The French are jiving to le jazz as never before. Jazz record sales are booming, while new clubs flourish and festivals multiply.

Once considered of marginal interest, jazz has hit the musical big time in this country.

* In 1985 there were less than 100 jazz clubs in all of France. Now there are 320, with 72 in Paris alone.

* Jazz-themed movies such as “Bird” and ” ‘Round Midnight” have scored spectacular boxoffice success since 1986.

* New homegrown musical forces are emerging as resistance to jazz being taught in national conservatories has broken down over the past decade.

* Yves Saint Laurent, a potent cultural force in this country, has endorsed the music by naming his latest men’s cologne Jazz.

“The French jazz club is evolving from the basement dive to the large hall, especially in the big international hotels,” noted Pascal Anquetil, head of Centre d’Information du Jazz, part of a government-run agency. Some older, smaller clubs are indeed closing down under pressure from larger, more sophisticated competition, such as the newly opened Les Alligators.

According to musician Henri Renaud, now head of Sony Records jazz division, “it’s not a renaissance or revival. It’s more than that. A whole new generation of youth is discovering the old jazz and buying records in droves.”

“Paris is like the mecca of jazz at this particular time,” said 73-year-old jazz great Dizzy Gillespie. “It’s like old-time Harlem. Paris is really alive. You can make a good living here playing jazz.” Gillespie has just completed several Paris engagements.

The big draws, however, are the festivals. In 1981, France had fewer than 50 jazz fests. It now counts 280. Nearly every major town now has a jazz festival. Antibes, Nice, Vienna and Paris fests attract mammoth crowds for such topline stars as Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Stan Getz.

The most tangible numerical indication of the Paris jazz boom is retail sales. At the beginning of the ’80s, jazz accounted for about 3% of recorded music sales. Today, sales are between 8% and 12% of the total. Jazz sales at the Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysees can reach as high as 15% of total sales during holiday seasons.

“The phenomenal success of jazz is astonishing,” said Helen Lifar, Polygram promo manager. “Our goal now is to go after as wide a public as possible.” She also said that, thanks to the success of the compilations, Polygram will be more actively producing new artists and disks.

CBS (now Sony) sold 350,000 copies of “The Great Moments Of Jazz,” in 1989. “This was unheard of,” said Renaud. “Seven years ago we released ‘I Love Jazz’ [another compilation], and it did 1 million copies throughout all of Europe.” Another success comes from small distribbery Atlas, whose series of 90 CDs on the history of jazz is sold only at newspaper kiosks. The first in the series, Louis Armstrong, sold 300,000 copies.

“The explosion of the compact disk has been a key element in the jazz boom,” said Anquetil. The CD has lent itself well to compilations and reissues which benefited from heavy media advertising. “This brought jazz a whole new public,” he said.

Another major reason for the upswing is the jazz schools, Anquetil maintained. Only 12 years ago, the CIM, one of Europe’s largest private music schools, began teaching jazz. Today, France has 50 private jazz schools. Several years ago, the highly regarded National Conservatory broke down its traditional resistance and began teaching jazz. Now nearly half of France’s network of local and regional staterun conservatories have jazz on the curriculum. This gave birth to a national jazz band in 1986.

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