23 February 2004In some other industry, Stephane Portet who books and
manages his upstairs/ downstairs Sunside-Sunset jazz club duplex, might be
described unhesitatingly as a young executive with a bright future. But
although he shows every sign of being a survivor, he is in a trade which is
often no further from closure than the next transportation strike.
Parisian jazz clubs have had historical and sentimentaland
temporaryrelevance since Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Bud Powell and
the others played in those dank, smoky Left Bank caves not because it was
romantic but because it was their only option. They deserved to be playing in
Salle Pleyel; but, as Clint Eastwood told Gene Hackman (who had protested: "I
don't deserve this") before shooting him in Unforgiven: "Deserve's got
nothing to do with it."
It's much better for the deserving in the jazz
business now, so it is ironic that more musicians with the clout to play
prestigious halls are choosing to go back to multiple performances in smaller,
more intimate clubs instead. New York's Village Vanguard is famous for that.
And, in Paris, Wynton Marsalis played two nights in the New Morning last
summer, and the Brad Mehldau trio will be at the Sunside for a week, from March
2nd to 7th.
Photo courtesy of Brad
Taken together, the Sunside and Sunset on Rue des
Lombards, a walking street near Chatelet, are arguably the best club in town.
(Just down the street, the admirable little Duc des Lombards is celebrating its
20th birthday.) The Sunset in the cave is for amplified blues, rock and world
music. While the street-level Sunside has acoustic jazz, a great grand piano,
interesting programming, a brick wall and, a rare and wonderful thing,
Portet, 36, who took over the Sunset from his
father, replaced their street-level restaurant with the Sunside six years ago.
Programming and operating two quality jazz clubs at the same time takes an
unusual combination of imagination, hard work and business acumen and people
were skeptical at first. But he had a healthy work ethic developed when he was
selling washing machines for Bosch. "I've been in the jazz club business for 13
years," he says. "I have found my passion. I'm good at this job. I do a lot of
research, I ask a lot of questions. I'm the sort of person who goes deeply into
things. I know a lot about the musicnot so much about thirty or forty
years ago. My area of expertise is what's happening today."
move, cell phone to ear, he is in his domain walking up and down the stairs
something like 14 hours a day; scheduling, listening to music, negotiating with
musicians and agents and coordinating the people who work with him (they are
ten). His eyes dart here and there as he fine-tunes the lighting, the sound,
the door, the bar.
Trying to keep ahead of a changing business, he
always liked the late-night aspect of jazz but more people want to be home by
midnight these days so the performances will soon start earlier. Mehldau's sets
will be at 7:30 and 10 with seating, Portet says: à l'Americaine
(the room will be emptied between sets). Mehldau's admirable new trio album
"Anything Goes" (Warner Jazz) will be released at about the same time and
Portet finds it increasingly essential to combine bookings with record
Photo courtesy of Brad Mehldau
Independent labels are taking over the jazz record
business, and he predicts that the major entertainment companies will
eventually be totally out of it. Efficient independents can make money selling
10,000 units; for a fully integrated multinational corporation with a large
overhead such a number is unthinkable. All of this may be good for the music
because, he says: "Businessmen who are smart and quick may survive better than
Thinking of all the frustrated, deserving young French
musicians, Portet says it's "unfortunate" that his customers still prefer to
listen to Americans (established French names like the ex-Miles Davis pianist
René Urtreger do well). The weak dollar makes American musicians
cheaper, but there are also less tourists and it cancels out. The Italians draw
"Black or white seems to matter less than it once did," he
says. "Jazz is becoming multicolored. The music is becoming more international
all the time. Jazz is healthier in Europe, where the public is more
sophisticated. There are many musicians making statements that have nothing to
do with Benny Goodman. These sort of peoplepeople like John Surman and
Michel Portalare marginalized in the US. In Europe they are in the
"European musicians seem to be more open to future
possibilities. The Americans tend to look back on their own history. I think
that the marriage with electronic music machines and with world music is the
jazz of the future. People keep saying that jazz is dead. I think the contrary.
I think that jazz is the music of the 21st century."
currently shopping for a place in central Paris where he can open a bigger and
even better jazz club. "There's a lot of demand right now," he says.
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.