In Memory of Sidney Poitier--Paris Blues: Black Romance and Jazz

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons/White House. Former President of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, center, congratulates Sidney Poitier, left, after he received the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2009. Fellow recipients looking on are Archbishop Desmond Tutu, right, and back row, left to right are: Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Chita Rivera, Dr. Janet Davison Rowley, and Muhammad Yunus. 

With the recent passing of Sidney Poitier, it may be an opportune time to revisit a neglected film from his long legacy, “Paris Blues.” The 1961 movie featured novel questions of race, music, and romance that reviewers failed to appreciate at the time - but that stand out as progressive today.

Paris Blues was a 1961 jazz drama that explored personal relationships, race relations, and dedication to jazz culture. Reviewers back then considered it a flawed product based on a sentimental novel by Harold Flender, a New York Jewish writer enamored with the centrality of jazz in the cosmopolitan scene of 1950s Paris.

The city was a haven for musicians, artists, and writers in the decades after the world wars. Pioneer Black American expats left an imprint in the culture including soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, novelist Richard Wright, and entertainer Josephine Baker – recently the first Black woman inducted into the French Pantheon.

Filmed on location, the cast included Sidney Poitier as a saxophonist in a combo with Paul Newman, a trombonist. They play expatriate musicians in the cellar club house band and find a community with an assortment of jazz hounds, groupies and artists.

Paris Blues. Image: YouTube.

In adapting the novel to film, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, reinstated from the Hollywood blacklist for his views on communism, recreates the bohemian subculture of a cellar club. In its better moments, the film offers jazz scenes memorable on a number of levels, including a few cameo gems. Most notably, it contrasts episodes of romance in Black and white with a rare sense of equity.

The novice filmmakers were producer Sam Shaw, a photographer best known for the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway grate, and Martin Ritt in the early stage of his career as a director of social realism stories like “Sounder” and “Norma Rae.”

Musically, ``Paris Blues" featured a soundtrack by the Duke Ellington Orchestra – including compositions like “Take the A Train,” “Mood Indigo,” and “Paris Blues” – and was nominated for an Academy Award but lost out to West Side Story. It also included robust scenes with Louis Armstrong as a jazz deity touring the city.

Until his death, Poitier was the oldest living winner of the Oscar for Best Actor, and the first Black man to receive it for the 1963 melodrama, “Lilies of the Field.” Newman, of course, was a ten-time Oscar nominee and Best Actor winner for the 1986 film, “The Color of Money.” Over long careers, they became symbols of the modern American man for the Baby Boom generation.

The story revolves around the lives of Poitier and Newman as popular musicians in the city. Poitier is a laid-back, earnest, and not overly ambitious jazzman; it is enough for him to play the music he loves, find respect, and make a living - even though his life is estranged from the civil rights struggle back home. Newman is a creative, moody, and overly ambitious figure; he seeks more from jazz than playing trombone and leading a combo – he wants to be respected as a composer of “serious” music. 

Their lives get complicated with the introduction of two American women on vacation and in flux over their own circumstances. One is the Black actress, Diahann Carroll; she plays a teacher and civil rights activist who approaches the wide-open Paris scene with caution. During her career, Carroll broke racial barriers on the Broadway stage and in the TV drama, “Julia,” which ran from 1969 to 1971. Cast as a nurse and single mother, she earned an Emmy for best female actor in 1969 and expanded the roles for Black actresses on TV.

The other is the white actress, Joanne Woodward. The Georgia born actress and producer is 91 and the oldest living winner of the Oscar for Best Actress for the 1957 film, “The Three Faces of Eve.” She and Newman had been married for three years before the production of Paris Blues. In the film, she plays a single mother from a small town, foot-loose and in search of adventure.

The film brings together the lives of the characters in graphic fashion: In the novel, the story features a contrived arrangement of two interracial couples; the filmmakers instead opted for a Black couple and a white couple on parallel tracks. Poitier reportedly was critical of the change and argued for restoring the image of integration in the original plot.

Revisiting the film today, however, one of its merits is the contrast of relationships between a middle-class Black couple and a middle class white couple. Understand that audiences rarely had a chance to see Poitier or Carroll cast in romantic roles. They typically played solitary characters: Poitier was ever the lonely hero like the high school teacher in “To Sir, With Love” - or straining to assimilate in an interracial relationship like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”  Carroll played the lovely but lonely single mother in productions like “Julia,” or as a hard-pressed welfare mom in the 1974 film, “Claudine.”

In Paris Blues, the romance between Poitier and Carroll - set against the backdrop of Paris - is a gold nugget. They converse about love, life, work, and politics in the setting of the Cathedral of Notre Dame and other historic sites. What the film renders is a story of Black romance on its own terms, with all of the promise and contradictions, and without the intervention of a white authority.

At the same time, the parallel relationship of Newman and Woodward moves to a different rhythm. She finds in Newman an emotionally distant but exciting lover and musician. What stands out in the movie is the equitable treatment of the hook-ups – a rare parity of class, skill, love and culture refreshing even by today’s standards. Viewers can make their own judgments as to the meanings and morals in the stories.

In closing, Poitier stood out in a foot-tapping movie neglected by reviewers of his legacy. The movie is available through numerous outlets, including YouTube  Fans of movies on jazz and American culture should consider it for their collection.

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