It was a Wednesday summer evening, and things certainly weren’t going my way that day. Rejected by my date and sent home early, that’s certainly a first. Furthermore, being slightly under the influence certainly didn’t help my case in coping with such a blow to the ego. I reach the closest metro entrance. Pigalle… “it’s gonna be a long, sad trip home” I said to myself. As I painstakingly sway my way towards the platform of line 12, my senses pick up on a familiar timbre resonating across the halls of the metro. Surely enough, my somewhat inhibited consciousness had not fooled me; standing on the side, gently serenading the Parisian folk transiting through Pigalle, was that american busker I see every other day singing at La Motte-Picquet Grenelle! “Marvin Parks : American Jazz singer” I recall reading on his cardboard sign every time I pass him by.
Stricken by the coincidence and determined to get my mind off of my bitter rejection, I put in my best efforts to seem somewhat lucid and sober and strike up a conversation. Surely enough no less than a few minutes sufficed to discover a character as fascinating and charming as the voice you’ll hear in the evenings at La Motte-Picquet. Seized by the rich history of this character, I decided to save the questions I had for an actual interview. After exchanging contact information, I explain my situation and request a song to lighten my heavy heart, to which he responds with a beautiful rendition of George and Ira Gershwin’s “But not for me”. A few weeks later, we meet up again after one of his shifts at La Motte Picquet Grenelle and sit down for the interview.
First off, can you tell us a bit about your musical background?
I started singing when I was 4 years old. I grew up in a church and joined the youth choir and my earliest memory of any kind of singing was of my mother sitting me down, teaching me a hymn to have me sing it at church. As a little kid I was always nervous about singing in front of people but one day at lunch my mother told me they wanted me to sing for this service. I was a little older by then, around 13. I didn’t want to disappoint my mom so I did it anyway, but what ended up happening was that they just couldn’t shut me up! (laughs)
There’s this high school program for minority high-school students, like an “academic olympics” with categories ranging from arts to humanities, sciences, playwriting … and I ended up winning in the singing category. I was 15 years old, I had never really sung jazz but I loved Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable and was really inspired by it; after hearing her father sing, I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Did you take any lessons?
Yeah, I took voice lessons in High School and then College. I also had a Jazz Coach who I would visit often. She would give me advice and listening suggestions. But really I learned Jazz singing by doing it, by going to Jam sessions and going to different clubs. When I started out I was 17, I wasn’t even old enough to be in these places (laugh), but I’d ask the owners to let me sing. So that’s how I started.
How did that lead you all the way to Paris?
40 000 airline miles from American Airlines. With that, the New York City-Paris round trip ticket was 83 dollars. I had been living in New York for about 6 years but when I arrived here I just stayed. I don’t have any children, I’m not married and I was just like “Why not?” (laugh). I swore to everybody that I’d be back, saying I’d only be gone for 3 weeks, but after two weeks I was already posting “Dear Everybody, I ain’t coming back. Merry Christmas. Yours truly. Marvin Parks” (laughs). This was in December of 2013 so I’m coming up on 3 years.
Had you been street singing before you arrived in Paris?
Well you see it all sort of happened around the same time. One day I was invited out and this ATM machine swallowed up my card “Carte Capturée”. It’s 8:30 and I’m like “Oh my God! What is this!”. I gotta take those things like I’m watching it on the big screen, and this was like the turning part in a movie where I’m staring blankly in disbelief. So my only solution was to sing in the metro the next day. However, a little later after I had been singing for a little while, I was going through my suitcase looking for something and I discovered the REAL card! The reason why they kept my card was because it was a dead card, it had already expired. I had called my bank to cancel my card, I was singing in the metro for money and it turns out I actually had my card the whole time! (laughs). And now I happen to be one of the most well known buskers in the city of Paris. That was never my idea nor my plan when I first set off for Paris.
So you had never done it before arriving in Paris?
No. I had tried to do it once with some musicians but they didn’t show up. I tried it once in Central Park with a group of Jazz musicians but never like this. In the metro I don’t sing with a band. I don’t proficiently play any instruments either. People ask me why I don’t sing in a bar or a restaurant and I’, like “No! The sign says “Watch me on Youtube!””. People are sweet and I’ve gotten everything from money to cigarettes to cashews, opera tickets… people invite me to their house, offer me dinner, bottles of wine. This journalist wrote about me in Le Monde, he was passing by and asked for an interview. And the people come to my gigs! When I first started doing Marvin Parks American Jazz Singer, the show that I created, I used to do a roll-call at the beginning of the show. I’d ask “Is Bastille here? Is La-Motte-Piquet Grenelle here?”. Antoine De Caunes of Le Grand Journal saw my article and asked me to sing on his show, so I have that under my belt. To say that I brought the american songbook to French television, even if it was to do that one song on the show, that’s something that I’m proud of. People don’t see that when they pass me by in the metro, they don’t know! When the guys throw me out of the metro, they don’t know nothing about that, they don’t want to hear it. They’re just like “ You don’t have the card, you can’t be here.” I befriended some of them and they don’t say nothing but they have no idea. The controllers the other day ask me why I still sing in the metro. I couldn’t accurately tell them in french but they mean something to me, they’re part of the experience. I feel like they’re my controllers (laughs). These are my special controllers, I even gave them my CD, they’ve heard the music. I couldn’t wait to see them when the article in Le Monde was published. I saw them coming down the corridor corner and flagged them down and said “Guys! you’ve gotta come!” (laugh). They all grouped around me and I showed them the article. They were really happy for me but I still had to get the hell out! (laugh)
What keeps you coming back to the metro? By now you could probably afford to exclusively perform at gigs.
Well I do have Gigs, I created a show. But here’s the thing that people don’t realise: there’s a lot of stuff that comes before hitting the stage and sometimes I just don’t feel like going through all of the trouble. There’s that and the fact that I’m building my audience this way. I’ve sold out them most noted jazz clubs in Paris, I’ve sung in the Alps, in Lyon, Denmark, Switzerland… Sunset Sunside is a place I perform at regularly, I host the jam session there. On Christmas Day when that article in Le Monde was published you couldn’t get anybody in there, it was packed! But then I go back to the metro and tell people about it. It all comes down to strategy: to establish a connection with the general public. I’m not famous, and there are still people discovering who I am. People ask why I still sing in the metro and I ask them “do you know who I was before you passed me today?”. There’s also the fact that people always tell me how much it means for me to be there. They write me notes on Facebook, and that means a lot to me. Even if they don’t stop, they can’t unseen or unhear me. If they see the same guy standing in the same spot, wearing the same scarf and glasses, singing pretty much the same songs (laugh)… then that’s advertising! It’s like when you see a car commercial. You might not buy the car but it leaves you with something in your brain, be it the hot girl in the commercial, the talking dog, the jingle… When they did the article in Le Monde, people said “Oh my God, we pass that guy every day!”. The article was published in December and in May this woman took the article out of her purse and said “I saw you! This is you!”. When I was on Canal+ people stopped by and told me that they saw me and ask me when my next gig is.
So it’s more about creating a stronger, more personal connection with your potential audience in their day to day life….
Yeah. when they’re going to work, going to school, basketball practice…
Whereas if they see you at a club gig they’re already in for a Jazz gig?
Well it’s not even that, it really primarily about promotion when I have a gig and an album. I actually took my EP cover poster sign and walked around the city with it every single day for about a month. It’s about being visible.
The Parisian commuters are known for being a notoriously tough crowd.
Well it wasn’t really about reputation, I didn’t care about any of that. Day one was about meeting an immediate need. I had a bowl, I didn’t have a hat yet. When I started, people started talking to me immediately! So I seized this as an opportunity to talk about my music as it went on down the line. I remember one day I made 60 euros at Republique, people were just dumping stuff in the hat: candy bars, cigarettes, free metro tickets… One day at Opera I got a pack of english muffins (laughs)! Sometimes people think that I’m homeless. When they see someone singing alone with a hat, people think I’m in trouble. Just the other day I had to give this girl her strawberries back and ask her to like my Facebook page instead. People wish me “Bon Courage”, they give me a thumbs up. People will pass me by and turn around to drop something in that hat. These aren’t just Parisians, these are also people who’re visiting.
Are there any facets of Parisian commuters that you’ve come to discover as time went by?
Well they like humour but it’s a tough thing for me. When I had my first show, my french was really bad and they didn’t get any of my jokes. It was such a boring show, it was tough. People were talking while I was singing, my keyboard players’ instrument collapsed when he started his solo… It was at the Café de Paris which is in the Belleville area, and I remembered walking home sulking. On the other hand, the Parisians are very forgiving. Once I mastered a bit of French-English wordplay and taking cues from I Love Lucy for jokes, they appreciated that. I just don’t try to be anything except me. You just have to be yourself and find a way to connect with people by giving them your real self. That’s not even a French thing, that’s just human.
What were some of the more noteworthy encounters’ you’ve had in the metro so far?
People dancing. I was singing The Way you Look tonight and this couple started dancing on the platform. On New Year’s Eve these two Chilean guys started breakdancing. Last night, some Canadian and Americans started singing Georgia on my mind with me and I started dancing with this one girl (laugh). One young man came by once, twirled me around and kept going! We also did this magic act for the security who came to throw me out. I started singing to the security and got an eye roll and my friend Guillaume who’s a magician started doing this magic trick and they started participating (laughs). They left with a smile on their face. I got hot chocolate and sardines once! It’s just regular people. There’s this chinese guy who runs by me every night and gives me a fist bump before running off singing in this high pitched voice of his. The homeless just throw me out. They either just don’t care and stand right next to me with their sign “J’ai faim” while I’m performing or they just approach me and tell me to leave.
You must’ve learned to handle these situations over time though.
Yeah, I’ve seen it all. When you’re exposed like that, with not band, you’re open for a whole lot of stuff. People have been rude and sung over me, heckled me, saying some dumb stuff, but peoples’ generosity and the fact that I’ve been invited on television supersedes all of that. The good stuff has been really good. I just take everything as it comes with a grain of salt, but I’m blessed that it all happened.
How often do you sing in the street?
Well I’m out most of the time. There are instances where I have bad vocal days and I need to lay back sip tea. It can get tiring just standing up and going from station to station, up and down the steps, hopping the trains and whatnot. It’s a lot of work, but like I said; I saw the results. There are days that I have to rest. There are times where I’ll take a week or two off, but other than that it’s almost daily.
Going out there like you do requires firm dedication and passion. What is it that you like about music?
I like singing these songs specifically. I’ve been singing them since I was 15 and writing songs in the spirit of the great american songbook. People have been telling me for years not to sing these songs, that no-one was going to listen to me, that I should be singing R’n’b, soul and Gospel. There are people coming up to me in metro who proselytise to me, saying I’m going to hell if I don’t get my life right, that I need to sing for the Lord and whatnot. I’ve been hearing it all of my life. I am truly fulfilled musically when performing the songs of Henry Mancini or Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland… I just love absolutely singing these songs. When I approached my label with the songs of my first EPThe Very Thought of You, they said it was great but that the market doesn’t call for something like this, and I just called BS. I went to the metro and continued to do it, building my audience one at a time. When they tell me to get out of the metro I sing in the street, at the Sacré Coeur or Place de la République right next to Marianne.
Do you foresee a point at which you’ll decide to move to a new city to reach a new audience?
Well I’ve already changed city. I’ve lived in New York for six years. I moved there from Baltimore, which is where I’m from. But why keep changing cities? What is the point? I mean I travel for work, I’ve been to Italy eight or nine times, recorded my new album there. You go where the work is, you know? I don’t really go with trying new cities like a new pair of shoes, you know?
When it’s time for me to leave, I’ll know. That’s how I left New York.
Where do you see yourself 5 or 10 years from now?
Well I definitely don’t plan in ten years to still be singing in the metro with a hat (laughs). Maybe I’ll go to Mars! I’ll be singing to the Martians with a hat, with my space helmet (laughs). “I made 50 moon rocks tonight! Steak Dinner!” (laughs). I’ve never thought this was a fair question, in that five years ago I was working in a theatre in New York as a part-time stagehand and I was sleeping in the dressing room. If we had lunch five years ago in New York City at the Manhattan Center and you had asked me this same question, I could not have said I would be one of the most well-known Subway buskers in Paris. I couldn’t have even come up with that. I probably thought I was going to be living in Italy, that was really the plan. My label is Italian though! So I don’t know where I’ll be in five years, I’m not even sure the world is going to be here in five years. We live in crazy times. It is bonkers right now.
Could you name one of your favorite albums, movies and books?
Well this kind of goes hand in hand with movies and books, but I’ll say The Wizard of Oz. It’s an all-time favorite movie, story… Whether it’s The Wiz of The Wizard of Oz. There’s also Alice in Wonderland, that whole idea of being lost in a strange land and trying to find your way… but the Wizard of Oz is especially relevant for me, because the moral of the story is that the thing that we usually have the things that we look for the most. The Lion is looking for courage but was the first one to stand up for his friends, the scarecrow figures stuff really easily, the tinman cries like a baby when he thought he was going to lose his friends, and the only thing Dorothy had to do was wake up! She was already home! There can’t be a better metaphor for life. The thing is right there, just wake up!
Music-wise, Unforgettable .. with Love by Natalie Cole changed my life. 25 years ago, that album changed my life and the way I thought about music. I always reference it when people ask me where I’m going to go. She was the very first recipient for the Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Performance. She broke so much ground for that album; it was her big comeback in her career and those kind of albums became a thing to do, especially for those who are in a later part in their career and who decide to do great american songbook stuff or standards. I’ve had my eyes set on that for pretty much my entire life.
Have you had any direct or indirect run-ins with any of the musicians whose songs you sing?
I actually met legendary jazz pianist and vocalist Freddy Cole, the brother of Nat King Cole. I met Natalie Cole at ABC Studios and also Tony Bennett himself.
Any other noteworthy run-ins besides musicians?
President Hollande’s ex Valérie Trierweiler. I met her, she asked me to sing and I didn’t know who she was. She had been told that I sing Les Moulins de Mon Coeur by Michel Legrand. I sing it A-Cappella but that night I was just not in the mood to sing and I was very adamant about being left alone. I was not rude to her, I just didn’t know who she was. She was really nice. I was being hosted by the show’s host and he asked me if I had met anybody. I just said “Not really, just some lady..” (laughs). And he tells me “Oh well actually the first lady was there”, and I’m like “the first lady of what?”, “.. of France”. So I looked up Francois Hollande on my phone, I saw her face pop up and I went nuts (laughs). The next week she came back with her son and she was like “This is the best singer in Paris! He sings Les Moulins de mon Coeur!”, so I sang it again. She grabbed my arm and so I was dancing with her for about a minute and I was like “This is crazy, how did I end up here!”. I also met Nat King Cole’s brother at the Duc des Lombards and I got a chance to talk to him.
If you could send out one universal message to every person that passes you by, what would it be?
You’ve only got one shot at this, ONE! There’s no do-overs. You don’t get to come back and press the reset button. Whatever it is you wanna do, do it. My mother told me “Don’t let anybody tell you what you can and what you can’t do.” Work hard, have faith in yourself, have faith in God if that’s the way you go. It’s not going to be easy, life is just not easy, you just need to roll up your sleeves and do it. The only thing the naysayers can do is say “Nay”, they have nothing for you. If you’re scared that they’re going to laugh at you well let them do it. They laugh at rich people! (Laugh) They’ll laugh at everyone. So don’t worry about them. Who cares?
Interview by Robin Ono
Be sure to catch up with Marvin Parks on his website and social Media Pages!