Jazzmen

When doing any academic work requiring a bit more than casual concentration, my choice for musical background invariably veers toward jazz.

House or techno is great coding music, but just takes too much of my attention off; and the kind of classical I can study to, also tends to get on my nerves quickly whenever the studying doesn’t go as smoothly as it should…

On the other hand, old jazz tracks, first half of the century, New-Orleans, Dixie, later French stuff… they just got the perfect mix of bouncy instrumental and subdued beat that helps keeping you in a working groove without turning your nerves into a knot. My playlist currently rotates lots of old no-names Charleston big-bands and swing tracks, along with everything I got by Stephan Grappelli, Django Reinhardt or Sidney Bechet…


As a high-school student in Paris, my buddy Pierre and I used to hang out quite often with local jazz musicians. Pierre’s younger cousin, despite being barely pubescent, was an incredible jazz piano player. Last in a lineage of music nuts, he had been enrolled very early on in the family affair, a band that had once, in typical jazz fashion, spanned over three generations and was now composed of the son-father duo completed by a couple other professional players. Among them was Daniel Bechet, son of Sidney and all around talented drummer.

Of the numerous episodes of strangely anachronistic fun I remember from these days, one particularly stands out:

We had tagged along for some outdoor Summer gig, in the outskirts of Paris, eventually turning into the typical night of hopskipping throughout the city, punctuated by seemingly random jams in small smoked-out basement clubs. At least half a dozen of us were crammed in some absolute caricature of an old American classic car… I am way too ignorant about car makes to tell you which exactly, but it was the kind with large sidesteps on each side that just begged for you to stand on them with a wide-stripe suit and a machine-gun, and enough room in the trunk to fit, depending on your needs, 60 gallons of contraband whiskey, three human bodies… or the music equipment of a full jazz ensemble… We were heading back toward the city, driving through the Bois de Boulogne, the closest you’ll ever get to a real forest without losing sight of the Eiffel Tower: as such, a popular meeting spots for all sorts of people looking to escape the eye of the law, as well as those whose mission it is to precisely remind them of its existence.

Now, what do you think happens when Parisian policemen spot two black guys in the front of a car large enough to touch both sides of the curb, driving through a suburban wooden area at 2 in the morning?

If your answer was “they wave them through and focus on ongoing drug peddling and prostitution happening all over the nearby woods”, you most definitely never dealt with the French police. Or you weren’t dark-skinned the last time you did. Because let me tell you the infamous driving while black offense translates very well into French (especially in its variant: driving while Arab).

I am sure it won’t come as a surprise if I tell you that these esteemed law-enforcement agents were anything but impressed by the “music band going home from a concert” explanation, despite such subtle hints as a trunk full of music instruments, promotional tapes and concert flyers… On the other hand, finding the enveloppe that contained the night’s pay, a few suspiciously dilated pupils and, of course, the pocket knife Daniel carried at all times (full-fledged knife collector loony that he was), went a long way to convince them they had just intercepted some high-profile narco-trafficants, no doubt freshly parachuted from Colombia with their car in the middle of the French countryside.

After begrudgingly giving up on the idea of dismantling the car, tires and all, and hearing back from headquarters, much to their disappointment, that this suspiciously foreign-looking guy was indeed born and raised in France (where his dad emigrated in the fifties, I think), they let us go.

But not before one inquired, in a half-hearted attempt at making small talk, where he could possibly have heard that last name (which Daniel Bechet had corrected him into reading with the appropriate Anglo-Saxon pronunciation)…

Oh, how hard it was to contain the belly laugh when his colleague quickly berated him for failing to recognize the name of such a famous… soccer player.

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