Bertrand Tavernier was well known as one of the world’s great champions of cinema, in addition to being a great filmmaker himself. He was also a lifelong student and fan of jazz music and had been wanting to make a film about jazz for many years by the time he came to ’Round Midnight (1986), which would become the French director’s best-known movie in the United States. Narratively loose, dreamlike, and moody, it is a passionate homage to the music and musicians. Tavernier had broken through to international acclaim and won the Best Director award at Cannes with his previous film, 1984’s A Sunday in the Country, about an aging painter and his complicated relationships with his adult children. ’Round Midnight is another work about an isolated artist’s ambivalence about his work and relationships. In a close collaboration with the director, tenor sax bebop legend Dexter Gordon crafted the role of the fictional self-destructive musician Dale Turner, an American living and working in Paris in the late fifties. Gordon would be nominated for an Oscar for his emotionally intense performance.
Twenty-five years earlier, the Hollywood film Paris Blues had been released, starring two well-known (though yet to be certified as iconic) actors, Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier, as American jazz artists in Paris. Jazz was then, in many ways, a new thing, a tasty confection for post–World War II global audiences. The U.S. Department of State’s Jazz Ambassadors diplomacy program—whereby, beginning in 1956, some of the music’s leading lights (Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, and a young Quincy Jones among them) toured parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa—was an important force behind jazz’s increased global popularity. Jazz diplomacy, as Lisa E. Davenport describes in her book of the same title, helped propagate ideas of American exceptionalism and cultural pluralism in the midst of the Cold War. With its focus on interracial friendship and collaboration and on the freedom of creative spirit embedded in this quintessentially American music, Paris Blues celebrates those values, tied with a bright pink bow of youthful romance.
But that was only part of the story.
Two years before Paris Blues came out, pianist Bud Powell had arrived in Paris, joining a group of Black American expatriates that included Josephine Baker, from a generation earlier, as well as writers James Baldwin, Chester Himes, Richard Wright, and William Gardner Smith; cartoonist Ollie Harrington; visual artist Beauford Delaney; and jazz musicians Donald Byrd and Quincy Jones, among others. Whereas Paris Blues celebrates jazz living in the world, the reality is that many jazz artists sought out residency in Paris and elsewhere abroad as a reprieve from the United States’ unique brand of white supremacy—which marginalized Black artists while exploiting their art—as well as, often, from their own admitted self-destructive tendencies, which cannot be untethered from the impact of race in America for Black folk in general and Black artists in particular. Many Black expatriates shared Baldwin’s view, as he recounted it to the Paris Review in 1984: “My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail, I was going to kill somebody or be killed.”
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