How well do you know the local jazz scene in Boston? If you’re under 21, chances are you have some difficulty getting into clubs. Have you ever attended Boston’s national festival of music? Well, given that Boston hosts no such event, I can say that you haven’t. Spending three months in the city of love, Paris, I’ve realized how closely music and culture are linked — and how much we might be missing out in lovely Beantown.
Before I delve into the vibrant live music culture of Paris, it’s important to note that the French capital is home to some of the world’s best street musicians. For several years, street musicians have had to audition in order to play in the Paris Metro. A typical busker is usually equipped with an accordion (some players as young as ten years old) or a guitar. While traditional French ballads are their forte, the Paris streets attract musicians from all genres and languages. American pop and folk songs could be heard throughout the Concorde area, while traveling just a few metro stops East brings a more African influence and sound. The crooked, irregular streets of the famous arrondissements (Parisian city districts) make a perfect intimate stage for guerilla performance: the narrow passages naturally amplify the sound of an instrument up to the top level of any apartment building. I myself tried to take my guitar out to the streets — I was most successful in populated squares near Centre Georges Pompidou, near the museum of contemporary art. There, I found myself among a whole circus of performers — in addition to musicians, I met dancers, jugglers, magicians, and mimes. One dancer in particular, an American, claimed that he came to Paris during summers just for the performance experience.
The music on the street, however, is unmatched by the music found on stage. The vast majority of restaurants include live music in the menu price, but it’s often traditional French music. The most typical restaurant musicians play Manouche, a style of jazz Django Reinhardt developed in France during the 1930s. If you’re looking for a real performance, though, Paris is blessed with countless jazz clubs. Unfortunately, in Boston, you must be 21 in order to see a show at a club like Wally’s, which is just South of MIT on Mass. Ave. In Paris, I found numerous jazz clubs in every district. Depending on the night, an entrance fee could range from 5 to 25 euros, usually depending on the quality of the group. Nevertheless, I was fortunate enough to find a few nights during the week, and even on the weekend, when entry was free. What’s most interesting about the French live jazz culture is the soirée boeuf, which is the equivalent to a jam session. While Wally’s in Boston has a blues jam every week, the soirée boeuf occurs more often and at more locations in Paris, and sometimes happens spontaneously (if the piano decides to ask an audience member to come up and play). Certain clubs hold regular jam nights, so avid young musicians come prepared with sheet music and their instruments. As you might imagine, some young players are better than others, but the overall feel of the soirée boeuf is informal, light-hearted, and exciting.
This summer, France held its National Festival of Music on June 21. All over the country, major cities held concerts and performances throughout the day. In Paris, the street corners and alleyways were filled with impromptu stages housing groups of almost every style. Most clubs and small concert venues allowed free entry for the day to showcase various rock, hip-hop, world music, and classical groups. A number of bars also held jam sessions throughout the day. I was lucky enough to play drums with a funk band in front of Sohil, a bar near Hôtel de Ville.
Coming back to the Boston area from Paris, as a lover of music, I was a little disappointed. I became habituated to a culture where it was easy to see great music for very little travel and cost. It also seemed that music was less intrusive in Paris, functioning instead as an aspect of daily life. While Sculler’s and the Regattabar, two Boston jazz clubs, have student discounts on weekends, Paris’ Sunside or Autour de Midi are friendlier to those of us on a budget. I long for the day when I can go out to Boston and head into a club to hear some music, buy a drink only if I really want one, and leave with a stronger connection to my surroundings. Until then, I guess all I can look forward to is chanting “Take me out to the ball game” with the Red Sox.