Bringing New Orleans-style jazz to America from abroad might sound like carrying coals to Newcastle—except when those coals burn hotter and brighter than what is generally available in the vicinity. By that token, we were thrilled at the chance to hear the legendary French quartet Paris Washboard when they appeared at Jeff and Joel’s House Party in Branford, Connecticut last October.
The House Party, initiated by pianist Jeff Barnhart and banjoist/impresario Joel Schiavone in 2012 to spark new interest in traditional jazz and its best musicians, is a stellar weekend-long jam session with constant changes of personnel on the bandstand. Seating is limited to ensure the intimacy of the setting. Friday night, however, is generally reserved for a special guest band. In October 2016, that band was Paris Washboard.
We were delighted to speak with the members of Paris Washboard, who stayed through the weekend to jam with the other musicians. Daniel Barda, a classically-trained multi-instrumentalist, founded the group in 1988 after two decades playing trombone with groups such as Les Haricots Rouges, the Claude Bolling Quintet, and the Anachronic Jazz Band, among others. He also became one of the best basketball players in France in the early 1960s.
According to a 2004 American Rag article by Jim Uhl, Barda heard a recording by the Firehouse Five Plus Two and decided he would “never play jazz.” All that changed when a fellow basketball player invited him to a rehearsal of a jazz band. He immediately wanted to join it. “It was probably because I was attracted to the opportunity to improvise, which I could not do as a classical musician.” The band already had a good pianist, but the trombonist was weak. Barda rented a trombone and taught himself how to play it in two weeks. The band chose him over the other player “because, even if I knew only three or four notes, they were in tune!” (Five months after their first gig, they recorded their first album—as Les Haricots Rouges.)
We asked him how the particular configuration of Paris Washboard came to be. “The interest of being only four comes from one very important thing. Normally the ear of every man can listen to three things together—not more than three. And as we are four we can listen to each other always and get a balance between our sounds.”
Barda had founded a similar washboard quartet, Les Lutéciens, in 1969. That group lasted five years. By 1988, he’d found the right combination of congenial talent to make Paris Washboard a lasting success. “We are so lucky to have such a fantastic pianist like Louis Mazetier. He’s exceptional. And you know that he’s not only a musician—he’s also a doctor. He’s an excellent doctor—a radiologist, very busy and very well considered. But he plays piano like nobody. And the piano is essential in our group.
“And we have Alain Marquet on clarinet who is supposed to be the best French clarinetist. So he and myself we listen to the piano and we play, considering what the piano is playing. Louis is playing original chords and magnificent basses—it’s fantastic. It’s very difficult for us now to play with another piano player.”
Barda, Marquet, and Mazetier are founding members, but there have been three washboardists in the group since 1988. For the first four years Gilbert Leroux, who played with Les Haricots Rouges and Les Lutéciens, provided the percussion. He was succeeded by Gerard Bagot, a drummer who pioneered the horizontal European-style washboard and who worked happily with the band until deciding to retire eight years ago.
Says Barda, “When he was 60 years old, he suddenly stopped. He said, ‘Now I am retired.’ I think a musician is never retired. I didn’t understand that, so I asked Steph to come with us, and he came.” Stéphane Séva is the current washboard player, and is also an excellent crooner.
The band plays each number with tight precision but, according to Barda, “We never have any rehearsal. But we know what the other is doing. Most of our tunes seem to be arranged, but we didn’t do any arrangements. We just did it by ear.”
Alain Marquet, a superb clarinetist in the New Orleans tradition, was inspired by Johnny Dodds but plays with a sound all his own. Over the years he has gigged with Benny Waters, Albert Nicholas, and French clarinet legend Claude Luter. His musical passion extends beyond performing. He is an avid collector of old phonograph records and antique phonographs, which he also sells in his Paris shop, Jazz Museum.
Louis Mazetier, the French master of stride piano, says, “I was interested in piano jazz at a very early age. At eleven or twelve I started to copy Fats Waller from the records, and I did that by ear. It started a very long time ago. I had several goals. The first was to play one solo by Fats, called ‘Muscle Shoals Blues,’ and then I set the bar higher and I had to play ‘Carolina Shout’(James P. Johnson 1921)—and that took me several months. I was fortunate to have good pitch. I have absolute pitch, and it helps a lot. I had chops which were not very good at that time, but I had time to practice. When you’re thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old you have time—and you’re unconscious, also—so it’s okay. You can do things because you’re not afraid to take risks.”
He initially had piano tuition in the classics. “I had classical piano lessons with a professor who came to my place, because there was no conservatory where I was living in France. And he was having a difficult time with me because I did not want to play the classics—I improvised on the classics. So, after a while, together we decided that we should leave the classics and turn to jazz. So he gave me some sheet music of Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, and we tried to do those. In the meantime, I learned the tunes by ear and I saw that on the sheet music things were very different from what I heard, and very simplified.
“And, with time the chops came and I had achieved quite a good level of playing at 17 or 18 when I went to Paris to complete my studies, and I became a student of medicine. I met different guys, who were amateurs, and I sat in with their bands while I was in the university. My father warned me: ‘If you want to be a jazz piano player, you can. But it will be tough. Maybe you could try to do them both and see what happens.’ That’s what I did, and after a while I saw that I could do them both.”
As a radiologist, Mazetier says, “I have to work 50 hours a week. I have to be on duty quite early. And when I’m playing a job the night before” he doesn’t get much sleep. On the Sunday we spoke with him, he was bound to catch a plane back to Paris so that he could work the following Monday morning. Jet lagged as he already was, he performed brilliantly all weekend.
We had heard Mazetier improvise in the Art Tatum style that Saturday, and admitted we were suitably floored by his musicianship—and his versatility. He acknowledged a number of musical heroes. “I listen to many, many piano players from Jelly Roll Morton to Bill Evans. I love them all. They are all interesting and we can all pick several things from all those people and adapt them to our own playing. And that’s what I’m doing. That’s what we are very fortunate to be able to do now with a hundred years of jazz at our disposal. So, you can pick from everybody.”
Stéphane Séva’s washboard is laid out horizontally and is built as a table in the style originated by Gerard Bagot. The typical American instrument is smaller and carried vertically—and is the same one you’d buy in a hardware store to do laundry. “We say it’s a ‘grand’ washboard—and the little one is an ‘upright’ washboard.”
Stephane says that, like Bagot, he started as a drummer. “When I began playing washboard I decided to set it up this way, with everything in the same position as the drums. I can use my legs for the rhythm, I use my whole body. Also, because I can bring two or three cymbals—a little ride cymbal, a splash, a Chinese—I have different tone colors at my disposition.”
As a singer, Stéphane says, “I have the melody in my head all the time—and I want to tell a story. It’s my turn? Okay, the story starts like this, with the cymbal. And after, I develop my story, and I finish the story—one chorus or two choruses—but each time I try to give different information, and different feeling about the song.
“To me its very important to have all of these possibilities. I want to do music—not only percussion, but music. Sometimes I propose to the band to do the melody with the washboard. For example, on ‘I Got Rhythm.’ I use this information, and sometime in the chorus of the solo I take the part of the melody in my solo. That’s why it’s interesting to the ear, because it’s a mix between rhythm and melody—but just with percussion.”
“In France, unfortunately, they don’t like traditional music,” says Daniel Barda. “Until the seventies, there were always concerts on the radio—and on TV, too—of traditional jazz. And suddenly they stopped. I remember that I had an interview with the director of jazz on the radio and TV. And he told me, ‘New Orleans jazz is not creative.’ And I said, ‘How can you say that? We are improvising any time, always. We are creators and the French composers’ society decided that we were creating, because they pay us when we do improvisations. So that means that we create something.’ But as he was the boss of the music in France it was impossible to get it the decision changed. This was in 1976 or 1978—something like that.”
Barda can’t understand that thinking. “This music we play is such a happy music. And with all that happens in the world right now I think we really need this kind of music. When we play in Paris, for example, when people come at the beginning of the evening, they are tired—they come from the office. And when they go at the end of the concert, they are happy. They come to us and they say, ‘Thank you—you gave us so much fun and we feel good now and we have no more sorrows.’”
There seems to be a slow change in taste and perception toward hot jazz, with younger listeners in the vanguard. “We have now some younger audiences—twenty, thirty, forty year olds. Maybe next year something will happen. I met a young guy who is now the owner of a new restaurant—not opened yet, but in an area where there are a lot of people. And he absolutely wants to have New Orleans jazz in his restaurant.”
Whatever may happen, Barda is determined to keep Paris Washboard on course. “We play American jazz. Jazz is an American music, and thanks to American people that they invented this fantastic music. Our purpose is to play traditional jazz as it was played in New Orleans and in America. We have no mix with the other styles of music.”
And whenever Paris Washboard brings that music home to the land of its birth, there will be enthusiastic fans here to welcome them with open arms—and ears.