In postwar Paris, the French singer Juliette Gréco, who passed away on September 23 at the age of 93, and the American musician Miles Davis enjoyed a passionate love affair — tragically cut short by the racism in U.S. society at the time.
Juliette Gréco was 22, the muse of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, when she set eyes on the trumpetist, the up-and-coming “Picasso of jazz.” In May 1949, the International Jazz Festival was reborn in Paris and the biggest American names in bebop had made a special effort to attend. This was the first time Miles Davis had left the United States, and played the Pleyel concert hall with pianist Tadd Dameron’s quintet. “I saw him from the side; he was an Egyptian god,” said Gréco, who was watching him from backstage. “I had never seen such a beautiful man, and I haven’t seen one since.”
Juliette Gréco and Miles Davis at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, May 1949. © Jean-Philippe Charbonnier/Gamma-Rapho
The lovers lived together at the La Louisiane hotel in the 6th arrondissement. Accompanied by Gréco, Davis met Jean-Paul Sartre, Boris Vian, and Picasso. The pair would stroll along the Seine, hand in hand, stopping for a kiss. An unthinkable idyll in the United States, where interracial relationships were forbidden. Davis enjoyed a new freedom in France. “I had never felt that way in my life,” he wrote in his autobiography. “It was the freedom of being in France and being treated like a human being.”
A number of African-American musicians settled in Paris, but Davis decided to return home. When Sartre asked him why he refused to ask Gréco to marry him, he replied: “Because I love her.” “He knew that black and white didn’t go together,” she said years later. “He knew I would be unhappy, and that I would be treated like a common whore in America.”