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Robert Jeanne, the compass, the square and the tenor sax

Born 90 years ago and still very active – he is playing at the Gouvy festival on August 6 – Robert Jeanne experienced the heroic era of jazz in Belgium. Architecture was his livelihood. At that time, most jazzmen were amateurs and self-taught. Seeing one with a sheet music made the others laugh.

Many are those who, after the Liberation, with the arrival of the Americans, fell in love with jazz music, often in the New Orleans style conveyed by the stars of the post-war period, Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. This dazzled discovery gave birth to many musical vocations, including that of Robert Jeanne.

Born in Liège on April 27, 1932, in a family where classical music held an important place, little Robert’s ear, from 1948, was attracted by a way of conceiving jazz, bebop, born a little earlier in New York: “One evening I heard a jazz program on the radio presented by Carlos de Radzitsky which introduced me to a certain Charlie Parker playing ‘Koko’! It was a real revelation for me because, if some saw the Virgin, I heard Parker. “

At the same time, rather serious, the young Robert opted to study architecture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Liège, thus heading towards the same profession as his father, Léon Jeanne. “At that time, the musicians I knew, Jacques Pelzer and Rene Thomaswere basically amateurs”. One of the best Belgian alto saxophonists, Pelzer is, in fact, a pharmacist in Thier-à-Liège.

René Thomas at the cutting

Guitarist soon to be internationally renowned, Thomas works in his father’s workshop, which manufactures gloves for workers in the steel industry: “He cut the burlap on a machine and sewed it on four layers, remembers Robert Jeanne. He was like ‘you see, flipping this gives me strength in the fingers.’ In the workshop, there were two Russian workers whom he took home in the van. I’ll let you imagine the rest.”



Robert Jeanne is 90 years old and remains very active

A seasoned autodidact, Robert Jeanne never studied music. At the time, there were no jazz lessons “and no sheet music either, or at least we didn’t have one. René Thomas couldn’t read music, and he wasn’t the only. We copied records and learned them by heart. Besides, a little later, when we saw a jazz musician with a score, it made us laugh.

When it was necessary to decide on a job, the choice was quickly made: “There was
no outlet in music. We didn’t earn much. Despite his reputation, René Thomas was almost a dead man, bailiffs came to his house because he didn’t pay his rent. “

The Benelux Gateway to Expo 58

“I was a realist, continues Robert Jeanne, and then I liked architecture. I worked a lot, mainly in offices and not as a freelancer. I had the example of my father who never stopped not to work. In the offices, I had evenings and weekends.”

For Expo 58 in Brussels, for example, he designed the emblematic Porte du Benelux, in the shape of a wing suspended from a mast. “I managed to combine the two, he concludes, and the great chance of my life was not to fall into drugs. I rubbed shoulders with it a lot, I was asked a lot, but I never took anything. That’s why I’m still here.”

“The great chance of my life was not to fall into drugs.”

Narcotics were a scourge in jazz, before being elsewhere, particularly cocaine and heroin. “It came from the United States, analyzes Robert Jeanne. The young musicians thought that if the Parkers and company played so well, it was thanks to that, so they got into it. It was a fashion effect , the spirit of the times. I resisted, because I did not believe it.”

In the meantime, the great musical adventure begins. We rehearse in each other’s cellars or attics. Robert Jeanne estimates that, to reach a certain level, his apprenticeship lasted four or five years. He mounted the New Jazz Quintet with, in particular, Félix Simtaine, the Verviétois, on drums, a combo that performed at the great Comblain-la-Tour festival in 1959.

Chet Baker, “charming, joking”

Comblain was the first of the big festivals, all the American stars went there: Ray Charles, Bill Evans, in a curious mixture with variety artists, often whistled or targets of overripe tomatoes. Already familiar with the trumpeter, Robert finds Chet Baker to Comblain: “I’m coming with my car. He was in the room with sunglasses, looking a little downcast. ‘Listen, you’ll have to take me to my hotel before the concert’. And when he came back, he
was all dapper. He had to take his medicine.”

“If some have seen the Virgin, I have heard Parker.”

Otherwise, he describes the star trumpeter as “a very nice boy, utterly charming, joking, very fine”. During his very long musical career – which continued after the retirement of the architect – Robert Jeanne experienced all the great moments of jazz activity in Belgium, the Saxo 1000 adventures with Jacques Pelzer in particular, ACT Big Band, and also Solis Lacussecond formation
emblematic of jazz rock, after Placebo, of Mark Moulinradio man and keyboardist.

Although he remains attentive to novelty, Robert Jeanne is somewhat perplexed by the younger generation following the teachings of the ancients. “All these young people who are lucky enough to be told about Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie and company, it’s good, but when I hear them, I don’t recognize any of that. They want to be themselves, but to create your own music, you have to be awesome. A lot of musicians now think they’re stars.”


Robert Jeanne’s favorite concert: baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan with the
trombonist Bob Brookmeyer at Pleyel in Paris on June 1, 1954. Chet Baker was to play, but Brookmeyer replaced him at short notice: “It was a total surprise, we were captivated”.

His favorite records are those where he plays with Solis Lacus and Saxo 1000, as well as “Blue
Landscape” (2003) in quartet with Michel Herr (piano), Jean Warland (double bass) and Félix Simtaine (drums), Igloo 171.

The piece to take to the desert island: “Embraceable You”, by Charlie Parker.

The summary

  • At 90, Robert Jeanne will play at the Gouvy festival on August 6
  • At the time of his debut, all jazzmen were amateurs. He himself had a career as an architect.
  • He set up the New Jazz Quintet with, in particular, Félix Simtaine, the Verviétois, on drums.

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