I do concerts here and there on the road. Safe to say that some gigs go better than others. I’m fortunate to have a particularly talented Music Director who usually travels with me but being in high demand as he is, on more than one occasion I’ve had to sub out his position. A while back I was heading to Paris for a concert and was in just such a predicament, however the club there assured me they had a top drawer, jazz pianist who’d be happy to fill in. “Silly me. It’s Paris! Of course they have a fabulous jazz pianist!” Problem solved…or so I thought.
Unmitigated musical disaster is not too grand a phrase to describe what unfolded. I arrived at the club late afternoon at the appointed hour for our run through excited for our opening night. There he was… Mario, the pianist. First, there was the look. His neon nylon suit was totally overshadowed by his enormous bouffe of hair that stood on end well past understandable boundaries of gravity…and then there was the large circa 1970’s plaid bow tie. His smile was infectious though and after a few pleasantries we got to work. My first real clue that things might not go as well as hoped for was when he pulled out a single sheet of music instead of the music charts that had been sent over months before. Each song sent ran anywhere from six to fifteen pages filled with carefully arranged notes specifically crafted by my Music Director for the given tune. Mario dug into the ivories and after a few measures it was patently obvious that his preferred style was oom pah pah, which is about as far from anything that qualifies as jazz you can get. When I asked him why he was not playing off my charts he explained that mine were too complicated. Evidently unaware of my mounting state of shock, he cheerfully continued with gusto, which was augmented by his terminal case of white boy rhythm. We were now only four hours before our first show. I excused myself for a moment and bolted to the manager to inform him of our looming disaster pleading please could he find a proper pianist? Failing to make any headway I returned to Mario and the clock kept ticking. We made what little progress we could and then ladies and gentlemen, it was show time.
I longed for a life handbook. What, I wondered, was the best thing to do? Girding myself with the Berlin lyric, I decided that we had to go on with the show. We repaired to the dressing rooms. I have no memory of applying my make up. I think this is what happens in moments of impending doom. Memory evaporates. The audience arrived, places were called, Mario and I took the stage. We began. He launched into the first number. I tried to find my note, really tried and could not. I do remember thinking “Just sing and keep singing no matter what.” I jumped in and held to the melody like a sailor clinging to a shipwreck in a stormy sea. Mario seemed to have some awareness that things were not going quite as well as they ought but this did nothing to help our predicament. More than once he turned the pages with such enthusiasm so as to skip to a much later part of the song. Trying, I’m sure, to be helpful, he would then sing the part of the song he was playing which had nothing to do with where I was in the tune. At the end of our second number I did what any seasoned professional would do (not), hailed the waiter from the stage and ordered a drink.
The audience graduated through a few stages fairly rapidly. First I suppose they had been in a kind of happy expectation…they had after all bought tickets. Next was confusion, quickly followed by uproarious laughter. Humiliating, but at least they were in on the joke of us unintentionally being somewhere between a Monty Python and a Carol Burnett sketch. I remember saying out loud at some point, after what I believe was his attempt at a solo, ”Throw me a note. Any note!” More than once I stopped mid song and asked him as diplomatically as I possibly could, to take a rest and continued on acapella. After an interminable hour plus, the show was over. I thanked Mario for his work. He had tried awfully hard and there was no sense in being angry with him. I retired to my hotel and spent a sleepless night wondering how on earth we could save ourselves the following performance.
By morning I had hatched a plan. I had recorded these tunes, and thought, if the audience could hear the music, even off my computer, in the manner it was meant to be played, I could sing along with myself sort of karaoke style and Mario could bang away doing his level best to keep up with the recording as a kind of guide track. I strolled the stunning streets of Paris the next morning, which greatly abated the fret over the certain musical guillotine that awaited that evening. Once at the concert venue the manager introduced me to Jean Pierre who he explained was a very fine percussionist. Things were looking up. There was a large percussion solo in the finale and I almost started salivating thinking that if Mario and I could just make it to that point, we could perhaps redeem the evening with a fine percussion solo. Jean Pierre and I talked through the hastily printed off percussion lead sheet. I heard the manager in passing say something along the lines of no pay but free drinks for him and his guest. We were good to go. Why I trusted this manager to provide a second musician is beyond me. That there were no percussion instruments was of minor consideration. Necessity being the mother of invention, I grabbed two of large kitchen bowls, a vase, a decorative antler along with a couple of spoons and arranged them atop the piano next to my computer. The doors opened, our audience took their seats, places were called and we began.
Mario’s survival instinct kicked in and if possible he was playing even more loudly than the night before. I remedied this by leaning the microphone on its stand into the computer in an effort to amplify the recorded sound, leaving me sans mic. Nevermind. I karaok’ed along to the audience’s raucus laughter. I held onto the grand finale as if it were light at the end of a particularly dark tunnel. At last and with short-lived relief, I introduced Jean Pierre who had been seated at the back of the house. To my horror I saw him rise and stagger one painful, weaving lurch forward at a time. He had clearly taken free drinks as an invitation to imbibe. Jean Pierre miraculously arrived at his home-made percussion set, picked up a spoon and with a great thwack to the antler, gave us the down beat. Oh, for a hole in the ground, but finding none, I could only hold onto my self imposed dictum and continue singing no matter what. I don’t recall who got to the end of the song first, Mario or myself. Whoever it was, Jean Pierre now having worked himself into a lather of rhythm, continued. I lunged for his shoulders to let him know above the fray that “The song is OVER!” In so doing however I tripped on the leaning microphone, which then crashed to the floor. I was lucky not to impale my front pearly whites on the piano.
Fast as possible I bid my adieus and jettisoned myself from the venue back out into the magic of Paris whose grand jazz tradition I was mortified to have offended. I did discover I think that the Parisians, to their great credit, have a ready sense of humor. I’m not sure a performance the likes of what Mario, Jean Pierre and I had inflicted would have been accepted in like manner in say, New York. Looking back now, we all survived, no one died but I do ardently hope at some point to be able to redeem the experience. Je m’excuse belle Paris.