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Paris Jazz Clubs

The French fell hard for jazz during World War I, but the real coup de foudre—literally "lightning bolt" or figuratively "love at first sight"—came after the war when Yank sax man Sidney Bechet and 19-year-old song-and-dance vamp Josephine Baker of St. Louis joined a European tour of the Revue Nègre musical. Baker, or the "Black Venus that haunted Baudelaire," as she was known by French critics, instantly became the sweetheart of Paris. Note: A larger-than-life picture of Baker wearing only a smile, a string of pearls, and a thigh-high skirt today adorns a wall of historic photographs along the platform of the Tuileries métro.

By 1934 France had created its own impressive claim to jazz fame, the all-string Quintette du Hot Club de France, which featured Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and his partner, violinist Stéphane Grappelli. They, in turn, influenced string players from country musicians to Carlos Santana. Reinhardt performed throughout much of World War II in the underground French jazz scene. In the 1950s Paris grew to become a major destination of the bebop diaspora, and expat jazz musicians including Bechet, Bud Powell, and Dexter Gordon played the venues along with such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. France embraced the evolving jazz sound that many Americans were still struggling to accept and provided a worshipful welcome to musicians battling discrimination at home. In Paris, Davis said, he was "treated like a human being."

Want a night of jazz?

The French obsession with jazz continues to this day, and travelers seeking a quintessential Parisian experience have the opportunity to hear jazz artists from all over the world nearly any night of the week. Aficionados can choose from traditional jazz to the latest experimental efforts, in clubs ranging from casual to chichi, sedate to hopping. Many venues present a wide spectrum of music. A good option is the double club on Rue des Lombards near Les Halles: Le Sunside specializes in more traditional jazz, and its downstairs sister, Le Sunset, features edgier options.

Music generally begins after 9 pm, so plan accordingly. You can dine at some of the clubs, including Le Petit Journal Montparnasse, or in the Hotel Méridien on the Champs-Élysées, which houses the classy Jazz Club Etoile.

As everywhere else in the city, the French folks at the clubs tend to dress more stylishly than the average traveler with a limited wardrobe, but they're generally a tolerant bunch—particularly in venues frequented by students and in the heart of tourist areas (like Caveau de la Huchette, a hot cellar dance club across the river from Notre-Dame). Keep in mind, though, that the French are serious about their jazz: with a few exceptions, the audience is generally focused and quiet during performances.

Recognizable names to watch for include expat Yank flute and sax man Bobby Rangell and singer Sara Lazarus, and much-loved French musicians like the pianists Alain Jean-Marie and Pierre de Bethman, sax man Didier Malherbe, and Olivier Ker Ourio on the harmonica. You might want to check out a jazz style you're less likely to find at home, though, like the latest iteration of Gypsy musette (a distinctive, swing-infused interpretation of old Paris dance music) presented by virtuosos like accordionist Richard Galliano, violinist Didier Lockwood, and the guitar-picking Ferre brothers, Boulou and Elios. Look for them inside Duc des Lombards on Rue des Lombards. Alternatively, you can head to New Morning, on Rue des Petites-Ecuries—it’s the top spot for experimental and avant-garde jazz.

The best place to find out what's playing and even purchase tickets is at www.infoconcert.com or on club websites, some of which offer English versions. Pariscope, Jazz Magazine, and Jazz Hot, available at newsstands, have listings in English and French. Reservations can be critical, especially for leading U.S. jazz musicians.

Entrance charges are rarely more than €20 and often less. Some venues have free jam sessions, depending on the night, so check listings. Drink prices can be sky-high, but most table staff won't harass budget-conscious customers nursing a single drink.

Another way to experience a variety of top-quality jazz is by attending world-renowned Paris festivals that run from early spring through September, including the Banlieues Bleues (01–49–22–10–10 www.banlieuesbleues.org), the Paris Jazz Festival (01–48–72–32–97 www.parisjazzfestival.fr), and the Villette Jazz Festival (01–44–84–44–84 www.citedelamusique.fr).

Updated: 2014-07-07

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