Saturday, December 22, 2012


            One of the things I'd planned to do here was get back into my horn since I wasn't going to have a whole lot to do anyway. And I'm finding out pretty quickly that, especially for a trombone player, you have to find your own way. So I was excited one Thursday when I passed a little place near our apartment where a hand lettered sign read "Open Swing Acoustique, Jazz Manouche, Jazz Boeuf, 19h30". Jazz Manouche is the French term for what Americans call "Gypsy Jazz" (music made famous during the swing era by Django Reinhardt) and "Jazz Boeuf" is the local term for a jam session.

            Chez le Pépère, like a lot of places here, would have to double in size to be "intimate". A small bar, a few high tables, a wall of wine bottles and the flags of a bunch of rugby teams decorate the room, and the night I walked in the sound of a piano came up from the basement, or cave as it's more appropriately called. Descending a tight spiral staircase, I recognized the tune as "Sunny Side of the Street" and took it as a good sign - a tune I can play when I work up the nerve to bring my horn. Like jazz clubs everywhere, the musicians were packed onto a tiny little stage but the instrumentation was not what I was used to at home. A little console piano, bass, two acoustic guitars and a violin. No drums, no amps, nobody who looked over 30 and everybody could swing. I'm not sure I'll fit in with these guys.

            Tuesday nights there's a straight ahead session that I have hopes for since it seems to be also young guys but they're still trying to find their improvisational voices.  This was one of the aspects of going back to school in my 50's that gave me the most pleasure. For years I had been surrounded by people who didn't really share my musical tastes. Then again, anyone into jazz can probably make the same statement. So it was a good thing to have others in the same musical boat, wanting to make an improvisational statement but not yet having the tools. I've always said that my life has been a series of events leading to the next humbling experience. So in relating the following story, I freely admit that I have no room to talk.

            I spent most of the last year or so in St. Pete trying to work up the nerve to play at one of the local jam sessions. I was fortunate enough to know a lot of the best musicians in the Tampa Bay area and when it comes to people on my level, they are gracious, tolerant and encouraging. They are also light years beyond me musically and too intimidating, so I usually went to listen. Ironically, the best way to build confidence is by allowing yourself to screw up. There are those who don't seem to be burdened by any of these issues, no matter how badly they solo and I wish some of that was contagious. It is not, however, always a good thing.

            Every form of human endeavor has its Inspector Clouseaus.  People who, despite all evidence, are completely convinced of their talent and oblivious to anything that might indicate otherwise. Most of the musical Clouseaus I've noticed fall into three basic categories, not necessarily in this order - singers with no sense of pitch, guitar players trying to play far beyond their capability and drummers with no sense of time. In fact, in almost every amateur group I've ever been involved with, there was always at least one guy with a set of drumsticks whose sense of rhythm was most charitably described as idiosyncratic.  Jazz jam sessions are usually spared these folks probably for the same reason there's no "Trombone Hero" for your Xbox.

            One night I got to Chez Pépère about the time I always get to a live music venue - right after the band went on break, which seems to last about an hour here. And when you know you'll have to nurse the only beer you can afford for awhile, it's not necessarily a bad thing if you can't speak the same language as the guy beside you, especially if he seems to be scatting to music only he can hear. (Remember when someone loudly singing or talking to himself was a indication he had a bolt loose? At another time in France, I might have suspected this guy had once been standing in a trench when an artillery shell went off right over his head.) I noticed the wire hanging from his ear but still thought I'd go downstairs and wait for the band to come back. A couple of minutes later, the scatter, who looked to be about fifty, came downstairs, wandered over to the drum kit, sat down and started tapping around with his hands. He kept up the same monotonous rhythm for about fifteen minutes until the real drummer came back and Scatman took his seat in the audience.

            The set started with a blues and the solos worked around until Scatman took one and I realized that the thing I'd noticed in his ear was his own personal wireless mike.  Any idea this guy might have been a real singer disappeared after about 4 bars and midway through the first chorus I found myself involuntarily thinking, "It's a simple blues, man" but this guy's wailing (I mean in the banshee sense) continued obliviously along. After his fourth chorus I thought maybe he was somebody's father and a few choruses later found myself thinking for the first time since I left the states that I was sorry to be in a country with no ready access to baseball bats. The band, however, politely did their best to follow.

            For the next tune Scatman Clouseau pulled out the only set of bongos I've ever seen at a jam session and the tune after that he took his turn at the drums. I don't know if the band knew this guy, if they were humoring him or being polite or what but if there was ever a time to call "Cherokee" this was it. He wasn't any better at this than scatting and I didn't wait around to see if he went for the hat trick on guitar.

            I'm not sure what to make of all that but in one way the effect on me has been almost as bad as everybody being way better.  I haven't been back to this session for a couple of weeks now because I'm afraid the same guy will be there. The good thing is now I'm practicing with a little bit more diligence just to make sure that, when I finally do work up the nerve to take my horn, I'm not the next Clouseau. I might even ask Cynthia to help as soon as I figure out what a musical Cato does.
             Videos are from the Jazz Manouche session. Bill Cosby needs no explanation.

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