Is Jazz the Titan of African American Culture in Paris?

Lisa Simone
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Lisa Simone is a contemporary African American jazz singer and artist who has found more success developing her craft in Paris than at home in the United States. Like her mother before her – the late iconic artist and activist Nina Simone – Lisa followed her heart and dreams to France, where she currently lives as an expatriate. She performs in Paris quite often, bringing her soulful, unique vocal stylings with her. You could say that Lisa Simone – vocalist, actress, writer, composer, and arranger – is a part of the continuum that has popularized African American culture clearly around the globe.

The proliferation of African American culture has reverberated around the world. Black Americans have left their indelible imprint on music, fashion, dance, visual art, pop culture, and literature. A little-known historical fact is that this influence exists in Paris, France’s celebrated capital city. The venerable “City of Light” and indeed many parts of France, are repositories of African American heritage, most notably the artform known as jazz. 

Following My Muse as a Jazz Poet

I have always followed my muse as a cultural arts writer and jazz poet, and my destiny led me to Europe. I fell in love with Paris the very first moment I saw her in 2001. It was a day trip squeezed in during a long layover at Charles De Gaulle Airport while I was en route from my hometown of Philadelphia to Venice, Italy. Although brief, my stop in Paris during that layover was nothing short of enchanting. 

My love affair with Paris continued when I returned in 2006, this time to perform spoken word at the internationally renowned Jazz a la Villette music festival. I was thrilled to join the musicians from Philadelphia’s “Sounds of Liberation” as the featured poet for their reunion concert. Completely in awe, I had to pinch myself. I was in Paris performing with my super-talented friends, featuring Khan Jamal on vibes, Byard Lancaster on saxophones and flutes, Monnette Sudler on guitar, Charles Beasley on bass, Omar Hill on percussion and Dwight James on drums. Jazz a la Villette showcased a huge roster of artists – many of whom I had admired for years: vocalist Abbey Lincoln, the poet and activist Amiri Baraka, tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp (an American expat who has lived in Paris for many decades), bassist William Parker, and The World Saxophone Quartet. There were so many phenomenal artists. I felt honored to be even a tiny part of the tradition of African Americans being cheered and appreciated as artists in Paris. 

Jazz Musicians Prominent Among African Americans Seeking Refuge in Paris

Artists, writers, intellectuals, activists and most notably entertainers all sought refuge in Paris. The indigenous African American music known as jazz found a remarkably welcoming atmosphere in Paris. The jazz colony in Paris began when a band of Black American Army musicians from the much-decorated “369th Harlem Hellfighters Infantry Regiment” led by James Reese Europe – made a big hit there during a 1918 tour. From then on, a steady influx of jazz musicians continued to flow into Paris, many of them settling in the Latin Quarter. 

You may wonder how this tradition of African Americans seeking refuge in France’s capital city got started. Over time, legions of Black Americans fled the racist laws and practices prevalent in the United States, opting instead for the acceptance and respect they were afforded not only in France, but throughout Europe. This trend escalated when Black American soldiers stationed in Europe during World War I and World War II found they received much better treatment overseas than in their home country. 

Trumpeter Louis Armstrong, clarinetist Sidney Bechet, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, orchestra maestro Duke Ellington and trumpeter Miles Davis are just a few among the multitudes of Black American musicians who left their mark on Paris.

Nina Simone Seeks Refuge Abroad 

Nina Simone, the much-celebrated singer, pianist, composer, and civil rights activist, who is internationally renowned as “The High Priestess of Soul,” found wide acceptance in Paris and throughout Europe. However, she found the conditions in the United States unsettling as her career began to take off in the early 1960s. Racial unrest in the United States caused Nina Simone to become increasingly angry and disillusioned, particularly in 1963 when civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi, in June of that year. Then in September of 1963, four little Black girls were murdered as they worshiped in Sunday School when the 16th Street Baptist Church was intentionally bombed in Birmingham, Alabama. Ms. Simone used her platform to protest these harsh realities, recording songs like “Mississippi Goddam” in 1964 and “Four Women,” released in 1966. Ms. Simone became so disenchanted that by the 1970s she left America and lived abroad for the majority of the rest of her life. Nina Simone lived in Barbados and Liberia, among other places around the globe, before she finally settled in France, where she died in 2003 at the age of 70.

Now, a generation later, Lisa Simone – Nina Simone’s daughter and only child – has followed in her footsteps, not only as an entertainer, but also as an expat living in France. During a telephone interview from her home, Lisa Simone recalled her mother’s final days living in Carry-le-Rouet, in the Bouches-du-Rhone region. 

“She died in the very house from which I speak to you,” said Lisa Simone. “My mom moved to France in 1995. The house from which I speak to you, she moved here in 2000 and she was so happy. She was like ‘I have my French chateau.’ She loved the ocean so she lived where she could see the Mediterranean, and it was really nice to see her so happy. Granted, she was in an aggressive treatment for cancer – so that was definitely a big shadow over everything. But finally she was able to settle down somewhere that made her heart sing.” 

Josephine Baker –  An African American Entertainer in Paris by During the 1920s

Entertainer extraordinaire Josephine Baker is perhaps the most celebrated Black person to break away from America’s racist shores and claim France as her permanent home. Born in St. Louis in 1905, Ms. Baker witnessed a race riot as a child. Even before she reached her teens, Baker became an entertainer as a sheer act of survival. By the time she reached the age of 19, she was performing throughout Europe. In Paris, Baker’s charismatic personality, electric performances, and bold eroticism catapulted her into superstardom.  

Her 1927 performance in “Un vent de Foilie” at the Folies Bergère caused pandemonium when she burst on the stage in a costume that solely consisted of a beaded necklace and an uber-short miniskirt made entirely out of artificial bananas. This classic image of Baker – still recognizable today – became a symbol of the Jazz Age in the 1920s. Baker became the first Black woman to star in a motion picture and she also opened her own club, Chez Josephine.

Another African American performer and entrepreneur who made a splash in Paris during the same era was Baker’s close friend Ada Smith.  Known as “Bricktop,” Smith’s fiery red hair was as vibrant as her over-the-top personality.  Bricktop arrived in Paris in 1924. Two years later, she opened her famous supper club which quickly became the center of Parisian nightlife.

But back to Josephine Baker: This amazing woman, whose cadre of friends included Princess Grace of Monaco, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Ernest Hemingway, Jean Cocteau, and Pablo Picasso, aided the French Resistance as a spy during World War II and was named a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.  Although she renounced her American citizenship and became a French national, Baker was active in the American Civil Rights Movement. She refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States. During a speech at the 1963 March on Washington, Baker stated, “I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”

Although she passed away in 1975 at the age of 68, Baker’s legacy continues to inspire artists to this day. Denise King, a multifaceted African American vocalist from Philadelphia, started performing in jazz clubs in Paris in 2008. In 2010, she made the city her primary residence. King said: “Josephine Baker laid these bricks for me. She left a path for me to follow and I followed it. The same reasons she left the United States for Paris still exist today. I was like a torchbearer. I was keeping the flame lit. Singing this holy music. This sacred music. A few years ago, on Josephine’s birthday, I took a trip to her house, her chateau. The feeling I felt was indescribable, just seeing the chateau and reflecting on the history attached to it. I remember standing on the steps and striking a pose.”

Lisa Simone Finds Success in France

Initially discouraged from going into show business by her parents, Lisa Simone followed a rather circuitous route into the entertainment world. She is an Air Force veteran who served in Desert Storm. Her foray into singing publicly came during an impromptu performance while she was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany. Following her military service, she was drawn to musical theater and worked in the field from the ground up. She eventually landed roles in the Broadway productions of “Rent” and “Aida.” She subsequently built a devoted following as a solo performer, fronting her own band of musicians. But the coveted recording contract and wider recognition she sought remained just beyond her grasp.

“When I was in America I couldn’t get any traction. ” 

Lisa Simone

Lisa Simone recalled, “It was as if I was invisible no matter how many great concerts and people that I touched. I was very disappointed, I was not motivated. As I said earlier, I just felt invisible. So I came here to France to fulfill my dream. And within one year of landing in France with two suitcases and a dream, my first album All is Well was made. That was in October 2014. So here is where I’ve been able to thrive. It’s the same kind of story with many people, whether it’s Josephine Baker or Dee Dee Bridgewater, or Miles Davis. We come here and the slippery slope that keeps us from being able to get any traction in our own country does not exist here.”

Although contemporary Black American artists like Lisa Simone and Denise King are able to find work in Paris, ironically, by the 1970s and 1980s, European musicians learned to play jazz well enough to replace African American jazz musicians in some of the very same clubs they popularized. More than a few African American jazz musicians lost their livelihoods to the people they had taught. This is only one paradox of the French, who colonized several African countries. While the French welcomed African Americans, they discriminated against Africans from Africa. 

Julia Browne’s Walking the Spirit Tours Highlight Black History in Paris

Julia Browne is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to African American history in Paris. Browne established  “Walking the Spirit Tours” in 1994. She hosts tours that highlight the rich Black heritage found in Paris and throughout France. I met in Julia in 2008 during my third trip to Paris. I was there to write about the “Centennial Richard Wright Conference.” Richard Wright, a critically acclaimed writer and activist who wrote several landmark books about the African American experience, including Black Boy and Native Son moved to Paris in 1946 and became a permanent expatriate. The international conference was organized to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth. 

Browne, a Black woman of Caribbean descent who was born in England and raised in Canada, matriculated at a university in the South of France to study the French language and French literature. She eventually married a Frenchman and they moved to Paris to start their family. 

“When I got to France I didn’t know any of this history, or very little of it,” Browne said. “I took a course with Professor Michel Fabre, who created the Center for African American Studies at the Sorbonne –  Paris’s internationally renowned university. Through him I learned so much of this rich history about African Americans in Paris, and that Langston Hughes had lived a couple of blocks from where I was living in Paris. I could actually go to his building, walk up the stairs and stand in front of his door.” 

Indeed, Langston Hughes is yet another celebrated African American writer and poet laureate who took up residence in Paris during the 1920s. Hughes wrote about his experience living there in his autobiography, The Big Sea.  Browne added: “It was discovering that I had a place in this society that led me to create ‘Walking the Spirit Tours.’”

Other historic figures who left an indelible imprint on the Parisian je ne sais quoi include Frederick Douglass, the great American abolitionist who wrote about how liberated he felt when he stayed there during the winter of 1887. Artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, best known for his painting “The Banjo Lesson” sailed from the United States to Paris in 1891. He remained there for the rest of his life. Tanner claimed that he could not “paint and fight prejudice” at the same time. In 1925, educator Anna Julia Cooper, whose legacy is commemorated on a United States postage stamp, became the first African American woman to receive a doctorate degree from the Sorbonne. Eugene Ballard escaped the oppressive Jim Crow laws of his native Georgia and joined the French Legion. He became the first African American military pilot, and was awarded the Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur. A statue erected in his honor at the site of the Arc de Triomphe is still there today. 

The internationally renowned civil rights activist, actor, and baritonePaul Robeson also called Paris his home for a time. James Baldwin,a writer and outspoken Civil Rights activist, is another African American cultural icon who sought refuge in Paris. Other Black American writers who found solace in Paris included Chester Himes and Claude McKay. 

Paris is Still a Destination for Jazz Lovers

Despite the current travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, it is worth noting that Paris has cultivated its reputation for being known as a destination for jazz lovers.  Jazz a la Villette continues to be one of Paris’s most popular annual jazz festivals. Another popular annual jazz festival in Paris is held outside on the grounds of the du Parc Floral botanical garden. Lisa Simone has appeared there twice. “Each time, I brought the house down,” she said. “Every time, I look forward to returning.” 

L’Olympia, a grand concert hall that has been described as the equivalent of Paris’s Carnegie Hall, has hosted a long list of famous performers through the decades. In 2016, Lisa Simone released “My World” – her second album recorded in France  – at L’Olympia. Lisa Simone has also performed at the Odeon-Theatre de l’Europe (formerly the Theatre de l’Odeon), which is one of France’s six national theaters. It is located on the left bank of the Seine, next to the Luxembourg Garden. Le New Morning, in Paris’s 10th district, has played host to many famous jazz musicians, such as drummers Max Roach and Art Blakey. Le New Morning has also featured both Nina and Lisa Simone. “It’s a dive,” remarked the younger Simone, “but has a great reputation, great ambiance and I really love it.”

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