June 19, 2024


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Roger Guérin: Paris in the 1950s was a special place: Video, Photos

Unlike most urban areas in Europe, the city had endured little physical damage during World War II. Miraculously, it was spared German and Allied bombings during its capture, occupation and liberation.

Bernice Myers in Paris in 1954-55

The toll on its population was a different story. City residents lived in harsh conditions under Nazi control, experiencing horrible cruelty, deportations and deaths at the hands of the Gestapo and German occupiers. When Allied forces liberated Paris in August 1944, residents could barely contain themselves, expressing admiration and gratitude. The party lasted weeks.

Within years of the war’s end in 1945, Paris became a jazz center. For Parisians, jazz was the sound of freedom, style and individualism. By the early 1950s, American musicians who had performed at the 1949 Paris Jazz Festival returned to play or live. This was true of many painters and illustrators, too, who found greater sophistication and emotionalism in the city than in the States, where conformity and racism were prevalent. [Photo above of a jazz club in Saint Germain des Prés in Paris, c. 1950, by Robert Doisneau]

I wasn’t there in the 1950s, of course, but I may as well have been. My parents were artists who were in Paris in 1953 and moved there in ’54. I was conceived in Paris but born in New York, when my mother pushed my father to sail home in June 1956 so she could have me there in September. That’s my mother at the top of this post, during a rainy fall day in ’54 or ’55. She told me all about their time in Paris.

My father loved Paris. He was born there before his family emigrated to the States in the 19-teens During World War II, he was an artist in the Navy and entered the city shortly after liberation, dispatched to paint another admiral or general. Throughout the war, he was sent all over Europe to paint officers and battle scenes. In the early ’50s, he brought my mother to Paris. She was 28 and he was 38. Both worked as illustrators for French book publishers and magazines to earn their keep.

I tell you all of this because when I hear albums like Le Formidable Roger Guérin : Paris Meetings (Fresh Sound), I hear something so familiar. I must have been exposed to the music as my mother moved around the city with my father and their bohemian friends in early ’56. Trumpeter Roger Guérin was born in 1926 in Sarrebruck, Germany, on the French border. His familiy lived in France, and he began on violin when he was 8. By 11, he played trumpet in resort bands in France. During the war, his family moved to Vichy France, and Guérin was isolated with his horn for two years. After the war, he moved to Paris and studied the trumpet and cornet at the city’s Conservatory. He also joined a band led by pianist and arranger Claude Bolling.

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By the early 1950s, Guérin was in demand as a sideman on recording sessions led by French and American jazz musicians who took up residence in Paris or were touring Europe. As the notes to this album point out, “Arranger Billy Byers, who worked in Paris for a while in 1955, described Guérin like this: There are some very good musicians in France. Roger Guérin is a great jazzman.

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On this album, Guérin is in the company of James Moody (above), Jimmy Raney, Benny Golson as well as French jazz greats such as Martial Solal, Pierre Michelot, Maurice Vander and Raymond Fol. If you close your eyes, you can almost smell the cheese shops and the baguettes baking, and hear the sound of distant laughter late at night coming from Parisians and Americans happy that love, art and beauty had returned to the City of Lights.

Roger Guérin died in 2010.


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