What is the best pairing in Martin Ritt’s 1961 Paris Blues? Easy: the combination of the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn with the trumpet of Louis Armstrong. The worst pairing? At the risk of heresy charges, it must be said the casting of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward was a mistake. It screens tonight as part of the MoMA’s Jazz Score series, so you are invited to judge for yourself (trailer here).
Paris Blues could have been great. It is based on Harold Flender’s book (currently out-of-print), which, though not stylistically remarkable, did address some interesting issues. It centers on Eddie Cook, an African-American alto player (in Flender), who falls for a visiting American tourist. Cook faces two conflicts. He plays traditional New Orleans hot jazz, while many of his colleagues try to push him towards more modern bop-oriented styles. At the same time, his new lover wants him to give up the expat life and join her in America to campaign for civil rights.
Newman and Woodward are on the cover of my old movie tie-in mass market, but you won’t find anyone who looks them inside. According to Krin Gabbard’s Jammin’ at the Margins, Ellington committed to scoring Paris with the understanding that the central romantic relationship would be an inter-racial one between Newman and Diahann Carroll, but by the time cameras rolled, Newman and Woodward were the safe romantic leads.
For jazz audiences, Paris is also problematic for its treatment of the music itself. Newman’s Ram Bowen (a name Boogie Nights could have used) seeks musical validation through recognition for his classical compositions. Paris leaves little doubt as to its musical hierarchy—classical is up and jazz is down.
In effect, the music of Ellington, Strayhorn, and Armstrong is at war with the very film it is in. Which faction wins? Given the lameness of the Newman-Woodward relationship, it is no contest. Early in the film, Louis Armstrong, essentially playing himself in the role of Wild Man Moore, arrives at the train station, received by throngs of Parisians like a conquering hero. As the film closes, the Ellington band starts on a mournful note, but they suddenly rise up in revolt, ending on a defiant high note.
Although Cook’s moldy fig vs. bop conflict is not retained from the novel, Sidney Poitier and Carroll do debate whether Cook should stay in Paris living a relatively comfortable expat life, or return to America to pursue their relationship and progress in the civil rights struggle. Their scenes together are the best written in Paris.
Of course, the greatest attraction in Paris is the music the film does not fully appreciate. It screens tonight and Wednesday at MoMA.