Against all odds
“A cheap hotel? Try the Baltimore. It’s one of ours.”
The flight attendant is being considerate to an obviously anxious passenger. I’m 19, fresh out of boarding school, and we’re about to land in New York, of all places. My few possessions consist of a guitar and a bag.
Chicago début (1963)
I catch my first glimpse of Manhattan from the flight crew bus. The city skyline looks like a cross between a scaled-down model and a blowup.
Cheap? Eighteen dollars a night! Her pockets are a bit deeper than mine. I’ve only got 80 dollars for the entire trip. Plus my return ticket, a gift from my father who is flabbergasted at my recent graduation from school. Still, I intend to spend six weeks in the United States, the land of jazz, which I know nothing about at this point. Well, that’s not entirely true: I’ve learned much of its language with the help of talented professors like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. I know their records by heart.
Eighteen dollars. That’s supposed to last me four days in this outrageously expensive city, not including meals! I’ve got to get out of here. I take a bus to the nearest highway, start walking, and try to hitch a ride. A shiny convertible pulls over. The driver asks me where I’m headed. I reply, hesitantly,
– I don’t know. What about you, where are you going?
– Great, Chicago it is. Just make sure you park on the sunny side of the street!
It takes us two days to cover the 900 miles, driving at the speed limit. My driver, who turned out to be very friendly and payed for my lodging at the halfway point, quickly catches on to my game plan as well as my math problem. When we arrive in Chicago, he drops me off in front of the YMCA. This will help me hold off breaking the bank for a while longer.
In the lobby a young Oriental guy approaches me.
– You play the guitar?
– Yes, a little.
– Me too. What brand is yours?
Once out of its carrying case, he gives it a try. Afterwards, I play my modest repertoire for him. For several years the guitar provided me with an outlet and escape from the dull, cramped conditions of the boarding schools I attended. I’m good with my hands, graced with manual dexterity, and I show off a bit.
– That’s fantastic! If you’re interested, I’ll borrow my dad’s car tonight, and we can hit some nightclubs and audition.
I readily accept.
The first club is called Old Town North.
– Are you 21?, the owner asks me, suspiciously.
– It’s not your looks, it’s your maturity that counts.
He leads me to the stage. I start off with a classical piece, Albeniz’s Asturias, followed by a noisy flamenco. I close with a lively rendition of Forbidden Games. The crowd responds enthusiastically.
– I’ll hire you for a week, two half-hour sets a night. How much do you want?
My head is suddenly filled with greed. After all, I was a hit, and I’m in the richest country in the world. This is the chance of a lifetime to make some money.
– Well, you know, for an artist of my stature…You said one week, right? I hope you realize the financial implications involved…
– How much?
This guy doesn’t mess around!
– I insist on 50 dollars for the week, not a penny less.
– I’ll give you a hundred.
Well, I managed to spend six weeks in the United States after all. The midwest, the Rockies, California, even Canada, all of it, from north to south, east to west, and everything in between. I was able to improve my playing in clubs where I met the musicians I had idolized for years. At the London House in Chicago, the Hungry I in San Francisco, and the Café Wha in New York, I listen to Ray Bryant, Oscar Peterson, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith, Dizzy Gillespie.… For laughs some of them even join in while I’m playing.
When I get back to New York, I have 60 dollars in my pocket to buy the jazz records I’ve always dreamed of owning. Jazz, an American-born musical form, popularized in Europe, is in the process of reaching a pinnacle of creativity. Soon it will take a backseat to rock, much to the dismay of jazz lovers.
After the last two months, jetlag isn’t the only thing I have to get over when I return to Paris. The diploma I was so proud of before I left has now become a source of stress. I no longer see it as an expansion of my horizons but as something alien to me, out of synch with what I feel inside.
At my age, however, the world is mine for the taking. With my state scholarship, I’m convinced I’ll become a professor and enjoy a comfortable retirement later on, which my family is elated about. But what about music? It had never occurred to me that someone could derive pleasure and profit from performing. Would my life really be as wonderful as those two months in America?
But this year it’s already too late. I’ll begin my studies at the French National Sports Institute (CREPS) and register for classes at the conservatory. As for the future, I’ll leave that till later.
It took two long years before music finally gained the upper hand. I had been deeply moved by my experiences in America and decided to stop fighting my instincts. I am also beginning to discover traditional musical forms, and my technique is improving. The time has come to set out on a more ambitious voyage. I decide to pack my bags and travel around the world, playing music to support myself. I’m not sure how long it will take—as long as I need, I suppose—but there is little doubt in my mind about what I’m going to do. First stop, Venice, where a ship awaits. All aboard! It’s January 1966.
Order the book