American Jazz in Paris

America may be the birthplace of jazz — and of such legends as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong — but it’s the Parisian radio station TSF that’s keeping the passion for it alive.

Punch around the FM radio band in Paris, and you’ll eventually discover 89.9, a continuous jazz broadcast unlike any other. The TSF station embraces America’s jazz heritage with an enthusiasm unmatched here in the States. An eclectic playlist of mostly American artists includes everyone from Count Basie, to Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Chet Baker, Bill Evans, Thelonious, Coltrane, and Mingus. Even Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, Jimi Hendrix and reworked Henry Mancini get thrown into the mix.

TSF features no announcers, and very few commercials. The formula is simple: more music, less words. Cafes and tobacco shops throughout Paris tune into the station. Listen to it for an hour through iTunes or the website, and you’ll hear a palpable excitement, a passion that can only reflect a city boasting 40 live jazz clubs. France may not have invented jazz, but they gleefully take on responsibility to present it to the world 24 hours a day, broadcasting from TSF’s studio on rue du Faubourg St Antoine, a few blocks from the Bastille.

Launched in 1981 as a mouthpiece for the Communist party, TSF originally provided cultural coverage of music, theater and film. But when the tiny station ran out of money in 1989, two Parisian media moguls stepped in to purchase the station. Jean Francois Bizot was a wealthy eccentric who had founded the avant-garde Actuel magazine in the 60s. Frank Tenot was CEO of the publishing conglomerate Hachette Filapacchi. Both agreed to unveil France’s first 24-hour jazz radio station, under the umbrella of Bizot’s Nova Press music company.

“They said, ‘We will save the employees, and we propose another format and it’s going to work.’ Nobody at the time was thinking it was going to work,” says TSF program director Sebastien Vidal. “Jazz at that time was not that popular on radio.”

TSF began broadcasting in 1999, and within a few years was reaching over 200,000 listeners in Paris and Nice. Today it claims an audience of over TKTK, sponsors festivals throughout France, and has even launched a line of jazz CD collections. International Herald Tribune jazz critic Mike Zwerin has called TSF “the only unsubsidized radio station in the known world playing smart jazz 24 hours a day seven days a week.”

When Tenot passed away in 2004, Bizot was left with majority ownership, as well as a firm idea of TSF’s sound and direction. “It’s very funny, it’s the only station that when the owner calls and asks to listen to something, sometime we do it, sometime we don’t,” chuckles Sebastien Vidal. “Most of the time he’s right, because he has a very good feeling for radio and what we should play on the air. But sometimes when he calls I say, ‘No, I don’t agree, can we talk?’”

In addition to a hands-on station owner, TSF’s programming is also determined from spirited staff discussions and audience surveys.

“It’s my main concern when I’m programming the radio to bring pleasure,” says Vidal. “We are not jazz specialists, sitting and smoking a pipe. Jazz is a very joyful, acoustic form of expression. We need to broadcast a lot of things people recognize and know. People want something new, something authentic, acoustic, pure, with no marketing. Jazz is one of the few fields in music where the artist has nothing to sell.”

Since TSF began broadcasting, Vidal says he’s seen a big leap in jazz record sales and club attendance. France now claims over 500 festivals which feature jazz. But then, the country has always embraced this music.

According to Luke Miner, author of the new guidebook Paris Jazz, France’s unique appreciation for jazz began just after World War I.

“It was new and exotic, entirely unlike anything that they had heard before,” Miner emails from Europe. “Having just come out a war costing millions of life, Parisians were especially predisposed to leave the past behind and throw themselves into this new art form.”

“In France this music is still deeply attached to the French soul,” adds Vidal. “The States was the birthplace of jazz, but France was the place where we put that artist in concert. We have always treated American jazz artists exactly the way we treat classical artists. When Miles Davis played in New York, he got beaten by a policeman. When he came to France, he played Salle Pleyel [Paris’ premier concert hall].”

American jazz musicians continue to make the pilgrimage to play Paris. On a recent Saturday night at the Latin Quarter’s le Caveau des Oubliettes, literally around the corner from Shakespeare & Company bookstore, a hard bop group is tearing it up.

Inside the 300-year-old stone cavern lined with medieval torture equipment, Jean-Jacques Elangué and the Tom McClung Quartet play to a packed crowd of primarily young French, smoking and nodding to the beat like they’re part of a 1950s photo essay. Saxophonist Elangué is from Cameroon, the remainder of the group is from the U.S. It’s fantastic, classic frenetic bop jazz — physical, mental, spiritual, and just when you think the tune is completely shattered they bring it back and it miraculously all fits together.

During a break, drummer John Betsch (originally from Florida, now living in Paris) tells me American musicians started to once again flow over to France after Reagan took office. Health benefits and social services are better for artists, the government devotes much more money towards promoting arts and culture, and there’s simply more gigs. “There’s two airports and five train stations.” Betsch shrugs. What else is there to say?

The musicians take the stage again to cheers. Betsch launches into a long drum solo, pounding all around the groove, then suddenly picks up his snare drum and screams right into it. All this, for five Euros. That is, if you’re in Paris.