Paris, His Springtime and Fall
by Raymond De Felitta
[Featured in The Guardian]
Attempting to uncover information about the life and work of a long forgotten jazz singer in the pre-internet era was about as rewarding as attempting to locate a name in a book before the invention of the index. I first heard Jackie Paris on a Los Angeles jazz radio station in the early 1990s. He had a voice so original and mellifluous that I couldn’t believe that I – a lifelong jazzhead and musician myself – had never even heard of him. I set about finding anything I could about this mysterious singer, asking other jazz fans who he was and what else he had done. Mostly, my questions were met with blank stares. Finally one guy, a drummer of all things, chimed in with a helpful titbit. “He sang with Mingus. And Charlie Parker. I think he’s dead.” I knew about Charles Mingus – the recording I had heard was the wonderful Paris in Blue, written by Mingus for Jackie Paris. Parker was another story. Had they ever recorded? And I wasn’t surprised to hear he was dead. Most jazz players are dead.
But the real surprise came a dozen years later. By then I’d collected the handful of CDs and vinyl that comprised the meagre but glorious output of Paris’s “career”. The internet era had arrived meanwhile, making recordings marginally easier to track down, though most of Paris’s output was not on CD. I learned from a biographical dictionary of jazz musicians that Paris had died in 1977 in his early 50s.
But information about his life was still impossible to come by. Paris truly was an enigma – an artist few knew, but who was profoundly admired by those who did.
And then, in March 2004 I noticed in the New Yorker magazine listings an advertisement for a singer named Jackie Paris at a club called The Jazz Standard. Jackie Paris? The one who died in 1977? How was he singing? Via a Ouija board? But Paris was alive – not exactly well, but still handsome and charismatic. And he was in fine form, singing a set that included three of my favourites that he’d started doing in his brief 50s heyday: Indiana, I Can’t Get Started and his signature tune, Skylark.
I asked him to sign a CD of his 1955 album Songs by Jackie Paris. I apologised for not having a copy of the actual album, explaining that on eBay his records fetch $300 or more. “Yeah? What good does that do me?” he said. It was my first indication that not all was peaceful in Parisland.
The next night, when he saw that I’d returned to the jazz club, Paris was able to believe that I was sincere in my love and appreciation of his art. Like most “cult” figures, he was less happy with that designation than you might think. We spoke again after his first set, talking about his work with Parker (they never recorded) and some of the albums of his that I cherished. And then he confessed something to me, as if needing to unburden himself of a secret that was crushing him: he was terminally ill, he said, and he expected this to be his last engagement. Moments later, during the second set, I grasped what a unique opportunity it was. As a film-maker, I felt duty bound to record Paris’s last concerts, and to bring to the world’s attention this singer whose work I’d found so compellingly beautiful. It would fall to me to record Paris’s last concerts and to capture on film his mysterious story and his elusive destiny.
Working with borrowed video equipment, I had only seven weeks of Jackie’s time before he passed away. In addition to his reminiscences, he opened his phone book to give me access to half a dozen other jazz legends who agreed to be interviewed for what was now shaping up to be a sort of tribute film.
Jackie was not terribly revealing about his personal life. Mostly, he spoke of other musicians, a subject he could be a tad opinionated on. He openly disliked most of his contemporaries, damning with faint praise Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Bobby Darin – a “punk”. Oddly, the one singer of his generation he liked was Perry Como. I couldn’t figure this out until I realised that Como and Paris had nothing in common, so Como was not competition.
When Jackie died, late that spring, I thought the story had come to its natural end. Only I’d opened a door that didn’t seem capable of being shut. The questions kept going round in my mind: why had such a fine singer gone unrecognised? What had he been doing during the years of his oblivion? How could a singer who numbered among his fans Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn (who dubbed him “the kissy singer”) and even Frank Sinatra have lived and worked seemingly under a cloak of invisibility?
And so my film became an exploration of the nature of the artist’s life and the twists and turns of any such journey. In Jackie’s case, luck was more often absent from his journey. But the more I talked to people in his family, the greater the dimension his own personality played in the story of his unfulfilled life and career. I learned of his complex, loving and abusive family, as well as his own violent temper.
Jackie, it seemed, was his own worst enemy. He turned down Duke Ellington’s offer to tour with the band over money, earning the everlasting enmity of that distinguished man and his powerful organisation. And he openly admitted to punching a club owner he had a disagreement with, an action that became common knowledge within the tight-knit community of nightclub entrepenuers.
Indications of a Mafia deal gone awry surfaced. And then there was persistent confusion, fostered by Jackie, about his personal life and the number of times he was married. Though he admitted to no children, I was eventually to learn of the secret he took to his grave. It was, I believe, the secret that gave his voice its tears. Ultimately, the film, which I named ‘Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris, raises as many questions as answers. The balancing act was complex: how to simultaneously celebrate an artist who has given me so much joy as well as explore the darkness that owned that artist’s soul?
Orson Welles once said that it was a good thing we knew so little about the lives of Shakespeare or Cervantes, it leaves us freer to enjoy the work itself, unburdened by biography. Perhaps. But for me, searching for Paris not only gave me the opportunity to make a film about a subject far more common than success – the true story of most artists is, after all, primarily one of frustration and heartbreak – it also gave me the opportunity to make a film that will bring his art to the attention of people who will, I trust, hear the unique genius of this singer.
And whatever his demons were, knowing about them has lent even more depth and poignancy to the small but gorgeous legacy of his recorded voice.