A young Miles Davis went to Paris in 1949 with the Tadd Dameron group and fell in love with two women: La Belle France and Juliette Greco. Miles came from a solid, well-to-do family, attended The Juilliard School, and was a hip, sophisticated jazz musician. Paris intellectuals were hugely fond of the new post-war bebop style and treated jazz musicians with the utmost respect and admiration.
Juliette Gréco, like Miles, was only 22 at the time. A young, left bank bohemian beauty and aspiring actress, she had survived the war after being arrested and detained at age 16 by the gestapo because her mother had been a résistante. With her captivating allure and love of existential poetry, Gréco played muse to many, including philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and poet Jacques Prévert—both of whom wrote for her to put to song, photographers Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson, among others.
But it was before Gréco’s rise as a chanteuse that she and Miles met after his performance with the Dameron group at the Salle Pleyel. Unable to afford a ticket to the show, she was brought backstage by friend and wife of French trumpeter and novelist, Boris Vian. There, she and Miles met in the wings and—despite their language barrier—found themselves completely smitten by the end of dinner.
It was the beginning of a passionate love affair that would last until the end of Miles’s life. Never mind that he was married and had already fathered a child at the age of 17. Gréco admired him as an artist and was taken by his debonaire, Giacometti-esque figure. He and others like Dizzy Gillespie brought over their new bebop jazz style to post-war Paris and transformed the music scene.
The French drew parallels between their homegrown existentialism and American bebop jazz, with its looser syncopation and the artistic freedom it encouraged. Jean-Paul Sartre, the great French intellectual and existentialist philosopher, once asked Miles (he was a fan of both Gréco and Miles) why he didn’t marry her, to which Miles replied that he loved Gréco too much to make her unhappy.
History bore out Miles’s attitude toward the racism prevalent in America correctly. A few years later, when both of them had made it big, Gréco was in New York for a big show and invited Miles to the Waldorf Astoria for dinner. The maitre’d made no attempts to hide his disapproval. Who knows, maybe he didn’t even know that it was the famous French chanteuse, Juliette Gréco, but just another white woman with a black man. No food was delivered for almost two hours, until the waiter finally slammed their plates down on the table. It was excruciating for both of them. Miles called later in tears, saying that he never wanted to be with her in America again because of what happened. Recalling the incident in an article penned for The Guardian, Gréco said, “I suddenly understood that I’d made a terrible mistake, from which came a strange feeling of humiliation that I’ll never forget. In America, his color was made blatantly obvious to me, whereas in Paris, I didn’t even notice he was black.”
Years ago, my French friend, Benedicte Bodard, and I were on double-duty Miles Davis watch at the Pepperdine University swimming pool, where I swam regularly. Miles lived nearby and often swam there. I told Benedicte to listen for the roar of a yellow Ferrari Testarossa V-12, which would announce Miles’s arrival. I thought if she met him, then maybe I could meet him (also in the pool) talk with him, and put him in my first book, Stolen Moments, which was published in 1988. I never got to meet him there, but Benedicte did. Seeing she was French, he immediately warmed up to her and spoke to her at length about his love for Juliette Gréco.
Recently, the iconic chanteuse, Juliette Gréco, now 88, was interviewed by veteran French jazz journalist Philippe Carles in The Guardian. She remarked, “Between Miles and me there was a great love affair, the kind you’d want everybody to experience.”