Louise Blackwell, who is well known for her concerts of French song during Adelaide Fringe presents a show about the life and songs of Juliette Gréco named Love on the Left Bank. We had a chat to her about the show, Juliette Gréco, Louise’s experience living in France and performing in the jazz bars of Paris and much more.
You’re presenting a new show named Love on the Left Bank, at Adelaide Cabaret Festival. Tell us a little about that?
First of all, there’s such a wonderful musician and musical director, the amazing Mark Simeon Ferguson – he’s going to play the piano. And then there’s the usual band so there’s Julien Ferraretto on violin, John Aue on double bass, Joshua Baldwin on drums. And normally I’m on vocals and Marc is on piano.
But for this show we’re adding Thomas Pulford on clarinet and saxophone. He played with us for the two concerts at Marion, for the last Fringe, and sometimes even for the concerts we do for Bastille Day at The Wheatsheaf. And then we’re also adding the fabulous Lazaro Numa on trumpet to Love on the Left Bank. He’s a Cuban who lives in Adelaide and plays here and he’s a great musician so it’s a dream band.
And on top of that, they will all sing. In recent years, little by little, the musicians have started to sing backing vocals. So we will continue this tradition and there will be some surprises. It’s not just me who is in front of the musicians. They will play, for brief moments, characters from the period.
And Love on the Left Bank is directed by Catherine Fitzgerald. In the past, I used to prepare what I was going to say between songs, but this time, it’s a proper story that’s been written. So Catherine will direct the show. It’s a step forward for us and for me, because of that.
And you did a lot of research about Juliette Gréco for the show?
I spent more than a year doing research, and I have two biographies of Juliette Gréco that she wrote, and then another one Gréco, les vies d’une chanteuse (Greco, the lives of a singer) which is a biography written by Bertrand Dicale. I also have a great book full of photos, called Juliette Gréco, Saint Germain des Prés. She had a very good friend in the neighbourhood, in Saint-Germain des Prés, who was Anne-Marie Cazalis, a poet and journalist. I have a book of hers called Les Mémoires d’une âme (Memories of a soul).
There is a very good film Hotel La Louisiane, which you can only buy at the hotel. It’s a wonderful film. It’s a documentary about this hotel where Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Juliette Gréco lived. She lived there at the time. So I have watched documentaries. Juliette l’insoumise (Juliette, the rebel) and another one which was very rare is called Le désordre à 20 ans. It’s about this youth culture in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, after the Second World War. I really did a lot of research. We applied for and received a grant from the government, which helped us a lot with the research costs and also to pay the director.
Tell us a little about what we can expect from the show.
The audience can look forward to a beautiful cabaret show with Juliette’s story. Juliette’s story is very, very long – she lived a huge life; she did so many things. So, it wasn’t possible to include everything, and the duration of the show had to be given a long time ago so we gave it 75 minutes. With all the literature I have in front of me, we could have done a three-hour show! But we weren’t going to put the audience through that much!
The story will focus on the beginning of her life. She had a sister and a mother. Her mother left her father when Juliette was very small. The mother went to seek an artistic life in Paris and left the two sisters, the two little girls, to be raised by their grandparents in Bordeaux, in a bourgeois life in Bordeaux. And then, when their grandfather died, their mother came to take her daughters and they all lived in Paris. Then the war broke out and they moved to the south, like many people who left Paris with the fear of war, the fear of the German occupation and all that.
So the story focuses on her life during the war, how she found herself in Paris, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, in this neighbourhood, and how she is shaped by this neighbourhood, by the people around her, by all the intellectuals around her, the writers, artists, poets.
She first wanted to be an actress and how she became a singer, in fact, was not her choice. It was thanks to her friend Anne-Marie Cazalis, who came from a big French family, which was very, very cultured. She pushed Juliette to become a singer. As well as Jean-Paul Sartre, they were older people compared to the Young Guard who were Juliette and her friends. They partied, they did a lot of things together, short films, theatre, etcetera after the liberation of Paris. And then there was the old Guard, like Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus.
She was very beautiful. She had something in her that triggered something in others. The story focuses much on her life as a young teenager in Saint-Germain-des-Près and how she became a singer. And then just a little bit about her blossoming in the 1950s.
We’re going to do some big numbers. She wasn’t a writer of her own songs. She sang the songs of poets and writers. And so, we are going to pay tribute, by way of some of her songs, to Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour, Georges Brassens, Léo Ferré. There will be these numbers and then others that are less known but which are very beautiful.
So she was singing and doing covers of Brel, Aznavour, etc.?
Yes, she didn’t write her own songs, she was a performer. It’s also a celebration of that connection between her and the writers. She wanted to take the words out of the books and make them live in the world. This is the story of a great performer.
Elle était forte, elle était très indépendante, elle était très engagée vers les droits humains et tout ça surtout après la guerre. Et après elle avait une grande carrière dans le cinéma et s’est mariée à Darryl Zanuck, qui était un grand producteur de Hollywood. Elle avait pas mal de maris. Mais l’histoire aussi va se concentrer sur cette première histoire d’amour avec Jean-Pierre Wimille, pilote automobile.
She was strong, she was very independent, she was very committed to human rights and all of that, especially after the war. She also had a great career in the movies and married Darryl Zanuck, who was a great Hollywood producer. She had quite a few husbands. But the show’s story also focuses on her first love affair with Jean-Pierre Wimille, a racing driver.
And then of course she with Miles Davis and there’s a little bit with her third lover and her first husband, Philippe Lemaire, with whom she had a daughter, Laurence. Later in her life, Laurence died when she was only 33, to show how much she missed her. But the show won’t tell all of that because it’s later in her life, you can’t put it all in. Otherwise we’ll be on stage for 2 hours or more!
Why did you choose Juliette Gréco as subject of your show?
So we had already done some of her songs in our concerts. I have had some of her music for a long time, because she did a lot of songs. I had listened to her a long time ago.
She did a version of Sous le ciel de Paris. We had done some Léo Ferré – she had sung Paname, we were inspired by her versions of Paris canaille and Joli Môme. There are some of those in the show too but we added quite a few new songs, the Chanson pour l’Auvergnat by Brassens, for example.
It was between Barbara and Greco for a while. When I go to Paris, I buy books and things. I had bought this beautiful book with lots of beautiful photos of Juliette Gréco in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. When I started reading about her history, I felt that maybe there was a rich story in it. And I was right. There are many, many things in it.
There are also many different styles of music in the show. Because in the underground clubs, first there was traditional jazz, and then bebop arrived with the Americans who came to visit Paris. They weren’t suffering the same racism that they had suffered in the United States and they had a blast. There was Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Myles Davis, lots of people. Some of them settled in France.
Still, Juliette is a performer who has sung the songs of so many writers, of the late French chanson, of the French Songbook. And she had just died [when we were thinking about the show].
Do you have a favourite song that she performed?
That’s interesting. She had a very nice version of Sous le ciel de Paris as well as Les Feuilles mortes. There’s a wonderful song that a very good friend of mine sent me. We put it in the show and it’s going to be at the moment of the love story of Miles and Juliette. It’s very, very beautiful. I broke down in tears when I heard it. Juliette Gréco did a very good version of this song. But I don’t want to say too much.
She does Leo Ferré superbly. Serge Gainsbourg wrote La Javanaise for Juliette. After she married her husband, she moved to the Right Bank all of a sudden. And it was like the death of the crazy years of Saint-Germain-des-Prés for young people. But the romance didn’t last. She returned to the Left Bank and bought a flat on the same street as Serge Gainsbourg. They had spent a night together drinking champagne, getting a bit tipsy. He went home very early in the morning and wrote this song La Javanaise.
I was inspired by Juliette’s version with Ibrahim Maalouf who is a magnificent trumpet player who lives in France, I think in Paris. I have tears in my eyes and so Marc said to me “if you keep crying every time I play this song, we’ll have to change the music“. Even Marc, he said that he too cried once.
It’s hard to pinpoint one or two because she’s done so many songs. She’s a great singer like Ella Fitzgerald who did the American Songbook. But she is an actress, so as Jean-Paul Sartre said who is going to be in the show, in her throat, there are a million poems. If you write roles for actors, why not write a song for a singer.
It’s just songs. If I understand correctly, you also play her. So it’s like a play?
I play her, but not only her. I play myself at the same time. It’s going to be me as the narrator, and sometimes I come onto scene and I’m her. So I’m going to change my voice [when I am playing her]. She spoke English very well with a little British accent.
When you were at university in Australia, you studied French before going to France to continue your studies?
It was thanks to that that I went to Lyon. I did a Graduate Diploma, a year at the Université Lumière in Lyon. It was an exchange with a small grant to help us out. And at the end of that year, I wanted to stay in France and as long as I had equivalence, I was still able to enrol in a university in Saint-Denis and in Paris. And I did a second bachelor’s degree in humanities on cinema in French of course.
In Australia, it was French language and film studies. I’ve always studied film and I wrote the script for this show. I thought well maybe studying narrative before helped me in writing this show, which had lots and lots of drafts like any writer, of course.
But when you were at university, did you know that you wanted to sing and specifically that you wanted to sing in French?
No, actually, it was when I was in France. I had done some theatre and all that in Australia before and I did some music. I always sang. But it was France that gave me a chance or something that encouraged me to find myself as a singer.
I first sang in Irish pubs and stuff, I joined the Irish and Celtic music scene in Paris. And I knew I wanted to sing jazz and all that. I’ve always done a bit here in Australia, in Melbourne, but I never had enough confidence. I signed up for jazz lessons with Sara Lazarus, a great American jazz singer who has lived in France for a long time. She is one of my favourite jazz singers. She made an album a long time ago called Give me the Simple Life. It’s one of the greatest vocal jazz albums, in my opinion.
So I’ve been doing a bit of studying with Michelle Hendricks, who lives there too. She’s the daughter of John Hendricks of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. And then, little by little, I started singing jazz. I had a lot of luck. Once I went to a little Irish bar in the Marais, called The Quiet Man, and downstairs in the basement, in the cellar, there was always Irish music. I was singing downstairs and once there was a young man, a businessman. He said to me, “I haven’t got a clue about music but I think you’re grand and I’d like to give you some money, to put some money in your account.” This was during Ireland’s tiger economy, he was just a generous young man. It wasn’t shady or anything.
He transferred the money into my account and with that I was still able to do a tiny bit of recording in a studio and stage my first jazz show. It was in a small puppet theatre in the 20ᵉ arrondissement, called the Ogresse. I was looking for jazz musicians and apparently there was a good pianist called Vincent Bourgert, who had come back from New York where he had studied at Berkeley School of Jazz, and he had spent years in New York. And then I met Carly Anouchka, a young Canadian drummer who lived in Paris and Mauro Gargano, an Italian double bass player.
It was after my film studies, or towards the end of them, that I did my first jazz concert. I remember I was so excited, it was great and Vincent is a great pianist. And after that, I continued in the jazz scene and played a lot with him. We recorded three CDs; he was always the pianist and such a great pianist so I felt very lucky. Carly Anouchka the drummer too, I had worked with him a lot. I did concerts in the following years at Sunside, which is a Paris Jazz Club, among others.
But I still had to leave France. I couldn’t remain a student all my life. At the same time, I was teaching English in companies, at UNESCO for children, etc. I worked in the coffee shop and so on. For an Australian, it’s very difficult to stay in France. They didn’t allow me to stay as a student. After I finished my non-bachelor’s degree in film, I transferred to music but apparently, they don’t like it when you change your studies on that visa.
That caused a crisis in my life and it was terrible. And then I landed in Melbourne and I was very, very depressed, but it took me years to find myself anyway. Tomorrow I could pack my suitcase and go back to live in France. I like Adelaide and all that and I feel very lucky to be working with a wonderful group of musicians but there’s something about Paris that I really miss. There is a part of my life that is missing, that isn’t here.
I understand. How long were you over there?
10 years. And I would have liked to have played a bit more in the jazz scene because you see, it was like building a house and the foundations were there. And then I had to leave it at that. I would have liked to continue my experience in the jazz scene there and also in theatre. Things were opening up to me.
Why should people come to see Love on the Left Bank?
Because there’s a really great group of musicians, led by Mark Simeon Ferguson, who’s really great. We’ve worked together for years now and we know each other well. It’s going to be a bit of an original show. Not many people know Juliette Gréco’s life, or know her story, so I hope it might inspire people to see something a bit out of the ordinary. I hope I have something authentic in my presentation.
It’s a cabaret, so it’s a series of songs. People come for the music, but still, there’s a story and we had to cut a lot of stories. There were so many details, interesting little stories. It’s a very exhilarating experience.
These are very talented locals, it’s about a pretty original subject and there’s so much variety of music in this show.
We thank Louise Blackwell for this interview and we can’t wait to see Love on the Left Bank tonight!
KEY INFO FOR LOVE ON THE LEFT BANK
WHAT: Love on the Left Bank, a cabaret show about the life of Juliette Gréco
WHEN: Friday 17 June, 7pm
WHERE: Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
HOW: Buy your tickets through this link or directly from the Adelaide Festival Centre:
HOW MUCH: Ticket prices (exclusive of booking fee) are the following:
- Premium Adult: $49
- Reserve A Adult : $45
- Concession $41
Which song sung by Juliette Gréco is your favourite?