Sunday, January 10, 2010

April in Paris

Having lived through a London winter - lots of rain and fog punctuated by brief periods of sunshine and an occasional light snowfall - Judy and I planned a trip to Paris. I needed a new trumpet as I had progressed as much as was possible on the leaky trumpet I bought in a pawn shop in Montreal to replace the one that had been stolen. Also, I wanted to see about getting a gig in France for a small group I had put together over the winter that included Neil Michaud (bass) and Galt McDermott (piano). Neil’s claim to fame had been playing a week in Montreal a decade earlier with Charlie Parker. Galt, also from Montreal, subsequently left London for New York where he gained instant recognition by composing the music for “Hair”, the great Broadway hit of the ‘60s.

With these projects in mind as well as sightseeing and checking out the music scene, we left for a ten day trip to Paris in April. We arrived in Paris after a British ferry “ride” from Dover to Calais replete with strong tea and hard crumpets, and an overnight trip to the Gare du Nord on the super fast and comfortable French railway. Our new bible in hand, “Paris on Five Dollars a Day”, we set out for the rue de la Harpe in the Latin Quarter where we found a small, really pleasant and well-maintained Dutch hotel. It had one of those cage elevators and ‘lo and behold’ - a bidet!

We got up the next morning and went to a café across the street. There, I had what was to become my standard Paris breakfast: a Gauloise cigarette, a strong cup of cappuccino and a croissant. The cobwebs blown away, I was ready for a day of sightseeing, reconnoitring and just digging the Paris scene. The city was resplendent in the beautiful spring sun. It was easy to see why so many songs and musical scores centered on the composers’ fascination with this beautiful city on the banks of the Seine.

One evening, we enjoyed a concert by the Modern Jazz Quartet - John Lewis (piano), Connie Kay (drums), Milt Jackson (vibes) and my favourite bassist, Percy Heath. Afterwards, the night still young, we ambled up the rue de la Harpe and checked out a jazz club. Outside was a picture of the main attraction, boogie woogie pianist and New Orleans blues singer – Champion Jack Dupree. I had never heard of him and the entrance to the club gave no hint of the action inside.

As we walked in we were greeted by a tableau that could only have been believably reproduced by Toulouse Lautrec. It was like walking into an artist’s rendition of a Paris club and a New Orleans neighbourhood party rolled into one scene.

Champion Jack was in full swing and quite unbelievably there was Percy Heath accompanying him on the bass, leaving behind the minimalist constructions that were the hallmark of John Lewis’ cerebral compositions, and getting down with the blues roots of the music he loved to play. Champion Jack was in fine form, playing stride and boogie woogie piano to accompany some very bawdy blues lyrics that he composed himself. He seemed particularly happy to introduce a tall, slender and singularly attractive, black woman who sang a couple of songs with the band. An audience of Parisians going to a favourite haunt for a swinging night out seemed to be very much in tune with the entertainment. This venue was a warm introduction to the music and lyrics of Mr. Dupree.

A striking contrast was provided a few nights later at le Blue Note de Paris. I was really looking forward to hearing the Bud Powell trio with Pierre Michelot and Kenny Clarke. It was mid week and the club was virtually empty save a few seemingly bored habitués. The trio played a set that exhibited the fluidity of Bud’s phrases and the technical virtuosity of its members - Bud on piano, Kenny Clarke on drums and an excellent French bassist. It seemed to me that while these musicians would never play a set that would disappoint musically, that this night they were just playing the set by rote. It lacked humour and passion and the patrons were equally downbeat.

I spotted a “strung out” Chet Baker in a corner of the room and went to speak to him as, along with Miles, he was one of my early influences on trumpet. He asked what I was doing in Paris. When I mentioned that I was here to buy a trumpet, he said he was selling his and that I should meet him the next day in front of the club.

The next day at noon we went to the club. Chet was standing on the sidewalk. After a short conversation with a tall, very uptight junkie it hit me that I couldn’t take advantage of his bad situation to acquire this trumpet. I knew that depriving him of the tools of his trade would haunt me every time I took that horn out of its case. We walked away in different directions. He was headed for a pawn shop and I was relieved that he would eventually get his trumpet back and that I didn’t finance his next ten “hits” of heroin.

The following day we went to check out the home of the famous “Martin (Paris)” brass instruments. We arrived at the address, rang the bell, and were summoned up the long dimly lit stairway. We entered a room that looked surprisingly like a kitchen. Monsieur Martin, who appeared to be in his late sixties, introduced us to his wife, a short, stocky lady who was stirring a huge black iron pot on top of the stove. It was filled with gold lacquer in which she dipped the brass cornets, trumpets, and flugelhorns that were so carefully hand crafted by her husband.

On the wall were autographed pictures of world famous trumpet players surrounding a picture of Jean Baptiste Arban the great 19th century trumpet player and educator. As the couple of trumpets ready for purchase were of too small a bore, we thanked them and once more left empty handed.

We eventually went to the Selmer factory where I bought a large bore, lightweight trumpet that along with my Giardinelli 7B mouthpiece helped me to produce a full sound in the middle and lower registers where I was wont to play. This task having been accomplished, we attended a pre-arranged meeting with a respected French music agent.

He was a shrewd but diplomatic man. Unlike British show biz agents he didn’t have to put one through a degrading, inconclusive audition. We spoke for a while and he told me that he could book me in several resorts in the south of France but that bringing a whole quartet from London was out of the question. I had yet another decision to make. I thanked him and said I would not be taking his offer. There were many reasons to not accept this opportunity, but the main one was my lack of confidence in the chemistry between me and the random musicians that would be available as 'sidemen'.

Our business in Paris finished, it was time to leave this glittering jewel, this city, to return to the more familiar surroundings of London.