November 5, 2009
Merci, Paris; Miles Davis in the house; Pablo Moses likewise…
It’s a cold morning in Paris, and the city is enshrouded in white gauze, the sun a pale white onion that offers little warmth and keeps its distance from the frosty streets below. Today, the members of Groundation woke to a feeling of gratitude towards the people of Paris, once again. Since our first tour in France we’ve played Glaz’art, Bataclan, The Olympia, and finally last year, the Zenith. I joked with our promoter that according to this progression I expected to be playing the Stade de France this year. He laughed uncomfortably.
Just across from the Zenith is the Cité de la Musique which is now hosting an exhibition on Miles Davis. Miles spent a lot of time in Europe, Paris in particular. He composed the score to the French film L’ascenseur Pour L’Echafault (Stairway to the Scaffold), had an with French actress Juliette Greco, met the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and other national celebrities.
On a personal level, Miles is the reason I started playing the trumpet. The sound of Mr. Davis inspired me to pull a cold, smelly coil of metal tubing out of a box every single day and blow into it until it either started sounding good or my lips started bleeding. From childhood I emulated Miles’ ability to convey the most fragile and private feelings through his horn: love, pain, hope. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that not everything in Miles’ life was worth emulating, and I eventually came to understand that while music may be very personal, it doesn’t tell us much about the person who’s making it.
The fact that amazes me is that Miles’ egocentric, angry personality can’t be heard in songs like his version of “Someday My Prince Will Come” or “Surrey with a Fringe on Top”. His sound was vulnerable and sensitive (more like Gregory Isaacs than Burning Spear), but Miles didn’t treat the people in his life with much tenderness, nor did he show his vulnerability to them, and by most accounts, he treated his wives and girlfriends as poorly as everyone else, probably worse. On the other hand, I know that legendary jazz musician Duke Ellington was a really, really nice guy, while his one-time bassist Charles Mingus would just as soon punch you in the face as perform his heartbreaking ballad “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”*. There’s something strangely disquieting about this fact.
I’ve never read Pablo Moses’ biography. I don’t even know if one exists, but I’ve known him long enough to see that he doesn’t resent the world the way Miles Davis and Charles Mingus did. Generous, philosophical, funny and humble are the words that come to my mind in describing the composer of “A Song” and “Dubbing is a Must”, adjectives which also apply to Duke Ellington. But Pablo’s vocal performance is aggressive, dark and masculine, a little bit raw. Pablo sang with Groundation last night in Paris, and we’d been touring with him, German singer Sebastian Sturm and the Jin Jin Band who backed them both for shows in Strassbourg and Lyon. The people of Paris treated all of us (Americans, Jamaicans and Germans) with respect and great warmth, and I couldn’t help thinking of the amazing encouragement this country has offered to jazzmen (as the French call them).
Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, Cannonball Adderley, and many, many others tapped into the ravenous and diverse cultural appetite of Europe, allowing them to develop their music even when American audiences offered a cold shoulder, or in many cases, a racist hand pushing them down despite their talent. Today, not only jazz musicians, but Reggae artists from Lee Perry to Burning Spear rely on European audiences. After playing in Paris last night, I’m sure I share with them a deep gratitude towards these fans and their hospitality. As a reader, I also appreciate that a great many foreign writers owe much of their best work to Paris: Hemmingway, James Joyce, Henry Miller and James Baldwin to name a few. At the very least, Americans probably still owe the French a nod for their ancestors helping our ancestors with a little spot of bother known as The American Revolutionary War.
The Miles Davis exhibition in Paris included a world-class concert series, forums, classes and lectures, including one on Miles as a fashion icon. With a music school right next door, the whole neighborhood was filled with the comings and goings of different styles and instruments. While Kelsey and I were enjoying a great meal across the street at a French restaurant on Avenue Jean Jaurès a bunch of old musicians tromped in with their cases and their wives (may they be rewarded in the afterlife for having put up with us in this one). I couldn’t help grinning: artists and people who love beauty feel drawn helplessly to the beacon of Paris the way a bee is drawn to a bright, fragrant flower. But in addition to being the city of light and taste, Paris is also the greatest example of what is possible when a people refuse to allow their culture to be dictated to them by some distant authority like the church or the mass media. As long as cities like this exist, artists with vision will always have a home.
“Diesel” Dave Chachere
*The very large, very short-tempered Mr. Mingus is famous for having taken a fire axe from the stage where Duke’s band was performing and chasing composer Juan Tizol around the grand piano with it.