Meet Paris Cabaret Owner Jacques Boni Who at 80 Is Still Going Strong After 40 Years of Musical Innovation (Part 1)
Owner and Director Jacques Boni
Discover the story behind owner Jacques Boni and his celebrated cabaret Aux Trois Mailletz, located in a famous medieval cave in Paris – 40 years in the making
You descend down a steep stairway that leads to a dimly lit cave pulsing with sound. A pleasant, silver-haired gentleman with red-rimmed glasses cordially welcomes you in French and arranges for you to sit at the long, narrow wooden table running down the center of the cave. As you enter, your eyes quickly adjust as tabletop candles that illuminate the vaulted stone walls curving ruggedly overhead. You notice that the stage, located at the far end of the cave, is crowded with talented singers full of energy and ambition, supported by a full band, but you soon find out that the entire cave is the showplace.
This is where you can find an authentic Parisian atmosphere in modern times. Welcome to the historical and enchanting underground cabaret in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Its name is the Aux Trois Mailletz (The Three Mallets) – still going strong after 50-plus years of shows that have ranged from soul-soothing jazz in its early days to today’s mix of Parisian old-school charm and the cultural variety of all-world music. Today, it can be boisterous at times but always tasteful (with no nudity). Some call it “French traditional intimate cabaret” in the spirit of Josephine Baker, but today the singers and songs are from all over the world. You will be entertained by a company of enthusiastic, up-and-coming singers – any of which may be the next breakthrough artist in the long history of success stories coming out of Trois Mailletz. The singing is often accompanied by energetic, high-stepping dancers – with any part of the show (including yourself) suddenly played out on that skinny table running down the middle of the cave.
These days, you will never see two shows that are exactly alike at Trois Mailletz. The gentleman who sat you down is Jacques Boni, the cabaret’s owner and tireless show director. Jacques tailors every show to the audience and its mood. Quite a debonair figure in his younger days, Jacques is now circa 80 years old and might be the hardest working person in show business for his age. Jacques easily works twice as many the hours as the average French worker, maintaining a work schedule that defies his age.
The acts at Trois Mailletz range from group performances to solo acts. Around a half dozen performers sing live each night – anything from Edit Piaf to popular songs like “Gangster in Paradise” and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” – all with a modern cabaret-style twist that often features Jacques’ signature “world music” style. The solo acts (which are subject to change) include many up-and-coming singers like male soprano Pascal Toussaint, who sings today's dance songs like Donna Summer did disco (such as “But Here's my Number, So Call me, Maybe!”), and French-born Sandrine DePaul, who sings classical French songs with a sensuality that matches her dark good looks and confident stage presence. The center table is cleared often during the never-ending night that can last to dawn, so singers can strut their stuff on it, or athletic female dancers can leap on the table and make all kinds of impossible moves, including the can-can leg split with its forceful landing straight down on the table. You are also invited to dance on the stage or table that is as narrow as a card table. It is said that the ghosts in the cave keep people from falling off the table and people rarely do. The ghosts are another part of story I will get to later.
All this extraordinary entertainment doesn’t come without hard work. Recently on Fête de la Musique (World Music Day) in Paris, Jacques worked 18 straight hours in directing a special Trois Mailletz outdoor cabaret show that filled the cobblestoned Rue Galande, a historic street in the Latin Quarter on which Trois Mailletz is located. The next day and each day afterward, Jacques then worked his usual 10- to 12-hour shift (around 6 pm to 6 am) in directing the Trois Mailletz underground cabaret in its long-standing home – a haunting but inspiring cave (“caveau” in French) that dates back to the birth of Paris. Eighty-plus work hour weeks are the rule for Jacques.
The Trois Mailletz Franchise
Jacques is the owner, show director, sometimes maitre d' and heart and soul of Trois Mailletz – a multi-entertainment, two-level venue that hosts a piano bar, restaurant and cabaret that has grown into a multi-million-euro-a-year business. Jacques’ venue has been called the “last real cabaret in Paris.” To quote one reviewer: “The secret of Aux Trois Mailletz's show is that it isn't slick or sanitized, and, like its illustrious predecessors, it embraces performers from all over the world without trying to make them all look the same. Here, the spirit of Josephine Baker and Edith Piaf thrives. In this small steamy basement, life is as rosy as it could be.”
First of all, to provide perspective, Trois Mailletz operates on two levels:
- Upstairs is a street-level piano bar and restaurant with continual music until almost dawn, with an outside patio that has exquisite vistas of the three original churches that defined early Paris, including Notre Dame.
- Downstairs is the kitchen (which serves some of the best-tasting food in Paris until around 4 am) and the lively underground cabaret – played out in its famous medieval cave with a pack of live singers (never lip-syncing), entertaining a usually engaged and friendly audience each and every night of the year. And you dine right in the cave very late as well!
I sat with Jacques Boni, the singular owner of Trois Mailletz, one Sunday evening on the eastside outdoor patio at Trois Mailletz, while he sipped an amber-colored cocktail (Cinzano vermouth). Wearing his trademark red-framed eyeglasses, Jacques gazed appreciably at the Notre Dame towers across the Seine River in the distance that turned a golden hue as the sun set. He wore a simple but elegant white dress shirt that seemed to match his fairly full head of white hair. Jacques had agreed only the night before, in the cabaret itself, to conduct a series of interviews to document the long and illustrious history of Trois Mailletz, some of which only Jacques is privy to. Jacques spoke in his calm voice, but his piercing eyes lit up when became passionate about a topic.
“I live to do this,” Jacques was saying peering over his glasses. “It’s fascinating work – every night is different – it’s never boring.” He tapped me on the arm for emphasis also making a personal connection. “If I ever became rich, then that’s when my problems would begin. To be a slave to your work is sometimes good.”
He sipped his drink and went on. “Shows in Macau (China) and Las Vegas are fantastic, with costumes, feathers, special effects. These shows rely on theatrical engineering. But for an intimate cabaret like Trois Mailletz, you have to rely on the songs to carry the show – instead of a lot of feathers and costumes to influence the audience.”
Many people wonder what drives Jacques, who is beyond retirement age, to keep up his demanding schedule. I asked him too and he simply responded: ”I’m like Sisyphus. You know Sisyphus, don’t you?”
Jacques lifted his hands and pushed an imaginary rock uphill. Sisyphus (and I must admit I had to look it up) is a figure of Greek mythology who was condemned to repeat forever the same task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only never to reach the top and have it roll down again and again. “My job is where you have to prove yourself every day,” Jacques says. “Like Sisyphus, I am challenged every moment, every day. But in the end the show is my satisfaction.” Indeed, a famous essay on the myth of Sisyphus concludes, "The struggle itself is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."
Jacques’ life story and his 40 years of directing the Trois Mailletz franchise is movie material – there’s a long line of performers who began their careers with Jacques and went on to have successful performing careers in France and worldwide – such as Arturo Sandoval, Nina Simone, Yuri Buenaventura, Zaz and Dany Brillant, among others, and today’s soon-to-be-famous singers, which we will elaborate on in due course. “We’re like a small school, we train new singers,” Jacques says.
Now I must digress and tell you what Trois Mailletz is not! Trois Mailletz is not like the risqué and world-famous Moulin Rouge cabaret located on the other side of Paris in Montmartre, which can be referred to as a cabaret extravaganza. The Moulin Rouge has lots of showgirls, lots of costumes and feathers, and, from what I could tell during my recent visits, a good amount of lip-syncing (or singing over a prerecorded track). Yes, the Moulin Rouge and similar famous productions like Le Lido on the Champs-Élysées are exotic shows that should definitely be seen at least once or twice in your lifetime. These glitzy Las Vegas-type shows feature burlesque (frontal nudity), up to 60 dancers and a few circus-like intermission acts that can overshadow the singers.
On the other hand, Trois Mailletz is an interactive song-and-dance cabaret (mostly song) that is an underground haven for singers, who are supported by talented in-house musicians and usually a few gyrating dancers. It’s not even possible for the Trois Mailletz dancers to wear elaborate costumes, such as an ostrich feather headdress, because the show is staged in a romantic, candle-lit cave that I’ve been describing, which is about the size of what the Tunnel of Love might be (it’s quite cozy, seats about 150). I call it a "singing-and-dancing cabaret” to distinguish from the cabarets that have nudity (Trois Mailletz' operating license doesn't allow nudity).
The Folklore of the Trois Mailletz Cave
The folklore of the Trois Mailletz cave is a story unto itself, so hold onto your seats! The Trois Mailletz cave is thought to be thousands of years old dating back to the origins of Paris and a hideaway for many renegades including French Revolutionists. “When society said, ‘Everything must be destroyed,’ Parisian caves became places of refuge,” Jacques says.
What is the history of the Trois Mailletz cave? While it’s known to be a former jazz club before Jacques’ involvement, theories on its previous use during the past 2,000-plus years include:
- Underground network for Roman soldiers to escape in times of revolt (Paris was Roman before it was French)
- Quarters for the slaves who built Notre Dame
- Holding cell for the dead for the Catacombs underground burial site in Paris or the cemetery across the street (next to the Church of Saint Julian the Poor)
- Hide-out for French revolutionists including the secretive Freemasons
- Meeting place for Three Musketeers
- Prison around 100 years ago
- Gestapo headquarters during Germany’s World War II occupation of Paris
“This cave is where Paris was born,” Trois Mailletz singer Samuel Gough was saying in his powerful voice during a break at the cabaret one night. “The crossroads of history are down here.” Thus, this is where the whimsical thought that ghosts keep people from falling off the centerpiece table when dancing.
Jacques is more cautious on the cave’s history: “You can’t say with certainty what it was. There are many theories and presumptions made. There is a record that taxes were paid at the location in 1300 as a hotelier – a boarding house. The history besides that is not proven.”
Besides being located in a mysterious cave, Trois Mailletz is also unique in that it offers shows that can be quite different from night to night as Jacques attests – something the big cabarets can’t possibly offer due to their complexity and regimen to do the same show over and over. Moulin Rouge publicly announces it maintains the same show for 10-plus consecutive years including the current Féerie production.
On the other hand, Trois Mailletz has a rotating group of a nearly a dozen singers and dancers performing each night, who Jacques has hand-picked over the years from various sources –including recruiting singers directly off the streets (such as Dany Brilliant in the 2000s, which we will also get to – there’s a lot to cover in 35 years!).
The exceptional talent and wide range of signers allow Jacques to mix it up as he pleases. He calls it “world music” and the show is filled with a variety of pop, French and international songs. There is no set song list. Jacques – in the back shadows of the cave using a wireless mike – directs the singers in a low-key voice throughout the night. Adding some sarcasm such as “let’s see who’s working tonight,” Jacques simply tells the performers who’s next on stage and that triggers the songs to be sung. His direction depends on which singers are waiting in wings and the mood and ethnic composition of the crowd. By listening and talking to his guests, Jacques gauges where the audience originates from and directs the appropriate singers to the stage to best play to the crowd. On any given night, the Trois Mailletz singers can be from (or represent) Russia, Italy, France, Bronx/New York, Guadalupe, Croatia, Senegal, Brazil, Morocco, England, Tunisia, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Serbia, Sweden, Dominican Republic, Martinique, Madagascar, Iran, Norway, Georgia and more (with some singers representing multiple countries).
“I’m like a painter,” Jacques says. “Each show is like painting. I fill the room with what the audience wants to hear, like a discotech being filled with beautiful people and songs. We can even sing songs in Cossack (a Russian dialect).”
All the singers have wireless microphones. This adds to the enchantment when any of the singers offstage can be participating in the magic of a set unbeknown to the crowd.
Which brings me to the added bonus of frequenting Trois Mailletz: At some point you will likely dance or talk with the singers and dancers. The singers invite audience members to dance with them on the stage or hop up with them on that long narrow table, which as mentioned, people rarely fall off for some reason.
There is no backstage entrance. There is only one entrance in and out of the cave, opposite the stage. So as the singers and dancers are leaving, you can interact with them at the small bar or seating area outside the cave where they congregate. The performers linger in this area when not singing and are usually cordial enough to engage in conversation (unless they’ve had a hard night or week). They’ll also take a drink with you if finished for the night. The conversation with the singers is lively and animated, and they express their hopes and dreams of making it big as a singer, as well as providing a tapestry of experiences from around France, Europe and the world.
“At Trois Mailletz, you’ll see many different genres of music,” says Pascal Toussaint, a former opera singer from Guadeloupe who currently is one of Trois Mailletz’s star singers. “In other clubs, singers sing the same music, have the same gestures, look the same on stage. I don’t want to see a copy, I can see that on MTV. At Trois Mailletz, nobody looks like a copy. If you come to Trois Mailletz, you will always be immersed in different types of music, different types of energy, different types of people.”
© 2015 R Jonathan