100 years of Cole Porter’s Paris

American composer, songwriter and bon viveur Cole Porter lived in Paris between the wars. 100 years after he moved there, Samantha David looks at the hedonistic and creative highs of his time in the capital

24 May 2017
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Cole Porter moved to France in 1917 when the US entered WWI, ostensibly to become a solider, but he lived in Paris until the mid-30s and became one of the musicians who introduced jazz to the French.

Up until that point, only ragtime had made it across the Atlantic but 10% of the four million US volunteer troops were black Americans, and since the US Army was strictly segregated, some joined the French armed forces.

As for Cole Porter, there is some dispute about whether or not he actually did any military service. The most accepted version is that he joined up in 1918 and served in North Africa with the French Foreign Legion and was awarded the Croix de Guerre 1914-1918, although his biographer Stephen Citron claims he never joined at all.

What is sure, however, is that New York bandleader James Reese Europe joined the 369th Harlem Infantry Regiment and formed a band which played jazz wherever the soldiers marched. The story goes that villagers would run out of their houses when they heard the syncopated rhythms, unable to fathom what kind of music it was, or how the instruments were making such extraordinary sounds.

After the war, dancers, entertainers and jazz musicians flocked to Paris, Cole Porter among them. From a wealthy family himself, he moved into a wonderfully luxurious apartment and set about entertaining on a lavish scale. Champagne fountains, recreational drugs, cross-dressing, Italian nobility, sex and jazz were all included in an endless whirlwind of decadence and fun.

In 1918, he met another US expat, Linda Lee Thomas, a fabulously rich heiress from Kentucky, and despite being homosexual married her the following year. Aware of his sexual orientation from the start, Linda was his confidante and soulmate; they lived together until her death in 1954.

Cole Porter had been studying music since childhood. He learned violin at the age of six and piano from the age of eight and with his mother’s help wrote his first operetta when he was only 10.

Having studied English, Music and French at Yale, he was sent to Harvard Law School to become a lawyer. Needless to say, he very soon secretly dropped out of law and switched to studying harmony and counterpoint with Pietro Yon.

Poster for the 1928 show, Paris

In Paris, despite already having written hundreds of songs and achieving a modest level of success with them, he enrolled at the private music school, Schola Cantorum, to study orchestration and counterpoint.

Meanwhile, his extravagant and scandalous social life continued.

The palatial Porter home near Les Invalides was sumptuously decorated with platinum walls and furniture covered in zebra skin.

He and Linda loved to travel and he once hired the entire “Ballets Russes” to entertain house guests in a rented palazzo in Venice.

Incredibly, in his spare moments between travelling and frenetic partying, Porter continued writing songs, and his first big hit came in 1919, with Old-Fashioned Garden from the show Hitchy-Koo. In 1920, he wrote several songs for the musical A Night Out, which earned acceptable reviews, but he was a long way from stardom.

“He loved chic cabarets like Les Ambassadeurs on the Champs-Elysées but he was also part of the Black American jazz scene in Montmartre, often going to the Bricktop, where he suggested teaching clubbers the Charleston,” says jazz historian Anne Legrand.

In his spare moments between travelling and frenetic partying, Porter continued writing songs and his first big hit came in 1919 with Old-Fashioned Garden

In 1919, after going to a jazz concert at the Casino de Paris, Jean Cocteau described it as a “hurricane of rhythms and drums, in a room full of people standing and applauding, uprooted from their torpor by this extraordinary number which was to the madness of Offenbach what a tank would be to a horse-drawn carriage from the 1870s.”

The legendary Jazz Hot Club in Rue Pigalle was founded by Hugues Panassié and Charles Delaunay, who went on to launch the first Jazz Magazine in Europe. Two of their protégés, Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, formed the Jazz Hot Quintet, which was probably the first real, home-grown jazz band.

Cole Porter stayed in Paris, drinking in the jazz and still writing songs. In 1923, he composed a 16-minute ballet for the Swedish Ballet company called Within The Quota, about an immigrant to the US becoming a film star.

It was one of the first symphonic jazz-based pieces ever written, pre-dating George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue by four months. The piece was well-received and toured the States, but his next venture Greenwich Village Follies was less successful: eventually all his songs were cut from the show.

In response he nearly gave up song writing, but encouraged by his wife, continued writing for friends and private parties. In 1928, his show Paris opened on Broadway in New York although he was still living in Paris at that time, working on the show La Revue des Ambassadeurs. Both productions were very successful, introducing the songs Let’s Do It, and by 1929 his song What is This Thing Called Love had become an international hit. His show Fifty Million Frenchmen included the hits You Do Something To Me and You’ve Got That Thing.

Hits followed throughout the 1930s, as the Porters divided their time between Paris and the US. In 1932, for The Gay Divorce, he wrote Night and Day which has become a jazz standard and still earns thousands of US dollars a year in royalties for MGM.

In 1934, he wrote Anything Goes, one of the all-time great musicals, including the numbers, I Get a Kick Out of You, Anything Goes, and You’re the Top but every single song has become a hit in its own right.

Jubilee (1935) included Begin the Beguine, Just One of Those Things, It’s De-Lovely and for the MGM film Born to Dance he wrote You’d Be So Easy to Love, and I’ve Got You Under my Skin.

“Cole Porter’s time in France influenced French musical culture as much as it influenced his work,” says Ms Legrand. “His work became famous in France when Jean Sablon recorded them with Garland Wilson in 1935.”

Life was sweet and Cole Porter enjoyed every minute of his success, reputedly applauding loudly from the front row at every opening performance. But in 1937 tragedy struck. His legs were crushed in a riding accident in the US. He remained in hospital for seven months but his injuries never fully healed and he never walked unaided again.

To distract himself from the pain, Porter returned to work, writing hundreds more songs including My Heart Belongs to Daddy, and Did You Evah!. With war approaching, Linda closed their house in Paris and shipped the contents to the States, where the couple spent the rest of their lives.

Many other musicians also left Paris when war broke out, and more of them fled from the Nazi Occupation, during which jazz was banned as “degenerate Negro music”.

But the French love-affair with jazz was well-established and after the war, the jazz clubs re-opened. Boris Vian opened the legendary Tabou Club, and the first International Festival of Jazz was held in 1948 attracting Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins and Kenny Clarke.

Within a year, fans were queuing to listen to Sidney Bechet, Charlie Parker Quintet with Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, and Mary Lou Williams. Bechet, from New Orleans, wasn’t very popular in the US but became a massive star in France, where Miles Davis also became popular.

Meanwhile in the US, Cole Porter continued to write, producing hits like Every Time We Say Goodbye and in 1948 he wrote the show Kiss Me Kate which included Another Op’nin’, Another Show, So In Love and Too Darn Hot. In 1952, he wrote Can-Can including the numbers C’est Magnifique, and It’s All Right with Me. Silk Stockings included the hit All of You and High Society contained his last major hit True Love.

But dark days lay ahead. His wife Linda died of emphysema in 1954, and in 1958 Porter’s right leg was finally amputated. Afterwards, he never wrote another song or appeared in public. He spent the rest of his life in relative seclusion, suffering acute depression and only seeing very close friends. He died six years later, in 1964, of kidney failure.

What remains, however, are his fabulous songs, many of them a testament to his love affair with life, with love, and with Paris.

Jazz festivals in France this summer

There will be jazz festivals all over France this summer. Some of the biggest and best-known:

Paris Jazz Festival Fontenay-sous-Bois (75) June 17 - July 30
Jazz à Vienne Vienne (38) June 29 - July 13
Jazz à Luz (65) July 12-15
Jazz à Juan (06) July 14-23
Nice Jazz Festival (06) July 17-21
Jazz in Marciac (32) July 28 - Aug 15

And some lesser-known June offerings:

Festival Jazzdor Strasbourg (67) May 13 - June 10
Le Vésinet Jazz Métis Festival
Le Vésinet (78) May 18-20
Jazz Dans le Bocage Rocles (03) May 19-27
Saint Jazz sur Vie Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie (85) May 26 - June 4
Ferté Jazz Luzancy (77) June 1-5
Jazz 360 Cénac (33) June 9-11
Festival de Jazz de Suze-la-Rousse (26) June 16-September 10
Festival Wolfi Jazz Wolfisheim (67) June 28 - July 2
Jazzpote Thionville (57) June 29 - July 8

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