Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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TRAVEL

Paris: Love in a Be-Bop Joint.

Ah mon dieu, mais bien sur, Paris continues to be the most starry-eyed, romance-inducing, kiss-me-quick city on God's green earth. And oui, you really can't go wrong if you head there on a dirty weekend with your infinitely better half.

And oui, it is still totally acceptable to grab your lover round the waist and mate like dolphins while standing centre stage on la Metro at Rush Hour. Confident romance. That's what Paris is all about from its pert Eiffel Towery top to its sleek ankle-twirling bottom.

But sometimes it's not quite as easy as they make out in the movies. Sometimes it's hard to find the space you really need to get jiggy with your loved one. Parisian days fly quick. You've drunk enough café to keep a township of koala bears awake for a fortnight. You've beheld so many works of art that you're starting to find pavement dog-poohs a welcome diversion. The cocktail bars are good but it's hard to enter the spirit of the occasion when you just know the price tag is ultimately going to involve one or both of you sleeping with the moustachioed maitre d' with the dicky eye.

So what are your options?

Here's one. Faire la nouba, carpe noctum and go boogie. It's not something you hear all that much about but Paris is a seriously good spot for limbering up on the dance-floor. There has been rhythm in Paris at least since the Crusaders tuned into "Carmen Burana" on their walkmans. In the 1930s, Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli brought the magical sound of swing straight to the city. And then there was Be-Bop.

Be-bop originated in early 1940s Harlem when the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker started to let rip in playhouses and small jazz clubs after their more formal gigs were finished. It's fast tempo jazz, allowing for a lot of improvisation, complex harmonies, intricate melodies and steady beats.

Most Americans were too bewildered by the sound to know what to do - "Chinese nonsense" was Cab Calloway's verdict. However, some of the American GI's who liberated Paris from the Nazi's in 1945 brought their be-bop records across the Atlantic, slapped them on passing gramophones and somehow kick-started a major dance revolution in the French capital.

Maybe it was the familiar swing chords of Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm", a constant in many bebop tunes. But after five years of Nazi occupation, perhaps Parisians simply connected with the wild and moody combos created by Charlie Parker French-kissing his sax, Dizzy giving it socks on trumpet, Max Roach rattling the drums, Percy Heath twiddling the bass and Bud Powell splashing his fingertips all over the piano. At any rate, a trans-Atlantic hot-stepping dance soon established itself between the good ole American GI's and the fun-loving femmes fatales of liberated Paris.

Arguably the smoothest hotspot for a night of dancing is Caveau de la Huchette, a jazz cellar in the Latin Quarter. Crusty walls softly scented with the mysterious aroma of Knights Templar suggests that Parisians have been boogying or otherwise convening in this exceptional spot since the Middle Ages. Indeed, the dungeon beneath la Huchette joyfully claims to have been used as a popular execution chamber during the French Revolution. These days it's all about the be-bop. Or rather the Parisian take on be-bop.

I venture in with my moll on a Monday night. We're armed with a bottle of wine. We descend a flight of cold, worn stone steps to a vaulted cavern dance-floor, surrounded by sofa-benches on all sides with one wing converted into what you might call a viewing balcony. We take a pew and watch the miscellaneous dancers strut their stuff.

The evening plays like a beautiful, utterly surreal parody of Parisian society. Those on the floor were evidently regulars.

A portly man with gray mullet and kindly gangster face weaves a sleek dressed starlet around his fingertips like she's a yoyo, reeling her down one arm, stopping her mid-orbit, spinning her around, rock step, triple step, triple step, kick.

A very, very tall man with bright red cheeks hoists a green-eyed blonde under his knees and catches her on his hip.

A young man in spats clocks newcomers in the crowd, fresh bodies he might tempt on to the floor … this last chap is a vital cog because now you get to see those who aren't quite so polished at the old bebop and thus you might even take your beloved onto the floor and give it a lash yourself.

Indeed, that is the joy of dancing. To enter into that beautiful, sensuous, telepathic zone where you're hot-stepping in unison, cute to every slip of chord, sensitive to the changing beat, stumbling every now and then but encircled by feisty wide smiles when merry eyes meet. And that, after all, is what you are in Paris for, isn't it?

Be-Bop enthusiasts might want to swing by www.caveaudelahuchette.fr

 



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