One name you do not see anywhere on the door is one remembered with particular fondness by Mars Club managers Barney and Barbara Butler: Billy Strayhorn. He was there often watching his friend Aaron Bridgers play and was always pressed into playing a few tunes on the piano himself when he was there.
Billy Strayhorn stayed in the shadow of Duke Ellington most of his life, content not to be in the limelight. He wrote many of the songs that made Ellington famous, including "Satin Doll" and "Take the A Train." Strayhorn's song "Lush Life" was associated with Duke Ellington, as well, even though Ellington never recorded it himself.
A brilliant composer, arranger and pianist, Strayhorn was a favorite at the Mars Club. Strayhorn's biographer David Hadju quoted Peter Matz in Lush Life, "Strayhorn was a star there because everybody knew all about him through Aaron. At the Mars Club, man, Strayhorn was it. He was the main man."
Barbara Butler described Strayhorn, a small man, as "pixyish," and remembers accidentally closing the bar's entry gate down on Strayhorn's head one night, making him bleed. Look at this great photo of the diminutive Strayhorn next to Ellington on the PBS Ken Burns Jazz film site. There is an audio interview with the author of Strayhorn's biography on the same page that is worth your time, too.
Strayhorn and Duke Ellington spent time in Paris during the 50s while writing the music for the film Paris Blues, which starred Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll. The first night Billy Strayhorn was in Paris, he was at The Mars Club to hear Aaron Bridgers play. Many other nights after that Strayhorn and members of Ellington's band would make their way to the Mars Club to jam with the musicians.
Aaron Bridgers was the bar pianist at the Mars Club. He and Billy Strayhorn were a couple when they lived in New York. According to the biography of Billy Strayhorn, Lush Life by David Hadju, "Most evenings, Strayhorn and Bridgers relived their treasured Cafe Society days at the Mars Club, where Bridgers was the house pianist. It was a little room in the eighth arondissement, off the Champs-Elysées."
Aaron Bridgers appears in Paris Blues in the role of pianist.
Aaron Bridgers and club manager Barbara Butler were fast friends and often attended the theater and the symphony together.
Art Simmons had a trio consisting of himself and two French musicians. They played a set and then Aaron Bridgers played cocktail piano between sets. Barney Butler recalls a night when Art Simmons had a few extra drinks and confided how much he admired Aaron Bridgers musicianship. He claimed Aaron Bridgers had something special as a musician because he was part man, part woman and partly a combination of the two sexes.
Barney Butler still recalls the musicianship of many musicians he heard at the Mars Club with enthusiasm. He speaks about the great bass player Oscar Pettiford and the wonderful saxophone playing of Don Byas in his recording of “Laura.”
Billie Holiday died in 1959, the year after she appeared at the Mars Club. Even though the damage to her voice and body from her heroin addiction were evident, she was still an international star and capable of attracting the elite of Paris society into the Mars Club. Her soul shown through when she sang, in spite of her problems. Barbara Butler remembers her singing “Strange Fruit.” She sang it so powerfully, “you could see the bodies hanging from the trees” Barbara recalls.
Billie Holiday appeared at the Mars Club in November, and Barbara Butler remembers spending Thanksgiving with her. There were a few other people there as well, none in coats, but Barbara remembers Billie Holiday sitting wrapped in her mink coat and shivering with cold—another symptom of her drug dependence. There's a quote from Billie Holiday on her official site that says, “If you think dope is for kicks and for thrills, you're out of your mind. There are more kicks to be had in a good case of paralytic polio or by living in an iron lung.”
The Nicholas Brothers were a dance act. In the opinion of Barbara Butler they were every bit as good as Fred Astaire. They appeared in a number of American musicals in the 40s, though not in a named role—they would simply be there dancing. They were in “Stormy Weather.” They can be seen in “Stormy Weather” dancing on drums and grand pianos and leapfrogging over one another as they dance down a flight of stairs to land on each step in the splits.
Harold Nicholas toured Europe as a solo in the 50s and liked to come to The Mars Club to sing and dance.
Years after the Mars Club days in Paris were over, Harold Nicholas was playing in San Diego in "Ain't Misbehavin'." Barney and Barbara Butler went back stage to visit with their old friend. They were trading stories and visiting about how they saw Billie Holiday in 1958 and she died the next year, they saw Edith Piaf at the Olympia and she died the next year, they saw Judy Garland at the Palace and she died the next year. Harold Nicholas interrupted the story by pointing to the door and saying, "Out! Out of my dressing room."
Harold survived their visit, happily, and lived much longer than a year after that night.
Fayard Nicholas is still alive, and still kicking up his heels. Fayard Nicholas introduced “Stormy Weather” on June 4, 2003 at the Austin, Texas, salute to the Nicholas Brothers at the Paramount Theatre Film Classics showing of “Stormy Weather.”
Al Jones, who appeared at The Lido, spent a lot of his time during the 50s in The Mars Club. He's devoted the last several years to painting the history of jazz as he remembers it. He gave permission to show this wonderful painting of The Mars Club here. Click on the image to see a larger version.
Al had a sophisticated acrobatic act at The Lido. He was friends with the Nicholas brothers and is still friends with Art Simmons. He remembers nights in the Mars Club when Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, and Billie Holiday were all there making history on the same night. His paintings of the history of jazz number almost 50, and he has plans to make them available in limited editions. See many more images from the Mars Club at Al Jones's website, The Heart of Jazz.
Leroy Vinnegar played at the Mars Club in the 50s, although he is better known as part of the West Coast Jazz scene. He became known as "master of the walking bass." His bass playing appeared on over 600 recordings, especially those of Art Tatum. Late in his life he moved to Portland, Oregon where he was a mainstay in the jazz scene, playing and recording right up until his death in 1999 at age 71.
The club, located at 6, rue Robert Estienne, was an internationally known gathering spot for the gay community. It has been estimated that at least half of the bar's patrons were gay. The publications read by gays at that time listed The Mars Club as the place to go in Paris to meet people.
Paris and The Mars Club was also a hangout for literary Americans abroad such as James Jones, Irwin Shaw, and James Baldwin. The late 50s were the end of Ernest Hemmingway's years in Paris. The literary scene was thriving. Many writers would come in to meet other writers and performers.
Young musicians came there in search of inspiration. Petula Clark, from England, not yet in her 20s, came to the Mars Club to sing and learn from the American jazz musicians. Quincy Jones was there, trying to get a band started, and playing trumpet.
At that time in Paris, there was another jazz club drawing crowds as well. It was a club Barney and Barbara Butler refer to as “the competition.” That other jazz club was The Blue Note. That club was owned by the previous owner of The Mars Club, Ben Benjamin.
The walls of the club were beautifully painted with signs of the Zodiac in keeping with the Mars theme. Mars is the symbol for the month of March. The club itself was a little box of a room with a bar, a piano and a few tables. There was very little room for dancing, but always room for another musician to squeeze into a jam session.
The club hired mostly American performers. It was known as a "verse club" among singers, meaning that a singer could perform a whole song including the opening verse and the audience would appreciate it.
The club has been gone for years. There is a school in the location where it was.
The Butlers didn't remember the exact address, but a visitor to this Web site, CJ Trahan, sent this: "Mars Club was located at Six Rue Robert Estienne [or more properly Six Impasse Robert Estienne, since it is in a cul de sac, Ed.]. Where I spent some of the best moments of my life listening to Art and Aaron." [Thanks to Helmut Schwarzer for the address correction.] C.J. sent a photo of the way the building looks today; you can see it on the Mars Club of Paris Blog.