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Getting Jazzed in Paris

Jazz club Paris

Nuit Blanche—the night-long arts festival in the city center. (Faire une nuit blanche means to pull an all-nighter, whether it be for fun or for work, or simply from insomnia.) But for the other 364 days a year, nocturnal activities are less centrally organized. There is, of course, the clubbing scene (no, I’m not going to write about that), and the wonderful evening hours at museums (known as nocturnes), but if you want to push beyond standard concert or theater hours in a civilized way, one of the best choices is a jazz club. There are several, but I’m only going to talk about three and a half of them.

Sunset-Sunside club
Inside the Sunset

The half comes from the Sunset/Sunside: it’s just one club, but with two different performance spaces; thus: one-and-a-half. The S/S is located on the rue de Lombards, a quick trot from the Châtelet Métro station. The names tell you which one is which: the Sunside is a cramped L-shaped room on the main floor, and the Sunset reproduces the layout in the basement, huddled under pillar-supported arches. I have to say, the Sunset is my all-time favorite. It’s everything a jazz club should be: intimate, raw and dark. It feels somehow risky—and not just because the whole place looks like a firetrap. No, this is a space where real music happens, and you can be a part of it. The chairs are a little uncomfortable, and the wines are pretty bad, but somehow even that contributes to my love for this place: you come here for the music, and that transcends everything. The stage is large enough to hold a foursome if they’re really tight, but trios are often the best. The Sunset sports a wide range of headliners, and you’ll find everything from traditional to fusion to experimental stuff. This is where, a few years ago, I first encountered Giovanni Mirabassi—the Italian-born, Paris-based jazz pianist—along with his trio. He’s one of the greats.

That said, Mirabassi recently defected from the Sunset: in November (on the 29th, to be exact), he’s playing upstairs at the Sunside. That’s OK, too: the Sunside has the same close quarters, but it’s a little brighter, swankier, and, well, mainstream-looking. As the French might say, you’d take your wife or husband to the Sunside, but your lover to the Sunset.

Duc-des-Lombards facade
Duc des Lombards, outside

If you happen to be spending the evening with both your spouse and lover, I’d suggest taking them to the Duc des Lombards, just down the street. It’s big enough that you can seat them at separate tables, and although they might wonder about your frequent absences, they’ll probably never cross paths, except perhaps at the restroom. The Lombards has a wide range of offerings, too, with some larger bands, and lots of sax and trumpet—the kind of instruments that benefit from having more air around them. There are also regular jam sessions, usually with no cover charge; these can be risky, but are typically pretty fun. In terms of décor, the Duc des Lombards reminds me of some of the clubs you find in the US: it’s cozy and clean; there’s a lot of wood; and you can eat a decent meal (either at the bar or the tables) while music throbs away in the background. I like the grottiness of the Sunset/Sunside, but this is a pretty sweet spot, too.

If, instead of spouses or lovers, you’re taking your mom out for a night on the town, you might consider the Caveau de la Huchette. Like the Latin Quarter in which it’s located, the Caveau is plagued with a bit of a tourist problem, and part of that means trying to confirm audience expectations about what jazz in Paris should sound like—based mostly on old movies they’ve seen. It’s not quite the Josephine Baker era, but there’s a lot of swing, sometimes with a Big Band feel. Dancing sometimes occurs.

Those are a few of my faves. You probably have others. Feel free to weigh in with comments and suggestions; I’d be happy to expand on this in another posting!

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  • Le Caveau des Oubliettes, 52 rue Galande, is by far the best! This nightspot is housed in a genuine 12th-century prison, complete with dungeons, and subterranean vaults that many centuries ago linked it with the fortress prison of Petit Châtelet. The bar staff claim that the wall graffiti is genuine! After 18 months in Paris and many live music venues, this one is still my favorite! It’s free entry although the beer is expensive – eleven euros for half a litre, so best to have a few before you arrive, not difficult because the band doesn’t come on until 10:30 pm! Free entry

  • The Swedish club (Svenska Klubbe) at 242, Rue de Rivoli hosts jazz on Wednesday nights. A French friend took me, it was a fantastic evening with great music. Drinks and food are available – a little pricey, but okay. Entry was €15. Definitely worth searching out.

  • Attended the early show at Duc des Lombards last night – great band, nice staff, attentive audience. Highly recommended.

  • I'm particularly fond of the historic Café Laurent at the Hôtel Aubusson in St-Germain-des-Prés. There are live concerts in a cozy and chic setting Wednesday through Saturday nights, and free entry (you will be expected to order a drink). It's a good place for solo travelers who wouldn't normally feel comfortable hanging out in a jazz bar alone. :-)The Club Rayé in the Montorgueil district is also a great place for live jazz around the baby grand in a stylish 1920s setting, excellent cocktails and dinner. There's also a second "Kafka" bar hidden downstairs.

  • That's no problem. The drinking age in France is low (16 for wine and beer; 18 for liquor), so there's not even a "carding" problem. The nice thing is that these are not heavy drinking establishments — people just sip and listen!

  • I just moved to Paris working as an au pair. I love jazz, but I am only 19 years old. will it be a problem to get in to any of the jazz bars?

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