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The American jazz musician who saved my life | Life and style | The Guardian

The American jazz musician who saved my life | Life and style | The Guardian


The American jazz musician who saved my life

Francois Grosjean

One day, when I was a student in Paris, I went to my father’s home for dinner. When I arrived, I saw that there was a guest there. My father introduced him to me, “This is Jimmy Davis. He’s a jazz musician and you owe him a lot.”

I smiled at this man, who must have been in his 50s, and said hello. Then I asked my father, “How so?” He told me that Jimmy had been friends with him and my mother when they were still together, just after the second world war, and that Jimmy had encouraged my mother to have me, or something to that effect. It was rather vague.

I don’t remember much more about our dinner with Jimmy Davis and as the years went by, I almost forgot about him. From time to time, I would tell family members or close friends that an American jazz musician had played an important role in my early life, but I was no longer sure how – not that I ever really knew. Little by little my memory of that evening faded away.

Time went by, I got married, became a parent and moved to the United States before coming back to Europe and Switzerland. At the age of 64, 45 years after that dinner at my father’s, I inherited some family documents from my British mother from whom I had been estranged since my adolescence. Among them was a short autobiography of her early life in England and then in France where she had joined my father in 1945. They had met in England two years earlier (my father had been a Free French fighter pilot) and had lived together for only four years before separating.

Jimmy Davis in 1941
Jazz musician and songwriter Jimmy Davis in 1941

As I was reading about her pregnancy, I came across a few sentences that startled me, and that I had to read twice. My mother had written, “One day (my husband) brought home to dinner an American soldier, Jimmy Davis, a musician. He had just finished writing a song called Lover Man which became a big success. He persuaded me that it was wrong to abort. With his help, I decided to keep the baby.”

For a few minutes everything around me stood still and I immediately thought back to that dinner and the jazz musician I had met so briefly. So that was how he had “encouraged my mother to have me”. Basically, he had saved my life by convincing my mother to keep the baby she was expecting. I owed my life to someone I knew nothing about and whom I could hardly remember.

As my father had been dead for some 30 years, I phoned my elderly stepmother, my father’s second wife, to tell her what I had found out and to ask her if she had known Jimmy Davis. She had, she said, although she hadn’t known about this particular event, but she couldn’t tell me much more apart from the fact that she remembered him as a very kind gentleman.

So I started my search for him. Above all, I wanted to see his face and to hear his voice to find out what kind of person he had been. I looked him up on the web, and quickly saw that his hit song, Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be) had been – and still is – a major success. It had been interpreted not only by Billie Holiday in 1941, but also by a score of other artists since then: Ella Fitzgerald, Whitney Houston, Norah Jones, Jimmy Somerville, Barbra Streisand, and many others.

Eventually I found two photos of Jimmy Davis: one of him as a very young man and another in army uniform with Billie Holiday a few years later. I was struck by his eyes – beautiful dark eyes that reflected intelligence and kindliness – something I thought I might see in the man who had played such an important role in my life.


Billie Holiday singing Jimmy Davis’s song, Mr Lover Man

As for listening to his voice, I had to wait a few years until recordings of him singing were reissued on the web. The ones I have been listening to these last months are part of a record digitised by the French National Library and entitled Jimmy “Loverman” Davis. There I discovered his voice, melodious, warm and teasing at times, in the three languages he sang in: English, his first language, French, the language of the country he lived in most of his life, and Spanish.

One particular song – he wrote many during his career – is called C’est Beau (It’s Beautiful) and in it he lists some of the little things in life that he finds wonderful. One particular verse has struck a chord with me: “A baby who sleeps quietly in his cradle … it’s so beautiful; his upturned nose, his small hands … that’s so lovely.” When I hear those words, I can’t help asking myself whether he had visited my parents before they separated and had seen me asleep in my cradle. As it happens, I do have an upturned nose … and it was even more striking when I was a baby.

Francois Grossjean as a child
Francois Grossjean as a child. Did he inspire Jimmy Davis’s song C’est Beau as a sleeping baby?

My aim now is to find out more about Jimmy Davis, his life and career. From what I have gathered, he was an excellent pianist and a wonderful lyricist who wrote songs in his three languages. I know also that he lived on Avenue Reille, near the lovely Parc Montsouris, in Paris, and I can picture him strolling around the small lake there thinking of his next song and composing its music. But I still know so little: when and where he was born, when he moved to Paris for good, how he made a living, when he died and where he is buried.

I hope to find all that out despite the fact that most of his contemporaries are no longer with us. And, hopefully, one day I will be able to visit the cemetery where he is buried and lay a rose on his grave. It would be my small gesture of love for the man who saved my life.




Yesterday we drove 4 hours from Fayetteville, Arkansas to Pine Bluff to visit the great Clark Terry (CT as we call him). This was a day off and originally planned as a trip to his home to celebrate his upcoming 94th birthday (on December 14th) but an emergency on Friday night had landed CT in the hospital. With literally no lead-time, the hospital was able to source and set up a classroom so we could come in and play for him. As we pulled up to the everyday world of the hospital, with two tour buses and an equipment truck, we knew it would be special. From the security guards who set aside parking spaces for us, to the hospital administrators, aides and the assistants working specifically with Clark, to his wife Gwen and some of their friends, everyone and everything was soaked in hospitality, human feeling and soul. 

We filed in and quickly set the band up. CT has been such a positive influence on so many of us in the orchestra; we were of one mind about the way we wanted to play for him. Swing! Even before we started playing, many of us were full of emotion.

I reflected on the depth of Clark's impact on me and was overcome. At 14-15, he was the first great jazz trumpeter I had ever heard actually playing live. His spectacular playing made me want to practice (of course) but his warmth and optimism made me to want to be a part of the world of Jazz. I would try to stand like him, play like him, announce tunes like him and treat people the way he did. And each of us in the band had personal stories like that about Clark. For our trumpet section, he is a Great Immortal. Back when Ryan Kisor was a high school kid in Iowa, CT was the first one to tell me, "There's a young boy in Iowa who can truly play." "Iowa?" "Yeah man, for real!" 

Moving a big band around on a scheduled day off can be very complicated. And any last minute adjustments will definitely create logistical havoc. But a number of our team displayed dedication and determination to make things go smoothly. Victor demonstrated his advanced communication skills in coordinating all of the particulars with Gwen. Big Boss Murphy kept us on point by responding to each challenge with a calm even-handedness. Gabrielle Armand and our JALC staff in New York provided whatever was needed to assist with the hospitality. Chris Crenshaw transcribed a couple of Jimmy Heath arrangements that featured Clark on lead trumpet: “West Coast Blues”, a Wes Montgomery composition from Blue Mitchell's album entitled “A Sure Thing” and “Nails”, from a Jimmy Heath Orchestra recording entitled “Really Big!”

As Clark's bed was wheeled in we launched into Duke and Strayhorn's “Peanut Brittle Brigade” from their version of Tchaikovsky's “Nutcracker”. After playing, we each went over to his bed, introduced ourselves and said a little something about our pedigree and how much we appreciated his contributions to our personal development and to the music. He recognized each of us and responded to every salutation with some pithy comment of joyful appreciation. 

The hospital staff stood by watching in amazement as this informal caravan of musicians who had transformed this classroom into a concert hall, genuflected one by one before a patient who they knew was important for some reason…. but this type of homage perhaps meant something different from whatever their perceptions might have been. Without knowing his music or his profoundly personal influence on so many of us it was probably impossible for them to realize that they were caring for one of the world's great Maestros. 

When it was his turn, Carlos enthusiastically told Clark, "I'm representing all of the Puerto Ricans in the Bronx. They send their love." And we all cracked up. 

We then played Basie's “Good Morning Blues” and let him check out Cécile. She stood right next to his bed and sang into a microphone connected to his headphones. She too was overcome with emotion, but she sang with poise and so poetically. It was elegant, yet intimate, like someone singing to a beloved family member. As soon as he recognized that unique quality in her voice, he started cosigning her and demonstrating that infectious personality that always made you feel great about playing. 

Chris introduced the “West Coast Blues” and told Clark when it was recorded. He didn't remember so Chris started to sing it. After a few bars of Clark trying to remember Chris said, "You'll know it when you hear it." We played and cats were swinging hard for him. As we were playing, he asked Gwen to identify each soloist. Our sound stylist, David Robinson, helped her call everyone out. 

We didn’t want to stop, but it was time for all of us to go. But before that somber moment, we gathered around the bed and played “Happy Birthday” for him. When he went to blow out the candles, he broke down. Many of us joined him. 

We all said goodbye and he once again recognized each individual with a touch and some kind words. We took a good picture with the trumpet section of which Vincent said, "This is the only time I'll make way for y'all." And then it was that time.

What is deeper than respect and love? That's what we felt: veneration. 

Later we went to Clark's home. Gwen and some friends had a spread laid out. Good fried chicken and catfish, coleslaw, succotash…you know, the usual suspects that never wear out their welcome. Pure southern soul. 

After eating, Ted and I sat in Clark's den surrounded by memorabilia from his career plus a not-completely-assembled drum set and a couple of African drums. The mantelpiece was dominated by a large picture of CT and Sweets Edison playing together. Right after Sweets passed away, I remember Clark telling me that he had left him his suits. "How am I going to wear those big-ass suits?" was what he said. And we laughed thinking about how Sweets would have laughed at that.

Ted and I reminisced about seeing Clark play on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson during the 70's. He had all kinds of tricks like playing the trumpet with both hands or upside down, or playing trumpet and flugelhorn at once. These antics amazed and delighted audiences, but he was playing great ideas the whole time. I recalled him coming to see me play with the New Orleans Philharmonic when I was 16 and telling me how much he loved it at the club later that night. Ted recounted playing with the California all state high school jazz band in 1975 when he was 15. They performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival and Clark was guest soloist. On one song, a blues, Ted came out front to play the soprano saxophone with him. When the song finished, CT grabbed the mic and said enthusiastically "Ted Nash on soprano!" The feeling in that introduction by the great Clark Terry of an unknown high school musician gave an almost spiritual validation to Ted's playing.

We recognized that he also did that for many thousands of other musicians throughout his career. He lived as a jazzman, full of soul and sophistication, sass, grit and mother wit, and he made us want to become real jazz musicians. 

We talked about how good it felt that many of us were moved to tears in his presence. And we weren't emotional because he was blind and bedridden, or because he was having trouble hearing, had lost some of his limbs and was in a hospital. He's 94! We were full of emotion because his presence reminded us of how much of himself he had given to the world, this country, our music, our instrument and each of us individually. And it hit us. All the gigs, recordings, lessons, bands, students, all state jazz orchestras, master classes, TV shows, world beating concerts with Basie and Ellington, his own groups, jam sessions – and all of it at the absolute highest level of engagement- was laying in the bed before us. And we wanted him to be proud and feel the love we felt for him. It was palpable. After we left I said, "Man, CT always had a way of lifting you up." Ted countered and said, "HAD a way? He still IS that way. It was there today." 

Yeah. He blessed us.



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