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Melvin Van Peebles And His Pals

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 9 August 2002 - Taking time out from the intensive rehearsals of the musical review which he cast and was directing, choreographing and singing and starring in, Melvin Van Peebles explained: "I shoot the breeze between numbers, sort of like Charles Aznavour." He is not the sort of person who suffers from stage-fright.

An evening titled Melvin Van Peebles et ses Potes ("And His Pals") featuring Van Peebles's own songs and gospel, rhythm and blues and jazz adaptations of the songs of the 19th century cabaret artist Aristide Bruant was recently presented in Café de la Danse, near the Bastille.

In principle, this one performance would be the end of it. Which was fine with him. Van Peebles "can't think of anything I'd rather be doing right now." Any hope he admits he may harbor for a longer run is not due to pressing need: "I don't have a mistress and I don't have a car. As Thoreau said, you're rich in relation to what your needs are."

The concept of low overhead is indeed relative in the wide world of moving pictures, where Van Peebles is best known. What is considered Robert Altman's down-and-out period in Paris in the early 1990s included a chauffer-driven sedan and a stylish cozy Left Bank apartment across the Seine from Notre Dame. Van Peebles, whose low overhead covers residences in New York, Los Angeles and Pigalle, rose to the level of what one journalist called an "iconic presence" after he produced, directed, starred in and wrote the music for Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song, a controversial movie about a black man on the run after killing two white policemen. Made in 1971 for $500,000 (10% of it borrowed from Bill Cosby), it was dedicated to "all the brothers and sisters who have had enough of The Man." It grossed $10 million in the first year and spawned Hollywood's so-called "Blaxploitation" trend, a credit he is not particularly proud of: "The term really has nothing to do with me. It has a derogatory sense to it. You know, everybody tries to keep us in our place with these limiting labels."

His first film, produced in France in 1967, was La Permission , or The Story of a Three Day Pass, about a romance between an African American soldier and a French woman. Watermelon Man (1970) starred Godfrey Cambridge playing a white bigot who wakes up black one day. He wrote the screenplay for Greased Lightening (1977), with Richard Pryor playing the black race-car driver Wendell Scott. In 1995, co-producing with his son Mario, who directed it (Mario recently portrayed Malcolm X in Ali), Van Peebles wrote the script for Panther, a fictionalized account of the rise of the Black Panther Party For Self Defense. The Panthers had declared Sweetback required viewing for its members. VanPeebles was "pleased they recognized it. I was in complete sympathy with the Panthers."

In Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks, a book about black filmmakers, Donald Bogle called Sweet Sweetback "an uncompromising, totally independent trailblazer that heralded a new kind of black cinema, and inspired a later generation of African American movie-makers like Spike Lee and Albert and Allen Hughes." While a student at Ohio Weslyan University in Delaware, Ohio, the future "Godfather of black film" was, he remembered, "sent to Coventry" because of his independent attitude: "What did I care? You know? I felt sorry for them being denied my company." He's currently writing a novel - his 13th book - on speculation, without a contract. "If the manuscript is rejected," he said, "the way I look at it, it will be the publisher being stupid. My point of view has always been that if the girl turns me down she's an obvious lesbian."

This outburst of what some might consider outrageously macho positive-thinking is more likely some sort of "bad brother" shtick. It was, in any case, followed by a smile and a pregnant pause. The self-confidence is real enough, though the macho was, I trusted, faux. Van Peebles seems to be daring you to look behind this particular role it is now amusing him to play. It is tempered by his sweet bad voice and a straight-faced ironic twinkle partly hidden by black-rimmed Harold Lloyd eyeglasses and the pulled-down visor of a 1920s James Cagney gangster cap. With his grandfatherly gray beard, laid back hip manner and wide frame of reference, he resembles his fellow icon, the late adorable elder statesman of jazz - he places a respectful hand over his heart at the mention of the name - Slim ("vout-o-roonie") Gaillard.

Gaillard was an apple farmer in the State of Washington. Van Peebles was one of the first black traders on the New York Stock Exchange. His book, Bold Money: A New Way To Play The Options Market (1986) is still in print. Both of them were in the US Air Force - Gaillard a maintenance engineer in the groundbreaking black fighter squadron during World War II, Van Peebles the navigator and only black crew member on a B-47 bomber in Korea. He recalled: "They all had thick southern accents. You would have thought I was an albino, the way they treated me. They were unbelievably nice. They'd say, 'Y'all got to come down to our Bar-B-Q on Saturday.' Because they all knew that if the navigator makes a mistake, everybody dies." Van Peebles was reminded of his wartime experience when Halle Berry and Denzil Washington won Academy Awards: "Basically they owe their Oscars to the Taliban. When Americans are in trouble, suddenly we're all Americans somehow."

Called an enfant terrible , a Renaissance man and a one-man conglomerate, he has been a cable-car grip-man in San Francisco, a portrait painter in Mexico, he studied astronomy in Holland and he was a street musician and a journalist in Paris. He can write in French. He had just finished shooting one of a continuing series of character roles - a gangster in a movie that "doesn't have a name yet." The way he put it, putting it mildly: "I have various arrows in my quiver."

When his albums Br'er Soul and Ain't Supposed to Die A Natural Death,"both reissued, were first released by A&M Records in the late 1950s, that sort of thing was still filed under "spoken word." The recordings influenced other rap precursors such as the Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron. "Actually," Van Peebles said, with his straight-faced twinkle: "It wasn't really me who invented rap. I stole the idea from Aristide Bruant." His music for Sweet Sweetback was performed by the then unknown group Earth, Wind & Fire; the soundtrack was their first album.

He wrote the book, lyrics and music for and co-produced the Broadway musical: Don't Play Us Cheap. It was nominated for three Tony and two Grammy awards. In 1997, he performed in a cabaret set called Br'er Soul And Roadkill in the Fez café in New York. According to Jon Pareles in the New York Times, he "turned rock, pop, Broadway and disco songs into extensions of his own down-home philosophy. As he sees it, most of us are roadkill on the highway of love."

The idea for the friendly musical review near the Bastille was born last year when Van Peebles was invited to the film festival Festival des Trois Continents in Nantes. He thanked them but said: "I don't have a film this year." The festival's director replied: "No, we want you to be the entertainment." Why not, he thought. Van Peebles had nothing better to do and, he reasoned: "I'm too short to play basketball and too nervous to steal." He took out the song and dance arrow from his quiver once more and cast six young French Nantais singers (three female, three male) and six musicians. They were, he said, "excited about it. It's an adventure for them, an opportunity to grow."

Selecting songs from Ain't Supposed To Die. and Sweetback and elsewhere, he put some demos together and told everybody to "get as close as possible to my partitions" - advanced Franglais for "arrangements." "Save any suggestions for when I come back," he said, and when he did he was more than impressed: "Oh, man, man, man, man, man! These people are terrific. They are so talented and positive. They really want to do it the right way. Like Quincy Jones says; 'You've got to leave room for God in these things.'

"It's another frame of reference in France. I have to be totally specific in order to get the right feeling, the right texture. It's not New York, I can't just ask them to sound like the horns at the beginning of some Marvin Gaye record, or to 'put in some Monk.' I have to micro-manage. It's time-intensive work. I'm also my own sound and light director. There's no way I can delegate all of these responsibilities. Not that I have problems with any of it. I keep saying to myself: 'For once God got it right.'"

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Zwerin is currently writing a book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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