Vinx is a virtuoso American jazz musician who has played and toured the world with Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock and Sting, but now in his sixties, he has left the United States to make his home in Chalabre, a small French village in the Aude.
He has brought the international music scene to the village and the villagers have responded with an overwhelming welcome to the American star who has shown that you don’t have to live in New York or Paris to experience great art. Jane Hanks chatted to him about his new life in a village he says he is sure no other American has ever heard of.
Vinx, short for Vincent De’Jon Parrette, is a singer and percussionist. He plays both solo and in bands and says he was the first drummer singer. His music ranges from jazz to funk, bossa nova to blues and is influenced by his travels. You might not have heard of him but he has played with and been appreciated by an impressively long list of the great musicians of our time: Taj Mahal, Sting, Tom Jones, Herbie Hancock, Stewart Copeland, Ricki Lee Jones, Cher, Sheryl Crow, Cassandra Wilson... Stevie Wonder said about him: “Vinx is the gift you give to someone you really care about”.
He was born in December 1957 and grew up in Overland Park, Kansas. He came from a musical background, and his French name comes from his family’s origins in Martinique. At first it seemed he was destined for a career in sport. When he was at school he became National Champion in multiple track events and went on to do an athletics scholarship and recorded the second longest triple jump in the world.
He was due to take part in the 1980 Moscow Olympics but the US boycotted the games. It was then he decided to dedicate his career to music which was already part of his life:
“My father was a great singer, crooner. My aunt was one of the singers in the Marvelettes, the Motown ladies group and my family is musical. I had a choice of music and athletics and I chose both and they motivated each other.
“I was doing music at the same time I was doing athletics. When America boycotted Moscow in 1980 I turned all my attention to music.”
He was awarded his first recording session in 1987 and wrote for Tom Jones. He toured with Rickie Lee Jones, Herbie Hancock and other big names in the jazz world. In 1990, Sting heard him and signed him up as the solo opening act and percussionist/ background vocalist for his “Soul Cages” world tour. Sting said: “His baritone voice swooping and soaring through melodies had me open mouthed, gaping in that telling combination of wonder and envy that great artists sometimes provoke.”
He continued to perform, tour, write and record from his home in the States. He became a teacher in one of the largest contemporary music schools in the USA, the Berklee College of Music in Boston and in 2014 a documentary film maker, Ivar Iding made “Memoirs of a Hip ‘Ole Black Man” about his life, which won the Best Documentary in Music at the World Music International Film Festival in Washington DC in 2016 and the Best Documentary Based on a Jazz Musician at the New York Jazz Film Festival, 2016.
But fame has never been his goal and his aim has been to create his own kind of music, true to himself: “My music sounds like me. It contains my own spice. It is not pepper, it is not curry, it is me. I’m kind of a musician’s musician. I have found my own way and didn’t bow down to the demands of celebrities. I have written songs for Cher and Tom Jones and my voice is in the Lion King soundtrack.
“I have travelled the world and have a great fan base and I service them and don’t worry about people who don’t get me. I service the ones that do. I don’t worry about the rest of the world.”
The act of individual creation is very important to him: “We each have our own fingerprints and we must not be afraid to expose our library of experiences and our particular take on issues. We’ve all had a first kiss but each one is different if we remember it correctly. It is not just the notes. It is what is between the notes. I treat music like a language. The language is not important if you don’t have anything to say.”
A new life in the Aude
In 2016, he left the States for good and in 2017 he recorded his first album in Europe, Groove Heroes: “Leaving America was an easy choice because most of my work was in Europe and for a black American it was a difficult place with Trump. I am not alone in this situation.”
He had already been on the lookout for somewhere in France: “I travel and while I was travelling I looked for places to call home. When I was a young boy my father was in the airforce in Châteauroux and so I knew France though I never learnt French unfortunately.
“So to find a medieval town like Chalabre was great and I felt comfortable with it. It made me feel quite at home. Before I had looked at some places along the border with Switzerland and Germany so I could do my shows there as well, but it was a little too cold for me and the Alps are far more expensive so I found myself looking for a reasonably affordable place.
“I am near to the airport in Toulouse so I can get anywhere I need to. It is going to take you an hour to get to the airport, so it seems remote but it is actually convenient. I learnt that by moving around I could live anywhere and still create and link with another musician.
“It is very friendly and it is a small size and so it is bisou, bisou to everyone and we have found ways to form relationships and talk and it’s a great place to come to.”
In 2017, after marrying his wife Jennifer in the States, he chose to celebrate his wedding in Chalabre by asking around 20 singers from all over the world to serenade the village as a thank you to the welcome they had given him.
The resulting concert had such a positive reception from the local people that the idea to create a festival was born and this August saw the first Chalabre en Sérénade.
The idea was to continue the tradition of the singing troubadours who started in this area in the 12th century and spread through much of medieval Europe. The theme is love songs and pays homage to the Dame Blanche, the lady in white who fell in love with a troubadour from Chalabre who drove her mad with passion. She ordered her servants to lower the water level so he could see her better.
Unfortunately, by doing so they made a mistake and caused a breach in a dam which unleashed a flood which wiped out an entire valley from Puivert to Mirepoix. The festival celebrates the awesome power of love.
Artists and friends came from far and wide to perform. The opening was something the local people will never forget. The public walked around the village and as they did so the singers would appear at different balconies, one by one and sing, acapela, to the crowd below.
Joliette Coste, Maire-Adjointe of Chalabre, says it was an experience charged with emotion: “We were so impressed by the quality of the music. It was extraordinary. On the last day, there were at least 500 people at the final concert in the market place and we have never had so many people in Chalabre. There was a solidarity and an emotional response which was incredibly strong. To have blues and soul music which originates from so far away in our village was amazing.”
She says Chalabre is extremely happy to have Vinx and Jennifer living amongst them: “There are about 1,100 people living here. The commune is a bastide town and was a wealthy place once which lived from textiles and provided shoes for the army, but then went into decline. In recent years, it has begun to pick up again and so to have someone like Vinx with so much to offer is a wonderful chance for us. This year’s festival was extremely good for our shopkeepers, gîtes and hotels who had never had so much work in such a short space of time.”
Joliette Coste says the couple are not only welcome for the economic boost they can give to the commune: “In the spirit of the troubadours many of the artists at the festival were lodged in local people’s homes, which created a strong link between the performers and the inhabitants. We also appreciate Vinx and Jennifer for themselves and they have completely integrated into the French way of life. There are many Anglophones in the area who are very polite and charming, but are discreet and have their own clubs and restaurants. That is not the case with Vinx and Jennifer. Anyone who makes the effort to integrate immediately wins the love of the French in return as they have.”
Vinx says the festival was very rewarding. “All the great musicians and artists who took part were questioning if it would be possible to turn up a high level of energy in such a small place, but we did, and it was very successful in that sense.
“It was more personal for artists used to playing in big cities. The tour of the balconies in Chalabre was very successful. It was great and because it was the first time it ever happened in the world it set the energy and the tempo for the rest of the week.
“As the public walked around a singer would pop out at a balcony and then another and they all sang to a travelling hoard of people. It was amazing. It is our calling card now.”
He said his aim was to give a boost to performers: “I am an activist for artists in general. So the aim was to create something that will help artists from all over the world come to France. And the great musicians that are French need to have the chance to collaborate with other artists in the world and give them the chance to up their game and give them the sense of what the world has out there, and I was happy and proud to share some of the experience I have from travelling.
“Sometimes being an artist is doing what is necessary to get your steady payment, and sometimes we limit ourselves to doing weddings and karaoke’s and we don’t take the chance to create – because it is so difficult to use your own music.
“I know that and by being here, I can stir up that talent and give some of my experience. It is what I have to give, you know. Some great teachers came to share their information in the masterclasses which were just before the festival. In this age of technology where you can send something on the computer you no longer have to live in the centre of New York or London or Paris to get your message across. You don’t have to leave your little village to chase a dream which is not always available to everyone.”
In January, Vinx suffered from a serious infection which needed brain surgery. He was rushed to Toulouse CHU, which has just been ranked the top hospital in 2018 by an independent survey published in Le Point, and which the couple from America wholeheartedly back: “He had emergency surgery and it was truly, truly extraordinary,” says Jennifer.
“The entire village knew and they were so active in their support for Vinx and with their hopes and their good wishes, and so when we came home and said yes, we are doing the festival, the town kicked into touch and really made it happen and we really put it together from the middle of May to August.”
Vinx is now looking forward to organising next year’s festival: “I love the troubadour connection with Chalabre – it’s a very important place for me historically and I love to be able to say with pride I am part of the troubadours. I’m proud and happy to be here and grateful.”