RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis wandered along the Seine and felt free. Louis Armstrong sought refuge from the Jim Crow American South at the Hôtel Alba Opéra. Dancer Josephine Baker wowed audiences at the Folies Bergère before joining the French Resistance during World War II.
For African American artists, Paris long existed as a haven allowing them to experience their humanity, despite the city’s contradictions and racial tensions. A visit introduced possibilities and dilated dreams.
“The Eddy,” a new Netflix music drama series that premiered last week, seeks to pay homage to those encounters while also granting nods to the French New Wave film movement of the late 1950s, the refugee, the abused, and, of course, jazz.
Set in the margins of Paris, the series follows African American ex-pat Elliot Udo, played by André Holland, as he tries to keep his jazz club, The Eddy, afloat while caring for his troubled American biracial daughter Julie, played by Amandla Stenberg.
Elliot assembles a house band of musicians from North Africa, Haiti, Cuba, the U.S, and Eastern Europe and they regularly attract an equally diverse crowd away from the cafe and museum center of Paris. But it seems like everyone and everything wants to shut down the experiment, from the police to the underworld to meddling music promoters.
Meanwhile, ambitious Moroccan musicians seek Elliot’s attention by fusing French hip-hop and Muslim traditions.
The idea for the eight-episode series came from a longtime dream of six-time Grammy Award winner Glen Ballard to tell a story about a jazz band making music in modern-day Paris. He organized a group with working musicians that included actress and vocalist Joanna Kulig, from the 2018 acclaimed movie “Cold War,” and Croatian percussionist Lada Obradovic.
“The mission for me was to connect young listeners and viewers to what jazz really could be,” Ballard told the AP in an interview from his Paris apartment. “It started with me writing songs in 2008 about this mythical jazz club...Paris never gave up on jazz.”
And that jazz club would show the real, new Paris, Ballard said.
Directed by Damien Chazelle of “La La Land,” the series engages with the rigidity jazz faces from traditionalists and modernizing forces, just like the 2016 Oscar-nominated film. But unlike “La La Land,” the Netflix series doesn’t seek to whitewash those themes and it confronts issues of race and poverty from where jazz stems.
That complexity and the themes around a multicultural Paris is what attracted the politically active Stenberg to the project, she said. Stenberg earned praised for her role in the 2018 film “The Hate U Give” about a high school student who witnesses a police shooting.
“It was super important to me. I don’t think that aspect of the show was necessarily based into the script,” Stenberg said. “It kind of become a responsibility that Andre and I felt we needed to honor and accurately portray through the lenses we were given.”
But the series does seek to pay tribute to African American ex-pats who helped pave the path for a racially safe Paris.
In one touching scene, Elliot talks with his daughter after giving her a copy of James Baldwin’s essay collection, The Price of the Ticket,” of his works on race and identity.
“There’s plenty more where that came from,” he tells his daughter while looking at her new natural hairstyle. Then, he looks up at Paris. “You know, there’s a whole history of us in this place.”
Multi-talented Jowee Omicil, who plays saxophone in The Eddy, said he’s still pinching himself that he has the opportunity to portray a black jazz musician in Paris — something many of the greats before him never got the chance to do.
“It’s amazing because, yes, Lee Morgan didn’t get to do that, he didn’t get a chance to play a role where he’s really playing. Unbelievable,” said Haitian-Canadian Omicil, who is making his acting debut.
Havana-born bassist Damian Nueva Cortes also stars in his first acting role. One episode focuses on his character struggling with heartbreak and addiction. It ends with an Afro-Cuban improvisation at a Paris restaurant that’s both celebratory and agonizing.
“I wrote that song for my grandmother,” Nueva Cortes said. “And acting...it’s like I’m in a trance.”
American audiences are accustomed to consuming films and series around race from their own self-absorbed lenses. “The Eddy” series seeks to take those viewers to Europe where race and ethnicity also play roles in how similar populations navigate their existence.
Ballard said this gathering of different people in “The Eddy” is played out through jazz, note by note, with spaces for solos of the unexplored.