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.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

For Mum

           My mother was really something. Everybody said so. She knew how to fix everything and there was nothing on wheels she couldn’t drive. And I was her favorite.           
My sisters gave me this last bit of information long after I could have exploited it.  To me, she treated us all the same and, like most good mothers, always put herself last. Then again, she did that with everyone, especially my father.  We got to keep her for over 93 years so I should probably consider myself lucky, but for the nearly 2 years that she’s been gone it’s felt like I’m being cheated. Today I would have called her to wish her a happy 95th birthday.

            As she neared the end of her life, Mum told us her life wouldn’t have been worth anything if it hadn’t been for my sisters and I but we know that’s nonsense. She had worked for 5 or 6 years at Gimbel’s department store in downtown Pittsburgh then, during WW II, got a job at Gulf Oil’s Research and Development Center in Harmarville, a few miles from where we grew up. Mum’s job at “The Lab” was to keep bench mounted automobile and truck engines used in fuel testing tuned up and running right so she knew more about cars than my father, but he'd never have admitted that. She was still working there when she married him and that was the end of that, just like most women her age.

            Six months after my father died in 1998, my mother had a stroke and 6 months after that she went to assisted living for good. While cleaning out her house in preparation for selling it, we found all of her and my grandmother's old photos, including some that I had never seen before. It sounds stupid to say this but that's when I realized she had a life before us. The person in these pictures, while definitely Mum, is a person I never knew although we got glimpses of her from time to time. This was Martha Kapteina and she was young, single and having good time. She just has a look about her that doesn't exactly mean she was a party girl but that she and her friends enjoyed each other.  A lot of this got packed away, I think, when she became Martha Gunia and took a back seat to all of us.

Mum on right.
Mum,right. Aunt Jane with sign. Grandma between them.

           This was the role Mum had taken on for herself and it came naturally. Her mother, the only grandparent that lived long enough for us to know, lived with us and while we loved her and she us, there's no denying that she was pretty self-centered. My grandfather had died when the shotgun he was cleaning went off and killed him, or at least that's what we were always told. Mum was 7 and she and Grandma were the only ones home when it happened. Even at the age of 90 she could describe pretty clearly what she had seen. This was in 1925 and she, Aunt Jane, Uncle Jim and my grandmother had to move into a small apartment where she was still living in 1950 when she married my father. Grandma came with her.

            My father was a frustrated actor who'd become a civil servant. He craved and sought being the center of attention so when he and Grandma ended up under the same roof, well, it probably doesn't need much explaining.

            Mum loved me like she did because of what I was like as a little boy. I'm not sure exactly how that was but I can tell you that at the age of 4 or 5, I worried an awful lot about 2 old ladies on our street who lived by themselves. Whatever he'd been, that little boy gradually disappeared, helped along the way by his father, schoolyard bullies and a career for which he was completely unsuited - but he was always there to Mum. On one of the last trips to see me that she made before her stroke, after witnessing yet another tirade brought on by some forgotten but doubtless trivial outrage, she looked at me and said, "What happened to you? You were such a gentle soul." 
            I don't know, Mum, but he turns up from time to time. Anyway, Happy Birthday. I miss you.
At "The Lab"


Monday, December 3, 2012

Le Serrurier, Part deux

     I’ve been trying to do a music related post for a while now but events seem to be dictating otherwise. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about getting locked out of our apartment and calling a locksmith. The guy that showed up from Artisans Girondins not only wrecked our old lock and door latch but charged us €1,403 for the privilege. His explanation was that our insurance would cover the whole thing and, just to show his good intentions, he’d hang onto our check until we got paid. At the time, this all sounded fishy but we didn’t have a lot of choice so we wrote the check and hoped for the best. After all, this is France, not Italy where I would have known better.

     As soon as we started checking the price of locks, we knew, I mean we confirmed, we’d been taken to the cleaners. And telling this story produced gasps, wide eyes and oh-la-la-la-la’s in absolutely everyone, so we were beginning to think that we’d been pretty stupid, at least I was anyway. (By the way, oh-la-la [not oo-la-la] is an all purpose conversational intensifier and the number of la’s is in direct proportion to its intensity).

     So first we went to the bank to try stopping payment on our check. In France, this is called an opposition and obviously doesn’t happen much because, after they finished gasping and oh-la-la-ing,  it took a couple of in-house phone calls to produce someone who actually knew the procedure. But almost as soon as we got home from the bank, Cynthia checked our account and discovered that about the time we were trying to stop payment, the money was coming out of our account. We’d been had. So we gathered up our evidence, consisting of the shrapnel that used to be our door lock plus the bill, and headed down to see the gendarmes.

     At the police station there was more eye-popping oh-la-la-ing and the explanation that, as in the U.S., this is a civil matter and we were going to have to take our troubles to the Tribunal d’instance, more or less small claims court, conveniently nearby. Here we got no reaction (used to it, I guess) – just the forms and instructions on filing a complaint, plus the name and address of the city’s mediation service, which it was suggested we should try first since the civil procedure could take months.

     A few days later, one of our friends emailed us a copy of a magazine article about fraud and consumer protection in France that lead off with examples of how serruriers routinely screw people all over the country with pretty much a carbon copy of what had happened to us. The article also provided a rundown of the many regulations and laws our locksmith had violated, plus the phone number for the Direction Départmentale de la Protection des Populationes, the consumer protection agency,which Cynthia called. Then, with the help of our friend Joëlle, she wrote out a couple of letters to the mediator and the consumer people, then wondered if we’d ever see any of our money again.

     About the time Cynthia was finishing the accounts of our tale of woe, the bank called to tell us our check had been presented for payment, did we still want to oppose it? I don’t think there is any way to translate into French, “You’re fuckin’ A right we do” but Cynthia got as close as she could. This time somebody had to call all the way to Paris to find out what to do. I have yet to figure this out but as near as I can guess, funds are deducted from your account before actually going into the payee’s, so money we thought was gone was simply in transit.

     Next day, a Thursday (and, coincidentally, Thanksgiving),  €1,403 magically returned to our account and the day after that, Cynthia answered her cell phone to find an irate French locksmith on the other end. She faked not really being able to speak or understand French very well while managing to get the point across that we were being cheated. Clement (this time we got a name) threatened us with a variety of annoyances including the aforementioned Tribunal and standing at our door until he got every last sou. To all of which Cynthia responded with some French equivalent of, “Bring it on, mo-fo”.

      Then the guy relented somewhat and decided to drop the price a bit, opening the door to negotiations. We went back and forth through several phone calls, culminating at about 9 that night in our final offer of €500, which we made clear was still too high. Telling us it was impossible but he’d ask his boss and call us on Monday, this was the last we heard from anyone and it’s now been over a week. 

      Cynthia and Joëlle polished up our letters and mailed them out last week, so now we wait. I wonder how this is going to turn out? I’ll let you know but I think it’ll be a while.

"Is this the date?" "No, it's the price...including tax!"

"And the duplicate new key, its a gift."