I started scraping my living in Paris as a street musician. More precisely, a metro tunnel musician. Then, as years went by, metro tunnels turned into illegal bars, then legal bars, then high-class piano bars. I worked my way through the hierarchy of musicianship in a metropolis such as Paris. Very slowly, painstakingly. But I did scrape a living.
There is one particularly fun memory from those days I'd like to share with you. This is meant especially those aspiring musicians, painters, students and altogether starving artists that wish more than anything to try to make it big in Paris. Go for it, my friends. For I do not believe this story could have happened in the countryside. Although, anything is possible...
Our band was playing what felt like the thousandth evening in a small piano bar at rue Daunou, the one next to Harry's Bar and close to the old Opéra Garnier. It must have been two thirty at night, and the party was just getting going. We knew we had at least another two hours to go before we could stop, and we had had a few kirs to get that extra energy boost. I was singing my heart out about the son of a preacher man, when I saw a tall man with long dread locks enter the bar. He had a drink and watched us play, and tried to hit on a young woman sitting next to him, apparently with no luck. When we took our pause, he came to ask if he could come and play with us for a while. 'What do you play?', I asked. 'Oh, a little bit of this, a little bit of that', he said. 'Hang on, I'll go get my trumpet from my hotel room', he said and disappeared in to the night. I thought that was the last we'd see of him, but the man came swiftly back and when we started again, he jammed with us.
We had a really fun evening, or should I say morning. When we finally stopped playing at four thirty, the guy told the young woman at the counter to come hear him play the following day. The lady didn't look that interested, but the musician was genial - he beamed at us and asked if we'd want to come hear his gig. We had nothing specific to do and so we said yes. He told his name and gave the name of his hotel. 'Call me tomorrow morning at ten', he said, 'I'll take down your names and give them to the door man tomorrow.' Slightly swaying, he left for his hotel, and we packed the car to go home. Outide the bar, the young lady from the counter warned us: 'Be careful with that guy. I'm sure as hell I won't go anywhere to see his gig! He said it was in some pub called 'Bar des Sports', and you know what those are like!' She strutted off, and we shrugged - hey, what the heck. We like music pubs. The musician had been nice and we still held on to our plans to go see him play the next day, at the 'Bar des Sports', wherever that was.
The following morning I dialed the hotel's number. 'Ritz Paris, bonjour,' a man answered. 'Oh, umm, can you put me through to room five oh six, please?' 'Certainly, ma'am', he said. The phone rang in room 506 for quite some time before the musician answered. He took a while to remember who I was, but as I explained too him we had jammed the night before, he seemed to remember us. 'Oh. OK. Here's the address, show up at quarter to seven tonight. I'll give your names for the doorman', he mumbled and hung up.
We looked for a while before finding the address he had given. After searching for a while we realized the place he had mentioned with his american-accented french wasn't Bar des Sports at all. It was the 'Palais des Sports', an immense concert and congress hall. We shrugged and went to see one of the doormen. He eyeballed us for a while but took our names and went somewhere to verify the list. A long line of viewers was forming a queue at each door. I had time to finish a cigarette as the doorman came back and asked us to follow him.
We followed the man through long hallways into the gigantic concert hall, where he directed us to be seated right in the middle and on the fourth row. I grimaced thinking about what would happen next - we would be chased off our exclusive seats when he figured we hadn't paid for them. But the doorman dug something out of his bag. 'Here', he gave us each a plastic card. 'These are your VIP passes. When the show is over, stay seated until the hall is empty; you will then be called to the back stage. Have a good concert.'
We sat, stunned, as the lights went down and the crowd cheered. The musicians, one by one, filled the stage, among them the trumpet player - who was also a pianist, percussionist, accordionist and band leader. The last person to join the band, accompanied by a standing ovation, was Paul Simon.
After the show, we were invited backstage as promised, and we got to meet the musicians and Paul Simon. Unfortunately, I never saw the trumpet player again.
The following night, we went back to play in our piano bar, wondering who would walk in next, just happy to be there, alive, exhilarated. In Paris.