Bobby Jaspar is all but forgotten today. Back in the late 1950s, the Belgian tenor saxophonist recorded with Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Eddie Costa, J.J. Johnson, Herbie Mann and many other notable New York jazz artists of the period. Married to singer Blossom Dearie, Jaspar's best-known recordings are probably Interplay for Two Trumpets and Two Tenors (1957), for which he was teamed with John Coltrane, and Chet Is Back (1962), recorded with Chet Baker after the trumpeter's release from an Italian prison.
And then Jaspar died. In 1963, at age 37, the saxophonist and flutist suffered a fatal heart attack just as he was gaining recognition.
Back in the early 1950s, before Jaspar came to the U.S., French hornist and composer-arranger David Amram [pictured] knew Jaspar well in Paris and recorded with him there in 1955. David's sessions with Jaspar remain crafty, exuberant and difficult to find.
Yesterday I spoke with David about Jaspar for a finer sense of who the saxophonist was as a thinker, a person and a musician:
JazzWax: If I played a Bobby Jaspar record for you today and didn't tell you who was playing, would you be able to identify him?
David Amram: If I heard Bobby playing, I would know it was him. Like Django Reinhardt, Bobby was one of the first jazz musicians who came from a totally European
background and created his own jazz language and taste.
JW: How would you describe Jaspar’s sound?
DA: He had a European classical approach to the saxophone. Ever since the Belgian Adolphe Sax invented the instrument [in 1841], French and Belgian musicians have taken the saxophone very seriously. In Belgium, where Bobby was from, and in France, the saxophone was always considered a solo instrument. Jacques Ibert’s Concertino da camera  is a serious work for the alto saxophone, not a novelty number. Georges Bizet's L'Arlesienne was written in 1872 and features a saxophone solo. Many other French classical composers wrote for the instrument as well.
JW: So Jaspar came out of that tradition?
DA: Yes. But France and Belgium also had a special sensibility about jazz, too. Their cultural passion comes from the same place as their love for dance, singing and rhythmic music. Europeans have always been able to get in touch with their souls and put art out there in a personal and sometimes unorthodox way. Bobby came to jazz emotionally.
JW: There certainly has always been a deep respect for American jazz in French culture.
DA: When I was in Paris in 1954 and 1955, Sidney Bechet and Albert Nicholas were fixtures. They were older people who were keeping the jazz of the 1920s and 1930s alive. The French were used to hearing and appreciating complex music. When Kenny Dorham went over to France with Charlie Parker in 1949 for the Paris Jazz Festival, Bird was still viewed as a far-out player in the U.S. Yet he was universally embraced there because the French people could hear and appreciate what he was doing. [Pictured: Charlie Parker and Sidney Bechet en route to the Paris Jazz Festival in 1949]
JW: When did you first meet Jaspar?
DA: I met him toward the end of 1954, when I was in Paris.
JW: Who introduced you?
DA: Saxophonist Jay Cameron. I met Bobby at a jam session in someone’s apartment. Alexander Calder’s daughter was with me, as I recall. Bobby and I hit it off right away. He said, “Come on man, I want to show you something.” We went out and he took me to streets named after Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. I couldn't believe that the city's civic institutions were digging these guys, not just jazz fans. I also was amazed that streets were named after Americans who weren’t movie stars.
JW: Jaspar clearly comes out of the Lester Young tradition—a lighter, more horizontal blowing style.
DA: Absolutely. Nearly every tenor saxophonist was influenced by Prez then. But Bobby took it in a different direction, melodically. It's distinctly European, with France and Belgium as his points of reference.
JW: Did Jaspar dig you playing jazz on the French horn?
DA: Amazingly enough, most of the French musicians liked hearing the horn. They thought it was fun and were excited that some young optimistic kid from the U.S. was playing with them all night on a classical instrument and trying to learn to speak French. I think they related to my joie de vivre [laughs]. [Pictured: David Amram playing the French horn]
JW: And the fact that you were without pretension and down to earth?
DA: I think so. I was never trying to be a cool, hip type of person. That appealed to a lot of European musicians who had assumed that’s how all jazz artists were. I was eager and excited, and they were, too. Jazz in general for Europeans was a liberating force from the horrible, negative period they had just lived through during the war. They saw jazz as a triumph for freedom and a throwback to the 19th century, especially in Paris, which has a strong social, communal tradition that's evident in their cafe culture.
JW: Jaspar was already a big deal over there when you met him, yes?
DA: He was definitely appreciated. But remember, in 1955 even the so-called big deals could barely get by. That was as true in Paris as it was in America.
JW: You made quite a few recordings together for French labels.
DA: The first one was actually my date, but Swing had Bobby sign as the leader so they didn’t have to pay him for another date they wanted him to do. They bundled the two together. I didn't care. I was just overjoyed to be there playing and recording with him.
JW: What was Jaspar like, emotionally?
DA: He was always passionate about the music. I remember we played a concert for school children in Paris that Bobby had organized. The French kids were great. They came out of the French anarchy tradition, with everyone demanding to be an individualist. That was so joyous to see, especially for a cantankerous person like me.
JW: What were the kids doing?
DA: They were shouting and screaming and enjoying themselves. Bobby started by trying to talk about the history of jazz. But the kids wouldn’t quit. So Bobby started cursing in front of the students. Then he took the mouthpiece off his saxophone and started squeaking it into the mike, followed by more curses.
JW: What happened?
DA: All the students jumped up and cheered. That’s what they were waiting for, for Bobby to cross over and be like them. Then they quieted down, and we played our music.
JW: What made Bobby special as a musician?
DA: He had a beautiful sound that was his own. When he played the flute, he was terrific. Not so much as a virtuoso but his phrasing and sound were distinct. The way he played, the music went right to your heart. It’s like a voice that makes you feel something when the person talks. That person's voice is different from the one at the railroad station that yells the schedule over a speaker. Bobby delivered more information in his sound than most players and you knew instantly that the sound was personal and spiritual.
JW: Why does that happen?
DA: That’s one of the mysteries of music. Someone can play that way and you’re captivated by the feeling and sound. I believe that everyone has that ability in them, but one of the hardest things is finding that quality and maintaining it. But this requires complete devotion to the music and submitting yourself to the art without hesitation.
JW: What was Bobby like to talk to?
DA: Bobby was an introspective, quiet person. He was always searching. I remember one time at his apartment in Paris he showed me a picture of him in Tahiti. He had spent a year there in the late 1940s or early 1950s.
JW: What was he doing there?
DA: He said he had wanted to go to Tahiti on a quest for something that could help him find himself. Today, everyone seems to be doing this. Back then, it was a radical concept. He didn’t have a gig in Tahiti, and the place wasn’t a big tourist spot when he went. Gauguin had painted there, but that was about it. If Tahiti had been expensive, he wouldn't have been able to afford it. He just needed to detach with his horn, like Sonny Rollins did later on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York.
JW: What did you think of the photograph?
DA: I was amazed that a musician would suddenly abandon everything to do that. In the picture, he was on the beach, just sitting all by himself.
JW: What was Jaspar like to talk to?
DA: Bobby had wonderful eyes that talked. You looked in his eyes and you knew you were in the presence of someone that you wanted to know. And the more you talked to him, the more you realized you already knew him and that he knew you. He was like a ship—10% of Bobby was showing above the water, and below the surface was the other 90% that you couldn't see.
JW: Was the sound of his voice engaging?
DA: Yes, he had a wonderful voice. He had a certain way of speaking that made you feel comfortable. When he spoke to you, it was always in a personal, understated way. Bobby was this brilliant, sophisticated European who also had a love for the down-home spiritual beauty of jazz and put that on the same level as his European background. That's how he made the connection. His voice conveyed this.
Tomorrow, David talks about Jaspar's marriage to Blossom Dearie, Jaspar's move to New York in 1956, and what Jaspar said one day in Greenwich Village that David remembers most.
JazzWax tracks: A serious record label should consider a comprehensive box set of Jaspar's recordings from the early 1950s. His work is too good and too precious to be overlooked or forgotten.
Bobby Jaspar's early recordings in France can be found on expensive imports: New Sound From Belgium (1953) here and Bobby Jaspar's New Jazz (1954) here. New Sound From Belgium and the Henri Renaud Quintet Plays Gigi Gryce (1953) are together here.
Jaspar's recordings in France with David Amram (Racontre a Paris, Gone with the Winds and Bobby Jaspar Featuring David Amram) are gorgeous albums, with Jaspar's cool tenor up against David's pleading French horn. It's a perfect match. Sadly, the Vogue CD that rounded up the dates is out of print. Some of this material can be found on David Amram: Jazz Portrait here.
If you are a Bobby Jaspar fan, as I am, or you become one after hearing his recordings, keep an eye on the Comments section of this post. I'm sure readers worldwide will offer a range of affordable ways to access many of his early French sides.
A JazzWax thanks to David Langner.