Frank Tenot: The Empire of Jazz On The Seine

Frank Tenot
The Empire of Jazz On The Seine

by Mike Zwerin

copyright © 2003 Mike Zwerin

There's a joke about a guy who explains what he does in life by saying: "I'm a jazz musician but I'm only in it for the money." Frank Tenot, on the other hand, is in the jazz business to give at least some of his money back.

You can see the penthouses across the wide avenue through the window of his office on the Champs Elysees, and Parisian rooftops rising towards Montmartre above them. In addition to Jazz Magazine, he now owns Jazzman and his new little media empire occupies an entire floor. His fortune "owes its existence to jazz, and I want to return at least some of what jazz permitted me to earn. And at my age," says the 78-year old Tenot, "it gives me something to do."

Mind you, he'd prefer not to lose money. But if it came right down to it, he would rather continue to broadcast Billie Holiday and Ben Webster records than make a profit. He's "happy to be in the position to do that."

With content from Louis Armstrong to Steve Lacy, Lee Konitz and Steve Coleman, Tenot's TSF is the only unsubsidized radio station (89.9 in Paris) in the known world playing smart jazz 24 hours a day seven days a week. Nat Hentoff told Tenot he listens regularly on the internet in New York.

It is truly miraculous to hear Charlie Parker at 11:10 AM in your corner bureau de tabac, to catch Philly Joe Jones's Dracula routine at midnight in a Parisian taxicab, and to hear Lester Young, Lee Morgan,Chet Baker, Leo Wright, Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Serge Chaloff and Dinah Washington on the air-waves while writing this article. TSF trying to be "commercial" means Diana Krall or Frank Sinatra.

TSF currently has about 200,000 listeners in Paris and Nice. To assure stylistic variety, programming is based on splitting content 1/3 each between jazz recorded on 78 RPMs, LPs and CDs. Tenot and his partner Jean-Francois Bizot (of the rock/world music-oriented Nova radio and magazine) bought the station three years ago from a "bankrupt 17 million," says Tenot. They expect to break even this year. But it remains a labor of love. Bizot and Tenot recently had a spirited argument on the sidewalk of the Champs Elysees about how much Latin jazz to broadcast.

Tenot knows his history. It was not, as is generally believed, Charles de Gaulle who censored the Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli swing version of "Le Marseillaise" in 1946, but outraged Communist union workers refusing to press the recording. He fondly recalls the first Parisian concert by Dizzy Gillespie two years later, and the subsequent so-called "schism" between the critics Hugues Panassie and Charles Delaunay that tore apart the Hot Club Of France (of which Tenot was an early member) over the issue of whether or not bebop was real jazz. "France was really important in the history of jazz," he says: "Wasn't it?" Tenot is the type of person who looks at his watch to make sure it's 7 p.m. before deciding to have a whiskey. Despite the substantial distance he has always kept from the wild side of jazz, he remains enough of a hipster to grin at the folklore about the old timer who many years ago ("thank goodness, the musicians are no longer like that") stashed his heroin in the collar of his German Shepherd dog. The multinational conglomerate Tenot built with his now retired friend and partner Daniel Filipacchi began with Jazz Magazine, given to them in the 1950s by a record company mogul who could no longer be bothered. It remains Tenot's rabbit's foot; it still carries his monthly column. They started what became a successful rock magazine with circulation of one million thanks largely to the popularity of Johnny Hallyday. The resulting international print combine Hachette Filipacchi Publications (Tenot was CEO) included Pariscope, Hustler, Woman's Day, George, Paris Match (Tenot was editor in chief) and the Spanish Teleprogroma magazines.

"When we sold our shares in Hachette," Tenot says: "I ended up with some cash." He started the Frank Tenot Foundation, subsidizing, for example, provincial organizations promoting jazz. Earlier this year, he bought Jazzman magazine from a subsidiary of the LVMH luxury conglomerate. "They considered it a 'non strategic asset'," he says with a smile.

Jazzman is a down-market jazz magazine, if such a thing is possible, with large type, color visuals, short features and a lower retail price and roughly twice the circulation (25,000) than the intellectual Jazz Magazine. Tenot's reason for buying Jazzman was "partly vanity," but also "for the music. I was afraid that LVMH might close it or that it would become a 'world jazz' or 'rap jazz' -- not real jazz -- magazine."

Other than raising Jazzman's cover price, he plans to keep both magazines going pretty much as before -- helped by added synergy in purchasing, promotion and advertising. There are, however, no plans for future acquisitions. "The only ennui of this story," Tenot explains, "is that none of my children [he has three] are interested in jazz. I'm putting my hopes in my grandchild. I taught him how to play 'Saint James Infirmary' on his little flute. He's 12 years old and he loves jazz already."

Mike Zwerin wrote this piece for the International Herald Tribune.

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