Jazz in France | A Brief History of Famous French Jazz Musicians

France has long had a love affair with jazz, and likewise many of the great exponents of this great American music also had a love affair with the French lifestyle and people.

In this article, we take a look at some of the key musicians and albums which have played an important role in the history of Jazz in France. 

It’s arguable that the French had a greater understanding of the music not just as entertainment, but as an art form and treated visiting jazz musicians, as well as their own musicians as artists.

Historically, the liberal attitude of the French and the lack of racial discrimination made working in France a pleasure for many of the leading musicians of the day.

In 1949 a young Miles Davis played the Salle Pleyel opposite Charlie Parker’s Quintet, and recalled that the French audiences treated them with respect and reverence hanging on their every note, and even applauding the ‘mistakes’.

Whilst it’s true that the burgeoning music of the forties known as bebop had a significant following in France, jazz had been popular in the country long before the revelations of the young turks such as Parker, Miles and their associates.

It was at the outbreak of the First Word War that the African-American troops introduced jazz with this lively and vibrant new music that made people feel alive.

The first jazz club was formed in Paris in the early thirties, initially to listen to records, but was to expand its activities to become an organisation that would promote the music throughout France.

The Hot Club de France, under its president, Hugues Panassié who would go onto forge a career as a leading critic, record producer, and impresario of traditional jazz and secretary, author and renowned jazz expert Charles Delaunay.

The Honorary President of the Hot Club de France was none other that Louis Armstrong who would remain in that rile until his passing in 1971.

Jazz was now taking root in France, but what was lacking was a genuine French star.

It was all well and good, the constant stream of visiting American musicians that would regularly perform and even make their homes in Europe (albeit on a short-term basis), and whose records would be imported for many to enjoy.

However, things were to change with the discovery by the Hot Club of guitarist, Django Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli and their group that rapidly became known as the Quintette du Hot Club de France. 

Reinhardt was a Belgian-born Romany French musician who would bring the influence of traditional Romany music to his fluent and inventive playing.

Coupled with the French-Italian Grappelli, whose fleet fingered and lyrical lines that complimented and contrasted with Reinhardt’s guitar the Quintette were to perform regularly from their formation in 1934 to the outbreak of the Second World War.

Resuming their acquaintance again after the conflict, the two would go on making music together until Django’s early death in 1953.

If best known for his work with the Quintette due Hot Club de France, there was more to Grappelli than the gypsy style jazz that had garnered him such a prestigious reputation as we will find out below, and with the sudden death of Reinhardt in 1953 Grappelli was committed to striking out on his own.

It is also apparent that post war France was still under the spell of jazz and the new music coming from the New York clubs called bebop, and that the years ahead would find France producing world class jazz musicians in abundance, often with their own original take on the music they heard from across the pond.

Essential French Jazz Musicians

Of course, it’s impossible to sum up the entire history of jazz in France in one article, but here are some of the most famous French jazz musicians to be aware of, along with a recommended album pick…

Stéphane Grappelli (Tivoli Gardens)

Aside from his work with Django Reinhardt, Grappelli was always at his happiest working with guitarists, and what esteemed company he would keep in doing so. 

Herb Ellis, Bucky and John Pizzarelli, Larry Coryell, Marc Fosset, Philip Catherine, and the special relationship he had with British guitarists John Etheridge and Martin Taylor.

And of course, this outing with the legendary Joe Pass and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass. 

More often than not, Grappelli would work with a quartet or quintet with two guitarists. However, there are couple of duet albums available with pianists Martial Solal and McCoy Tyner (it could be said that the piano is capable of doing the work of two guitarists by both comping and producing countermelodies) but on our album pick – Tivoli Gardens – he settles on a trio.

The format suits Grappelli very well, and even when the three musicians are cooking at a high temperature there is still a feeling of a lighter sound with plenty of space.

The violinist swings hard on ‘Let’s Fall In Love’ provoking a similar response from Pass, and ‘Crazy Rhythm barely lets up the pace either with the guitarist comping hard behind Grappelli’s head long attack on the theme.

Quite how you improvise at this tempo and still produce compelling and flowing solos is quite a feat, but it is none the less on the less frenetic tempi that the real magic occurs. ‘I Can’t Get Started’ has a superb solo from the violinist with his lines singing sweetly and succinctly.

‘Let’s Fall In Love’ is joyously seductive, and ‘Time After Time‘ is taken a gentle tempo that allows Grappelli’s expressive and full sound to shine through, not to mention the lyricism of his playing. 

Joe Pass and Ørsted Pedersen are exemplary in their accompaniment and the guitarist also plays a fine and suitably subdued solo that leads beautifully into Grappelli’s return for a reprise of the theme.

Recorded in July 1979, live in front of a rapturous audience this is a fine recording that for all its jovial joie de vivre produces some fine music, and serve as reminder of Grappelli’s genius as an improviser, and interpreter of a repertoire primarily drawn from the Great American Songbook.

Michel Legrand (Legrand Jazz / Phillips)

Paris Conservatoire-trained from the age of eleven, Michel Legrand was a French composer, arranger, conductor and jazz pianist of some repute.

As a composer he quickly garnered an enviable reputation writing more than 200 scores for film and television winning three Oscars and five Grammys, and won his first Oscar for the song “The Windmills of Your Mind” from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).

With the success that his move to the US brought, it is perhaps easy to ignore his achievements and career as a jazz pianist and arranger are often overlooked.

Michel Legrand’s discography has been greatly enhanced in recent years by many albums being made available on streaming platforms, if not as physical CDs, or even LPs with the resurgence of vinyl. However, even a cursory glance at his recorded output reveals an original mind and indefatigable passion and commitment to the genre and top notch jazz to boot.

Over the course of his distinguished career, Legrand was able to record with some of the most notable names in jazz working with Zoot Sims, Phil Woods, Joe Wider, and Stéphane Grappelli among others.

However, perhaps his most astonishing recording, and one that still sounds fresh and exciting more than sixty years after it was made, is the remarkable Legrand Jazz.

Recorded over several days at the end of June 1958, with eleven classic jazz compositions freshly arranged for three different groups featuring many of the leading musicians of the time, Legrand quietly went about making a classic album that can stand among the very bet in the history of the music.

Looking back, it is almost inconceivable that such a venture could be viable. The musical arrangements are inspired, as are the personnel and instrumentation of each of the three groups.

Pairing flautist Herbie Mann with tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, four trombones and a rhythm section might seem an odd combination, but when listening to Webster’s solo on Django Reinhardt’s ‘Nuages’ it seems oh so right.

Similarly impressive is the band bringing together altoist, Phil Woods alongside Art Farmer and Donald Byrd on trumpet for a conventionally swinging  ‘Stomping At The Savoy’ only to be followed by an outstanding orchestration of ‘In A Mist’ by Bix Beiderbecke.

The most impressive music, however, was to be heard in the session that brought together saxophonists Phil Woods and John Coltrane, Bill Evans on piano, and Miles Davis along with a rhythm section and harps and vibraphone.

In what would be the trumpeter’s last recording as a sideman, Miles Davis solos magnificently on some unlikely material.

Following a vibraphone solo on an intriguing arrangement of ‘Wild Man Blues’, written by Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, Coltrane steps up to the mic with a solo that finds him still processing ideas and theories that he would shortly bring to fruition on Davis’ Kind Of Blue album, and his own Giant Steps LP for Atlantic less than a year later.

Miles’ solos next, and his solo rather than straining to look forward seems to sum up everything that has gone before yet spoken in the vernacular of the time.

Legrand brings a lightness and ethereal feel to Fat’s Waller’s ‘Jitterbug Waltz’ interspersed with some big band swing, however the rhythm section dig in for a couple of impressive solos first by Miles and Herbie Mann, and a declamatory solo from ‘Trane. 

At this point in his career, Miles is at his peak and it is much to Legrand’s credit that he does not allow the trumpeter to steal the limelight. He keeps things in check with the potency and vibrancy of his arrangements of these familiar compositions with each bringing something of himself to the score.

Even on ‘Round Midnight’ by Thelonious Monk that Davis had made his own with his performance at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, Legrand was able present an arrangement that allowed Miles to say his piece, but not at the expense of the subtle shading  that had been carefully orchestrated for the ensemble.

1958 was an important year for music that would produce many historic recordings that introduced new artists and found established jazz musicians looking to place themselves within the ever-evolving modern jazz scene.

It’s with much credit to Michel Legrand that time has not only been kind to the music produced in these sessions, but that Legrand Jazz can stand shoulder to shoulder with the very best music of that era.

Barney Wilen – French Ballads (Elemental Music)

Born in Nice to an American father and French mother, saxophonist Barney Wilen was a mercurial character who, as a gifted musician, was presented with golden opportunities to cement a reputation as one of the premier French jazz musicians. He followed a path that would involve frequent changes of musical direction and, at times, changes in career too.

Barney Wilen’s family moved to the United States in 1940 when he was just three years old, but by 1946 he was back in Nice and developing his musical chops playing in the family band, Cousin Orchestra.

From 1950 he found himself accompanying American musicians passing through, and thus enabling him to play with Roy Haynes, John Lewis and Bud Powell.

Just three years later he was fronting his own band and had firmly established himself as a hard bop tenorist of some note.

His reputation was catapulted to international star status when by was chosen by Miles Davis to play on the soundtrack for the Louis Malle film,  Ascenseur pour l’echafaud (Elevator To The Gallows) recorded in December 1957.

The trumpeter was playing some dates in France as a solo accompanied by a group comprising of Wilen, pianist René Urteger, Pierre Michelot on bass and US drummer, Kenny Clarke, when asked to by Malle to compose some music to accompany the film.

Davis simply took the musicians into the studio, and with no more than a tonal centre and a tempo, the music was improvised by the quintet while watching excerpts from the film that would require a soundtrack.

With the subsequent release of the music, firstly on 10″ LP, the association with Miles and Malle’s film brought the saxophonist to the attention of much wider audience. 

The following year Wilen released his own album on Emarcy, Jazz Sur Seine, with a star-studded cast featured Milt Jackson playing piano rather than his customary vibes, Percy Heath on bass and once again, Kenny Clarke on drums and a percussionist, Gana M’Bow.

Highly acclaimed at the time, Wilen’s attention was soon to drawn elsewhere and he spent much of the sixties and seventies playing rock and taking time out to travel to Africa with Caroline de Bendern, some musicians and a film crew.

Inspired by what he heard and learned he recorded an album 1972 titled Moshi that was to blend jazz with African music.  

By the 1980’s he had returned to jazz, and it quickly became apparent that he had lost none of his technical or improvisational prowess with a steady series of albums until his death on the 26th May, 1996.

One of the finest albums of the period is French Ballads recorded at the end of June 1987.

An absolutely delightful set that is full of invention, and captures Wilen in the same sparkling form that was heard on both Ascenseur pour l’echafaud and Jazz Sur Seine. 

His sound has matured but is still unmistakably identifiable with that warm tone that seems to have a little extra punch when required.

The repertoire is not at all predictable, and by no means taken at a crawl.

With a carefully selected and arranged programme there is much variety, and a few surprises for good measure; and not to mention a crack rhythm section of bassist Ricardo Del Fra, Sangoma Everett on drums and pianist Michel Graillier.

The opening title,  ‘L’ame Des Poètes’ is taken an amenable tempo but is kicked up a notch to gentle but quite forceful swing as Wilen hits his stride.

Michel Legrand’s ‘What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life’ is taken at more of the ballad tempo implied by the album’s title, with Wilen’s breathy delivery a model in playing and embellishing the melody without overdoing the sentimentality. It’s a trait which is also repeated on another Legrand composition, ‘Once Upon A Time’, with a fine solo from pianist Michel Graillier. 

With a beautifully pure and expressive tone on the straight horn, Wilen’s playing draws the listener in the composition, retaining the attention throughout.

In an album that is packed with some of the most wonderful melodies to come out of French jazz, Wilen states his case as fine interpreter of not just the ballads, but demonstrates his ability to bring something fresh and original to a wide and varied repertoire.

He takes ‘My Way’, written​ by Jacques Revaux and made famous by Frank Sinatra, and after playing the melody through â€‹takes a ravishing solo that leaves thing set up nicely for Del Fra and Graillier to follow.

He also takes that old chestnut, ‘Les Feuilles Mortes’ (better known as ‘Autumn Leaves‘), dusting it off and giving the composition a new lease of life as all great improvisers are able to do, and it this quiet assurance and ability to tell a story with each and every solo that perhaps makes this album a latter day classic.

Martial Solal – Balade Du 10 Mars (Soul Note)

​Martial Solal was born in Algeria, French Algiers in August 1927 and encouraged to learn clarinet and saxophone alongside piano by his Opera singer mother. 

After a period studying classical music, the pianist elected to teach himself and from this point on progress was rapid. By 1950 he had relocated to Paris and was working with the gypsy guitarist, Django Reinhardt and was also much in demand with visiting US musicians as well as expatriates Don Byas and Sidney Bechet.

Working as he did with such a diverse range of musicians within the jazz idioms of the day placed him in a perfect position to assimilate the history of the music, and also to look to finding his own voice and place in it.

This he did by combining his talents as a film composer and also in writing his own pieces for jazz ensembles of various sizes from duos to big bands, and not forgetting his solo piano playing.

For all his abilities as composer/arranger for big bands, it was in the small groups that some of his best playing can be heard and fully assimilated.

It is these small group recordings that have repeatedly shown Solal to be a unique and highly individual player whose distinctive sound and style have hard won, not by charging ahead in search for the ‘new thing’, but by patiently absorbing the language of the music, past and present, and letting his keen ear and improvisers instinct shape his music.

Despite his technical skills at the keyboard, Solal always maintained that as performer things should never appear difficult to the audience, and even the most complex musical ideas should sound easy.

In saying this, Solal meant that the music, and the message it conveys, should always speak louder than the technique required to execute it, and this was something that would prevail in his music, with his own message always clear for all to hear.

Balade Du 10 Mars is one of those compelling records that speaks clearly and concisely, and yet the more one listens the more is revealed.

Recorded over two days in March 1998, Solal along with Marc Johnson on bass and drummer, Paul Motian (both of whom, incidentally had played with the great Bill Evans, whose spirit permeates the session) laid down nine tracks, of which six were familiar standards in a fresh and exciting manner that evolves from the intuitive empathy of the three musicians as a collective.

If anything, Solal’s utterly distinctive style and voicings owe more to Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell than the quieter more subdued approach of Evans, and this is confirmed in the opening ‘Night And Day’ with the abrasive introduction from the pianist, before Motian and Johnson smooth things out a little.

‘Softly As In The Morning Sunrise’ receives a similar treatment as Solal states the familiar melody only to continue to shake things up with a decidedly angular solo that while sticks to the changes gives the impression that the pianist may depart from them at a moment’s notice. 

‘Round About Midnight’ is an intense and thrilling exploration of Monk’s well loved and often covered tune that never settles and always probing into the very depths of the structure of the composition.

So compelling and intuitive is the playing that it is difficult to resist the urge to hit the repeat button and listen to this remarkable performance again. As if to release the tension built on ‘Midnight’, ‘Almost Like Being In Love’ is given a relatively straight reading.

Johnson sets up a swinging bass-line for Solal to solo over, and Motian keeps things flowing with his insistent commentary that hints at other areas to follow.

Both bassist and pianist are at pains to stick to their guns which ensures that Motian creates tension that they can resolve adding that little extra something to the rendition. With drummer switching to brushes for ‘My Old Flame’ for a beautiful and heartfelt run through of this lovely ballad, the interest again falls on the interplay between Johnson and Solal.

Offsetting the jazz standards are three original compositions that serve to break up the familiarity of the program.

The first of these is ‘Gang Of Five’, a free form improvisation in which the pianist feels able to let go of any harmonic restrictions imposed by the standards, and there is a wildness to his playing that that is only hinted at elsewhere on the record.

Johnson and Motian are more than willing participants, and is perhaps disappointing that the trio did not pursue this area at greater length, or even with a follow up recording. Equally as good is the title track.

An open-ended ballad by Solal that has some sympathetic drumming from Motian, and a stunning arco section from Johnson. The album is rounded off by a solo piano piece by Solal, ‘The Newest Old Waltz’, that for all its brevity is pure perfection. 

Michel Petrucciani – Solo Live (Dreyfus)

Pianist Michel Petrucciani was a truly incredible musician.

Born in Montpellier, France to Italian parents on 28th December, 1962, and from birth was diagnosed with osteogenesis imperfecta, also referred to as ‘glass bone disease’.

The condition meant that his bones were very brittle and would often fracture, and also severely limited his growth. At just 3 foot tall he would often have to be carried to the piano and used custom made extensions for his legs to enable him to reach the pedals.

Petrucciani always acknowledged Duke Ellington as his first influence on piano and his love of Duke would be a major source of inspiration for the pianist throughout his short tragical career.

As well as Ellington, he would also fall under the spell of Bill Evans, although with Petrucciani’s flamboyance and virtuosity, and his fast multi noted runs this could often be less discernible.

At the age of eighteen, and determined to follow a career in jazz he left France for the United States where he was taken under the wing of legendary Charles Lloyd with who he would tour and record, bringing the saxophonist out of ‘retirement’ to do so.

More recordings with some of America’s leading players would follow with saxophonists, Lee Konitz, Wayne Shorter and Joe Lovano, bassist Dave Holland, guitarist Jim Hall, and fellow Frenchman, Stéphane Grappelli.

However, it was as a solo performer that one could really hear this most gifted and original pianist at his unadulterated best.

Often likened to Oscar Peterson for his virtuosity, and it was used unreservedly to serve the music and Petrucciani’s fertile imagination.

Notable solo recordings include the Blue Note album, Promenade For Duke, and the 2CD set Au Théâtre des Champs-Elysées for the Drefus imprint, but it is perhaps the posthumously released Solo Live (also for Dreyfus)that captures the boundless energy and sheer joy of playing drove Michel Petrucciani to overcome such a debilitating disease, and in doing so bring so much pleasure to so many.

Recorded in concert in Frankfurt, Germany on February 27, 1997 Petrucciani is captured in magisterial form. Many of the compositions are wildly exciting and multifaceted, yet kept brief and often finished around the four minute mark.

These fascinating explorations of self-penned compositions such as ‘Looking Up’ with its beautiful introduction and melodic contour carefully laid out, and the joyful ‘Rachid’ and heart-warming ‘Home’ often tease and cajole the audience who maybe expecting the pianist’s improvisations to continue at greater length.

As if to prolong the anticipation and expectation is Petrucciani’s ‘Little Peace In C For U’ that dazzles in the breadth of the playing from a brief ragtime passage, hints at boogie woogie, all delivered in a mischievous manner designed to tantalise.

Finally, with his own composition ‘Trilogy in Blois (Morning Sun, Noon Sun, and Night Sun in Blois)’ the pianist takes his time in a linger form piece of music that is captivating from start to finish. There are no pyrotechnics or wild climaxes, just a stately theme that is expanded and explored in detail and at length.

Equally as good is ‘Caravan’ by Ellington and Juan Tizol.

Petrucciani plays in homage to his idol in a startingly inventive reading that takes the music in places that Duke could not have imagined, but would surely have approved of. 

This superb album closes with Petrucciani’s ‘She Did It Again (with the introduction straight out of the Ellington of the 1920’s) segueing into Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Take The “A” Train’, that brings the performance to a wholly satisfying conclusion, even if it does leave the audience a little breathless.

Five Essential French Jazz Songs

To wrap things up, we’ve picked five French jazz songs that are a great addition to any record collection. We’ve highlighted some key recordings, but of course there are many others for you to discover on your favourite music platform or record store.

1. J’ai Deux Amours

Written by Vincent Scotto, Henri Varna, Géo Koger and performed by Joesphine Baker in the 1930’s. American born Baker renounced her US citizenship and was naturalised as French Joséphine Baker in 1937.

The song was also recorded by Madeleine Peyroux and also Dee Dee Bridgewater on her album of the same name released in 2005.

2. Nuages

Written and performed by Django Reinhardt, the song was also famously recorded by Sidney Bechet, Tony Bennett, Benny Carter, Joe Pass, Oscar Peterson, Paul Desmond and Peggy Lee.

3. Les Feuilles Mortes

Better known with its English title of ‘Autumn Leaves’, this song was written by Joseph Kosma in 1945 with original lyrics by Jacques Prévert in French.

The English version has become one of the most recorded jazz standards of all time, but the French lyrics give it a fresh sound.

The tune has been recorded more than 1000 times, including by Artie Shaw (1950), Stan Getz (1952), Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal (separately in 1955), Cannonball Adderley, Duke Ellington (1957), Chet Baker and Miles Davis, among others.

4. Petit Fleur 

With music by Sidney Bechet and words by Fernand Bonifay, the song was first released by Bechet in 1952 with Claude Luter and his Orchestra. 

It’s also been recorded by Chris barber’s Jazz Band, Bob Wilber and the Bechet Legacy, Woody Herman, Gene Krupa, Neal Hefti, Michel Legrand, Roland Kirk,  Archie Shepp Sextet, Steve Lacy  and Mal Waldren, and English free improvisers Lol Coxhill  and Pat Thomas.

5. Les Moulins de Mon CÅ“ur 

Again, more well-known outside of France by its translated title of ‘The Windmills Of Your Mind’, this Michele Legrand song (with French lyrics by Eddy Marnay) rose to prominence when used in the 1969 movie The Thomas Crown Affair.

Thanks for reading this guide to Jazz in France.

We hope it’s given you some extra insight into the importance this country has played in the history of jazz and, more importantly, some new ideas for listening discoveries! 

Looking to visit some jazz in its capital soon? Check out our guide to the best clubs in Paris

2 thoughts on “Jazz in France | A Brief History of Famous French Jazz Musicians”

  1. “Insight into new ideas for listening discoveries” is a very good way to describe my French music experience after I heard “Balade du 10 Mars” by the Martial Solal Trio. Mr. Lea honestly attempts to describe the music of the album, but it needs to be heard and not read. It is a “Favorite Jazz Trio” nominee.
    Miles Davis and Barney Wilen’s playing compelled me to watch the movie “Ascenseur pour l’echafaud” to get the effect of how the soundtrack fits in.
    Though I am not commenting on the entire article, I did read it and listened to all of the music that was recommended.
    Merci beaucoup!

  2. I think I would include Ibrahim Maalouf in this list.

    What is important about his music is that it inhabits a space where East is not strictly east nor West strictly west-where cultural identity is plural and inclusive, there is a place for everyone- crucial in these divisive times..


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