Most people have never heard of Francis Paudras (1935–1997). I, however, will never forget him and the days we spent together in Antigny, a small village in Western France in the waning days of summer, 1981. A classic Frenchman in so many ways, he was just as well-versed in old world culture as he was in the American new: Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy were on equal footing with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. He was a connoisseur of many things and a fine pianist as well.
Francis appreciated jazz to a degree more profound than most. There were those who maligned him for lionizing dead musicians, calling him a necrophile; but he was also an ardent supporter of the jazz folks who were still around: Bill Evans, Johnny Hodges, Thelonious Monk, and most notably, Bud Powell, whom he took in and supported while the pianist lived in Paris from 1959–1963. He also mentored young cats like Jacky Terrasson and others.
I first met Francis Paudras when he came to Los Angeles to cement a book distribution deal with Naomi Wilkes, attorney and sister of famous Laker, Jamal Wilkes. Jamal and fellow Lakers team mate, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, were noted jazz fans. In fact, Kareem even had a short-lived MCA label, Cranberry Records, back in the day.
Somehow the two of them somehow discovered Francis’s amazing book about Charlie Parker: To Bird With Love, published by Éditions Wizlov. Francis had compiled this massive tribute from two suitcases full of personal memorabilia that Charlie’s widow, Chan Parker, had brought over to his Paris apartment in the late 1970s, long after the bebop master’s death. Full of photographs, letters, telegrams, recording contracts and more, it’s like a personal window into the life of one of the greatest musicians to have ever lived.
I invited Francis to be my guest on Morning Becomes Eclectic when he came to Los Angeles to arrange his book deal in 1981. He played a cassette recording of Bird performing “Honeysuckle Rose” in a D.I.Y. recording booth that few had ever heard at the time. He’d acquired the cassette from the then-mayor of Kansas City.
When I went to visit Francis that summer, he picked me up in his Jaguar sedan, and we drove to his amazing country home in Antigny. This very domicile had once been home to the Knights Templar back in the Middle Ages during the time of the Crusades. Francis had modernized and converted this medieval structure into a jazz shrine, retaining the original whitewashed, 24-inch thick walls. Upstairs on what was once Sviatoslav Richter’s handcrafted Yamaha grand piano, Francis would perform both bebop and Debussy with equal finesse and aplomb. There was also a screening room, where we watched classic ‘soundies’ (pre-MTV 16mm shorts of black music of the 1940–1950s) and other jazz films. Francis had a huge collection of these, one of the world’s biggest and rivaling those of the late David Chertok and Clint Eastwood. There was also a great cave à vin, a wine cellar patrolled by a bat. We went down into it, and Francis pulled out a bottle of Armagnac from 1905, a perfect digestif for a home-cooked French country meal with vegetables from the garden and a chicken from the yard, all prepared by Francis himself.
Paudras was a huge collector of records and music memorabilia, and his love for both jazz and classical music knew no bounds. Over the years, Francis’s home became a French mecca for American jazz musicians: Thelonious Monk, Johnny Griffin, Bill Evans, and many others others. It was truly a country idyll. For jazz musicians and fans like me, this was heaven.
Stolen Moments, he was somehow different. Perhaps it was the effect of the darker winter months, far from the September sun around the pool that I’d so enjoyed before. This time, Francis was somber. It was as if the spark in his eyes had gone out. There had been problems: his wife had suffered an aneurysm; his relationship with his son had grown strained. Perhaps there other things he didn’t let on about.
Years later after we’d lost touch, I attended a concert of the young French pianist, Jacky Terrasson, whom Francis had mentored. Jacky was a friend of Francis’ son, Stéphane Paudras. When I asked him about Francis, he informed me that he had committed suicide over a prolonged tax dispute. The French government had threatened to confiscate his beloved and collection of priceless films, books, and other personal treasures. He was still young, only 62-years-old. The news was tremendously saddening.
Francis was a personal hero. A larger than life character with an extraordinary passion and knowledge of jazz. A classic Frenchman, lover of English cars and American culture, which included his 1940s Jeep. It was the very same vehicle, painted a sunny yellow, that the Americans had driven down the Champs-Élysées during the French Liberation Day Parade in June of 1944.
Francis Paudras playing the jazz standard, “Star Eyes,” recorded on a rough 16mm tape, 1987. The bassist later messes up, and Francis asks him, “Why did you stop?”
Another fragmentary clip of Francis displaying his love for two of his jazz icons, Bill Evans and Art Tatum.
A tribute medley to Francis Paudras by the late Clare Fischer.