Blues (once Strayhorn’s lover), who had moved to the city in 1948. After a 1939 tour of Europe, Ellington had described the experience in gastronomic terms: ‘you’ve eaten hot dogs all your life and you’re suddenly offered caviar.’[i] Here, Sidney Poitier conveys the sense of a life improvised – at times goofy and flirtatious, at others taut and watchful.[ii] It is, mercifully, a performance that avoids the self-flagellation of Sammy Davis Jr.’s similar role in A Man Called Adam (Leo Penn, 1966). For Connie, a teacher in a small town, to whom the struggle for civil rights is a daily reality, Eddie’s carefree life on the Left Bank is dangerous and delusional. Connie forces Eddie to a conclusion that he has been evading: in James Baldwin’s words, ‘that if he has been preparing himself for anything in Europe, he has been preparing himself – for America.’[iii]
[i] Barry Ulanov, Duke Ellington (London: Musicians Press, 1946), p. 217.
[ii] In 1964, he would record Poitier Meets Plato, a jazz/spoken-word album with composer Fred Katz. It does exactly what it says on the tin.
[iii] James Baldwin, ‘The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American’, p. 21 in Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (London: Corgi, 1969), pp. 17–23.