An American jazz musician in Paris

american-jazz-main-image

From one perspective, Marvin Parks has lived a typical musician’s life.

Born in Baltimore, he started singing as a four-year old – a tendency that, like many African-American singers, was nurtured by the gospel choir of his local church. He was drawn to New York and, eventually, to Paris. Again, this fits a pattern: many black cultural figures have found greener pastures in France’s capital. Socialised as American rather than black, artists from Nina Simone to Ta-Nehisi Coates have found in Paris a complicated sense of freedom. 

But from another perspective, Parks’s life is truly singular. Firstly, unlike most musicians with recording contracts, he sings on an almost daily basis in the Paris Metro. Committed to “building his fan base one person at a time”, his experience in the Metro has introduced him to hundreds of people: some who've become his fans and bought tickets to gigs, young children enchanted by his voice who bring their parents to see him perform, even journalists inspired to write features about him. Secondly, unlike many contemporary black musicians the music that motivates Parks isn’t the jazz of Miles Davis, the pop of Donny Hathaway, or the funk of Funkadelic – it’s classical American jazz standards. Judy Garland and Nat King Cole – those luminaries of a different, less fashionable age – are his heroes. 

A migratory figure, Parks has found a home in Generator Paris – “I’m probably one of the longest staying guests Generator’s ever had!” So a few days after playing at gig there, we spoke about his life, the joys of the Paris Metro and his upcoming album.

 

Hi Marvin. What’s your relationship to Generator Hostels in Paris?  
I came to Generator as a guest a while ago. Soon after I met one of the bartenders in the Paris Metro – I perform there on an almost daily basis. She walked past, as many people do on the subway, but then she turned around and walked back. And I asked her, “So what do you do in Paris?” and she said, “Oh I’m a bartender at Generator.” And I said, “Get out of here I just stay there!”

And you’ve played gigs there too?
When I first checked in – and this is a testament to how warm they are – I was teasing them at the reception. They asked me for my passport and I said jokingly, “Well don’t you know who I am?” They Googled me and saw that I was a jazz singer and immediately they were like, “So what are you going sing here then?” So it’s not like I submitted to play gigs at Generator – musicians are always making phone calls and e-mails trying to get work – it was really a gracious invitation. When a non-jazz establishment embraces my music like Generator has… it’s very flattering.



 

How did the Metro become such a central feature of your life?
First of all I’ve been singing since I was four years old. Eventually I moved to New York City and I stayed there for six years. I was moving furniture and doing all kinds of jobs that New Yorkers who are pursuing something bigger do. I took a vacation in Paris; it was only supposed to be a three-week repose but I wound up not going back! 

But in terms of the Metro: soon after I arrived in Paris a friend of mine invited me out but I got a little lost. I figured I’d get a taxi. So I went to get money from the ATM and it kept my card! I managed to get home but the next morning my only solution – aside from calling home and asking for money, which I didn’t want to do – was to take a bowl from my kitchen cabinet and go to the nearest subway station near my apartment. And I just started singing. 

I started eventually noticing the response of the people that were stopping. They weren’t just throwing money in the hat they were stopping to talk to me. At that point it was just a temporary solution for an error. Then it turned out to be my signature in this town. I’m known as the guy who sings in the Metro. 

The stereotype of Western cities, especially walking through the subway stations, is that they're not exactly the image of social friendliness. But you've disproved that.
It’s a variety show. I sing a few numbers and then I really have these man-on-the-street moments – I’ve given singing lessons before! People ask me to sing things like John Legend or modern things and I literally teach them in response about the American songbook. Those are the things I love to sing. 

The expectation of me is to be singing something more bluesy like Ray Charles. But my thing is Sammy Davis Jr. and Nat King Cole. I also teach them what it means to be to be an American trying to get along in Paris as a musician. They don’t even know why I’m in Paris; it boggles the Parisian mind that I left New York to come here!

What’s your favourite Metro station?
Well I’ve sung in 90, which is almost a third of them! The one I go to all the time is La Motte-Picquet-Grenelle, which is about two blocks from the Eiffel Tower. I found it randomly just by going around from station to station. I think the first afternoon I was there I made €100, just standing there with a hat and singing. So I said, “Well if I don’t make that money anywhere else I know I’m going to be here!” 
 

What are some of the most meaningful interactions you’ve had with the public?
There’s an article in Le Mondewritten about me. A journalist passing by on her way to work stopped and said she’d like to write something. Another lady came by just two weeks ago and said that she’d read my article in Le Monde.

She took it out her bag – the article was published on Christmas day but this was in April – and it was a cutting from the newspaper: crisp and fresh! During those times when I’m getting heckled and people are singing over me – these smartasses and drunks! – those are the things that are encouraging. When people don’t necessarily listen to jazz the ones that like what I do and embrace what I do – they become part of my story. 

You spoke about people being surprised you moved from New York to Paris – but you’re in an illustrious tradition.
Oh absolutely. There’s a history of African-Americans moving to Europe because of the ways things are race-wise in America; your Josephine Baker’s and James Baldwin’s. It’s not the reason I came here. I’m just one of those who’ve fallen in that line. 

African-Americans are seen through a tiny lens. And so while we have our culture and our affectations, there’s an expectation for us to do certain things as artists. A lot of people would never imagine that I love Judy Garland and Tony Bennett. Everyone assumes the music I’d like is that of Al Green or Donny Hathaway. That’s interesting. It’s a very interesting experience being a black musician in Paris. 

You released your first EP, ‘The Very Thought of You’, earlier this year but we can expect a full-length album later this year, right? What’s going to be on it? 
More standards. There are some beautiful arrangements of things. Not the common, tried-and-true standards – “Fly Me To The Moon” and “Summertime” – but some rare things, like “Charade” which is the theme from an Audrey Hepburn film from the 1960s. 

I hope to be eventually a “popular” singer one day, like a Sammy Davis Jr. or Charles Aznavour or Dusty Springfield. Stuff like that. I want to use this “Man of the people” thing I’ve developed in Paris to go in that direction. But you have to create an image; find a way to reach people. Even when my music is deemed “too classic” I just stay true to what I love. And when you love what you're doing, people who listen feel comfortable. 

Marvin Parks Upcoming Live Dates

3 June: Marvin Parks Sings Frank Sinatra and Nat 'King' Cole at Cave du 38Riv', Paris.
19 June: Hommage à Barbra Streisand + Jam Sessionat Sunset Sunside Jazz Club, Paris.

Follow Marvin on Twitter and like him on Facebook.