A jazz odyssey

SCHIPHOL AIRPORT, one of the busiest airport hubs in Europe has witnessed many a bizarre journey but perhaps fewer stranger than the personal odyssey that began during a lay-over in 2002.

Wandering through the airport shops, which were of a higher quality than usual, three jazz CDs caught my eye - Lionel Hampton’s Mai 1956, Eddy Louis’s Bohemia After Dark, and Art Blakey’s 1958 Paris Olympia. All three were part of a series called Jazz in Paris, a distinctive feature of which was the cover image - a black and white photograph of a contemporary Parisian scene.

The initial attraction was the image on the Hampton CD, a photograph of Notre Dame taken from the bridge I passed over practically every evening on my way home from the Restaurant Universitaire at Jussieu.

The photograph on the Eddy Louis resembled a tunnel often used as a shortcut and the first Jazz album I ever purchased was during that Parisian séjour, which featured Art Blakey et les Messengers.

The sleeve notes on the Hampton album tells us that “Jazz in Paris, a collection of 71 recordings, retraces the epic tale of jazz musicians listened to and cherished in the (French ) capital throughout the past seven decades” and that Mai 1956 was recorded on May 5 1956.

In fact, the series comprises at least 113 albums (and six double albums ) recorded in Paris from 1930 to 1960. As well as the three artists mentioned, it also includes Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Dizzie Gillespie, and Sarah Vaughan. Despite the presence of such a wide range of international stars, the ambience of every single album is distinctively and indisputably Parisian.

This ambience is perhaps at its strongest in the extraordinary Jazz Sous L’Occupation. The cover depicts a long food queue outside a shop on La Rue Drouet advertising ham, although it is by no means certain there is any on the shelves. The album was recorded between 1940 and 1944, some of the tracks been released here for the first time.

The sleeve notes say there was a conscious effort to rescue jazz from the Nazis: “If we want Jazz to survive the diktat of the occupier, let’s naturalise it”, and again, “André Coeuroy published a Histoire Genérale de Jazz which asked the right questions at last: Is jazz French? The answer was “Yes, of course.”

Sadly some of the musicians suffered because of their allegiance to the music: “Nobody knows what became of violinist Georges Effrose, he’d been deported never to return home from the camp in Dora.”

The album is dripping with resistance and defiance. The tension in the music is palpable and makes this album one of the more fascinating of the series.

As other albums in the series surfaced, the journey became far more interesting than ever would have been envisaged when making that casual purchase at Schiphol airport. Not only did the music evoke strong and wonderful memories of a three year stint in Paris, it opened up the whole exciting world of jazz in its many manifestations, introducing me to such fascinating musicians as Django Rheinhardt and Elek Bacsik.

As the collection nears completion, as far as can be ascertained, a sense of anti-climax grows for when the last three albums do finally surface, the search will be over.

However the magic and versatility of jazz is such that every jazz door opened leads to several others and that a jazz odyssey is never really truly completed. Jazz knows no boundaries nor is it in any way finite. There is always something new to discover, new paths to follow, new personal interpretations to explore, all of which are manifested with a freedom and individuality of musical expression that bears witness in the fullest sense to the human experience and its aspirations.

Like the lark rising in the morning air, jazz can lead you anywhere and everywhere.

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