©Brett Delmage, 2017
Nicole Ratté in her tribute to Michel Legrand at Les Brasseurs du Temps. ©Brett Delmage, 2017

Since the early 20th century, Paris has been a crossroads of jazz.

Paris was where black American jazz musicians were fully appreciated for their talent. Paris was where Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli formed the Quintette of the Hot Club of France. Paris was where French composers such as Michel Legrand and musicians such as Maurice Chevalier and Charles Aznavour gave a French twist to jazz.

On Friday, Ottawa vocalist Nicole Ratté and her quartet will explore that legacy in song at GigSpace.

It's a daunting task, given the number of jazz musicians and composers who have links to France: Ratté said her biggest problem has been paring her set list down to size.

“I want to illustrate with my show a bit of the history of the development of jazz in France,” she says, “while featuring songs that are so important in the jazz repertoire today that were born in France, and linking it to the artists that performed in France – a whole pile of jazz artists and lots of jazz vocalists who went to France. And also the French artists who went into jazz or who influenced jazz. And even linking some songs to one of the first singers in the 1920, 1930s [up] to today – who's singing these songs.”

“At the same time, I want the show to be lively, good for the heart, and interesting. Also the pacing is important for me, the balance between the ballads and fast, all sorts of tempos, so I try to balance everything, to be careful about the era – I don't want to stay just in one era. I want to go through the different decades of music.”

The long French love affair with jazz

Researching the music for the show has proven a real surprise for her. “Oh my God, I discovered so much information. It changed my impressions, my point of view about the music in France, because jazz during the First World War and afterwards, and all the influence it had on the music scene in France – it's unbelievable! It changed everything!”

Jazz was first introduced to France by military bands composed of black American soldiers during and just after World War I. “At first the music was weird for the French but they rapidly fell in love with it.”

That love affair continued before, during, and after World War II, with American bandleaders Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis being major influences. “Sidney Bechet, in particular, wasn't well-known at the time in the States but he was a star in France. And, from what I read, he was one of the only black musicians who became a mentor for the French musicians. He encouraged, he nurtured the first generation of French jazz men in France. It was interesting to learn that!”

The French were soon developing their own stars, such as trumpeter Boris Vian, who was involved in the creation of the Hot Club of France. Vian introduced Miles Davis to a Frenchwoman Davis fell in love with: the actress and singer Juliette Gréco. “It was a great love story that I want to illustrate in my show.”

Other French jazz stars included Maurice Chevalier, “who was known as the French Sinatra”, the composers Charles Trenet and Michel Legrand, and big band leader Ray Ventura – for whose orchestra Raymond Legrand (Michel Legrand's father) wrote orchestrations.

“And of course, the Hot Club of France, which was created to promote jazz in France. From that organization was born Le Quintette du Hot Club of Jazz, with Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. In fact Django and that band was one of the first real jazz bands in France. So I'm singing two songs from there.”

During the German occupation of France in the Second World War, jazz was forbidden because it was American music. But the French got around those restrictions.

“They transformed the names of the songs so they looked like French songs. It's hilarious in fact – for example, “I Got Rhythm”, they called it “Agathe Rhythm”. Agathe is a French first name, no? [she laughs] And “St. Louis Blues” became “La Tristesse de Saint Louis”. So they managed to play jazz, anyway! And of course there were some clubs where it was under the table, but they were doing jazz there. They were very creative and inventive, and it's nice to know that.”

After the war, many American black musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Dexter Gordon went to France. In the U.S. they were not well-treated because of racism, but “they were so warmly welcomed in France. It was good for them. They could be themselves. Like [the romance between] Juliette Gréco and Miles Davis wouldn't have been possible in New York. That's why they all went there.”

Songs the artists played in Paris

Ratté said she'd be singing songs from the 1920s to the modern day, some best known as jazz standards, some better known as French chanson. She's also planning to illustrate how some songs in particular were important in the jazz repertoire.

Miles Davis will be remembered by a number from his Parisian soundtrack to the film “Ascenseur pour l'échafaud”.

“I found the chart for that, and I'm so excited. It was difficult to find which songs from Miles Davis I could feature, because it's all instrumental music, so I'm going to link it to a song that was performed by his love, Juliette Gréco. It's working well because it finishes on the same chord that the other song is starting. It's one of my great discoveries!”

She's insisting that each song be directly linked to Paris: “every song I chose from the artists, it's because they played it in Paris at some time. I'm doing one song from Duke Ellington and I'm sure he played the song I chose many times in Paris, but I wanted to see it with my own eyes.”

After attending Lorraine Desmarais' tribute to Bill Evans a few weeks ago, Ratté was inspired to include a song that Evans played written by Michel Legrand. “What are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”

“In fact, I did a lot of research. I didn't want to play random songs, I did research about what Bill Evans played in his concerts in Paris and so I saw that one of his famous concerts in Paris included “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” That's why I picked that song.”

In the last two years, Ratté has presented several tribute concerts to Michel Legrand, and said she was looking forward to his concert scheduled for this June at the NAC. He died recently and unexpectedly.

“I was in shock! I was having coffee with a friend, and she told me about that. I was speechless for a little while. I was a bit heartbroken and at the same time, I mean he had such a wonderful life and he performed until the end. His passion was still there. I was sad, but at the same time, he had a good life. He was 86, quite amazing. We all go, eventually. I thought he left right at the [point where] he was still high in his career.”

As with her earlier tribute show to Legrand, in this show Ratté is singing lyrics in both English and French: “some of the songs that were written in French I'm singing in English. Because I want to balance the French and English, and also because of the artists I want to feature. Although they stayed in France for a little while, they sang that song in English, so I decided to sing it in English.”

Two of the songs will be duets, with Toronto violinist and vocalist William Lamoureux: an Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong number, and another sung by Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf. She noted that Piaf encouraged Aznavour to sing. “She really was behind him for the start of his career. And he had a fabulous career but it's all because of Edith Piaf. It was so interesting the research I'm doing about that show!”

Lamoureux will also take Grappelli's role in the Hot Club numbers, and will be joined by guitarist Tim Bedner and double bassist John Geggie in accompanying Ratté. Lamoureux and Ratté have been working on their duets so far via text messages and FaceTime.

GigSpace has marked the show as sold out, but Ratté said it won't be the last chance to hear it. While she doesn't yet have another date, “I have several people who didn't get tickets and they would like me to do it again. So I will certainly do it again.”

Ratté said she wants the show to appeal to both “the jazz connoisseur and Monsieur and Madame tout le monde”.

“My mother will be there and she'll be happy, I'm sure. For anybody who doesn't know jazz, there will be lots of songs they will recognize. There will be [songs] for every taste.”

“I find French music, it's either very sad, or it's lively and fun and irresistible, so it grabbed us, really!”

The Nicole Ratté Quartet presents Jazz and Paris at GigSpace on Friday, February 22, at 7:30 p.m. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25, but the show is currently marked as sold out.

GigSpace is located within in Alcorn Music Studios at 953 Gladstone Avenue, one long block west of Preston Avenue. OC Transpo route 14 stops on Gladstone at Loretta near GigSpace; route 85 runs down Preston Avenue nearby. Try the OC Transpo Trip Planner to find your trip to the show!