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Verve Records’ Free America Series: French Freedom

The stories of great American jazzmen like Bud Powell and Dexter Gordon taking up residence in Paris hardened into legend years ago. France afforded them a degree of respect and financial stability unobtainable in their native land. Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 film ‘Round Midnight, which romanticized and popularized the bittersweet experience of the bebop expats, even hired Gordon to play a character modeled on Powell’s time in France.

Of course, loads of American jazz players have logged extended time all over the place across the pond-Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Johnny Griffin and Steve Lacy among them-and their forays there with European musicians have been well documented.

That celebration and lore makes it particularly confusing why what was perhaps the most creatively fertile period for American jazz in Paris remains shrouded in mystery.

From roughly 1968 to 1972 the City of Lights was a veritable hotbed for free jazz. While this music’s export to Europe made sense in such a politically charged era, this was more than a case of an exciting creative development spreading to another continent years after its advent at home. For many Americans, their stay in Paris not only resulted in their reputations being crystallized but also their artistic imaginations expanding.

Earlier this year Verve issued a 15-album series called Free America, a sublime assortment of albums recorded for the French free-jazz label America, which, along with BYG Records, provided crucial and generous documentation of the developments in Paris during the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Remastered and sumptuously packaged in elaborate gatefold sleeves with new collage art by French artist Jerome Witz, each CD comes with a lovely booklet featuring new essays by veteran critic Philippe Carles, editor of Jazz Magazine and one of the few still-active writers who witnessed the golden era firsthand. Yet while each set of notes provides evocative writing about a particular album or artist, there remains a lack of context about the bigger picture.

How did these cats end up in Paris and what happened while they were there?

“It is rather curious how little has been written [in English] about that period,” says the brilliant trombonist George Lewis, who is currently at work on a definitive history of Chicago’s AACM-many members of which blossomed in Paris during this time.

Established free-jazz figures like Archie Shepp, Sunny Murray, Paul Bley and Grachan Moncur III all made recordings for French labels while touring in Europe. They already had careers of varying degrees of success-Shepp, for example was practically a star in the late ’60s, by jazz terms at least. But the Chicagoans only possessed some isolated critical acclaim for landmark recordings done for local labels like Delmark and Nessa. As inspiring as the AACM’s model of fierce self-sufficiency was, it didn’t always succeed financially in a working-class city like Chicago, where art usually comes second or third after labor.

“I was teaching in school and trying to pursue a musical career in Chicago, and it was impossible,” says violinist Leroy Jenkins, who arrived in Paris with Anthony Braxton and Leo Smith in June of 1969. The violinist had played on Braxton’s landmark 1968 debut Three Compositions of New Jazz (Delmark), a recording that caught the ear of French drummer Claude Delcloo, who promised the group gigs if they could make it over to Paris. Before this trio could get over to Paris, however, the Art Ensemble of Chicago-who added “of Chicago” to their moniker when they arrived-beat them to the punch. Trumpeter Lester Bowie and his then-wife Fontella Bass sold all of his belongings and financed the trip for the whole group, who quickly found work and acclaim upon its arrival.

“We got there and it was extraordinary,” says Joseph Jarman of the Art Ensemble. “We were very well received and played our first gig in a theater in Paris. When we got to France I think we made five albums immediately.”

That wasn’t the case back in the U.S. Most of the New York-based musicians with albums in the Free America series-Shepp, Frank Wright, Clifford Thornton and Dave Burrell-were extending the free-jazz sound as it was heard at home, extrapolating on the discoveries of Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane. But the Chicago contingent was developing a kind of music that was more radical in its use of silence, “little instruments” and an artistic approach that freely borrowed from all sorts of musical traditions. In America they had developed a small, yet rabid following, but in Paris the musicians became celebrated. “It was an explosion,” Jarman says. “There were two magazines that covered us in every issue.”

“We felt a difference immediately,” Jenkins says. “We played a door gig when we first got there. It was packed, and we made a lot of money. There was a big core of followers, and they were treating us like stars. They paid us in hundred dollar bills and that was an enormous boost. I had always been paid in 10s, 5s and ones-it was always small-time.”

That success allowed the players to use Paris as a base and venture out into European countries like Germany and Italy. Perhaps more important, the musicians achieved a financial stability that allowed them to work on music exclusively, something they couldn’t do at home. In fact, it wasn’t until the Chicagoans returned from abroad that they finally achieved widespread recognition in America.

“The lifestyle of the French and the culture let us be real artists,” Jarman says. “Everybody wanted to do new music every time, so we’d all create new compositions and perform them. We were living together and practicing every day.”

“The French are very artistic people down to their core,” adds Jenkins. “They were very receptive to our music, and that allowed us to branch out. We were all trying to find new ways to experiment and to apply improvisation.” The Chicagoans loaded up on European art music, whether it was digging up old Bach scores or digesting the avant-garde of Xenakis, Stockhausen and Webern.

But the players absorbed the history of their own music as well. “I was real close to history. All of these guys I heard on records, I got to hang with them,” says Jenkins of meeting people like Philly Joe Jones and Hank Mobley. “It was like meeting people from another country. We were on neutral ground, so to speak. We were all from the U.S.A. rather than Chicago or New York. We were all having hard times-they would put us down for not speaking French well. It would take me, Leo and Braxton just to get one sentence together.”

The 15 titles in the Free America series cast a pretty broad net. Two of the albums-an eponymous record by trombonist Roswell Rudd with saxophonist John Tchicai, bassist Finn Von Eyben and drummer Louis Moholo, and Improvisie, a heavily electronic trio date by Bley with Annette Peacock and drummer Han Bennink-were actually recorded in Holland, in 1965 and 1971, respectively. There are three classic albums by the Art Ensemble of Chicago-Phase One, Certain Blacks and Art Ensemble of Chicago With Fontella Bass-as well as a pair of albums by Braxton, one a two-CD solo collection, Saxophone Improvisations Series F, and Donna Lee, a blazing quartet session mixing some original tunes with speed-bop standards that articulate the leader’s love of Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz. Tes Esat, a scalding album by Wayne’s more elusive and obscure trumpet-playing brother Alan Shorter features fire-breathing saxophone work by England’s Gary Windo.

The rarest entry is Homage to Peace by a collaborative group called Emergency, the first recording by the indomitable Bay Area free-jazz reedist Glenn Spearman along with French Gypsy guitarist Boulou Ferret-better known as a Django Reinhardt acolyte-drummer Sabu Toyozumi, pianist Takashi Kako and bassist Bob Reid. Other albums include Steve Lacy’s The Gap, Mal Waldron With the Steve Lacy Quintet, Dave Burrell’s After Love, Frank Wright’s Uhuru Na Umoja, Clifford Thornton’s The Panther and the Lash and Archie Shepp’s Black Gipsy.

While this superb series helps paint a picture of a vibrant scene, the full story has yet to be told. Perhaps one day translations will be made of the French journalism of the period, and more important, someone will write a book that will put it all in context. But until then it’s nice to have the most significant artifact of the era-the music.