Getting on Stage in a Parisian Jazz Club

Getting on Stage in a Parisian Jazz Club

Descending the steps into the “Cave a Jazz,” I gripped the rail tightly with my right hand, guiding the other along the uneven stones on the opposite wall to steady myself. In the darkened tunnel, I wasn’t quite sure where I was going, or how I’d gotten myself into this. Even stumbling a little, I was grateful Terra and I had ordered the second bottle of wine with dinner. The looseness of my limbs countered the thrum of nerves running through me, like I had grabbed an electrified wire and couldn’t let go.

I reached the bottom of the stairs and stopped, trying to get my bearings. Terra waited behind me, still on the last step. The pale stone walls, dim lights, and cool, damp air made me wonder if they had found a real cave, or if they had carved this basement in the middle of Montmartre from solid rock. Behind the bar stretching off to the right, the manager greeted me again with a huge smile.

“Ah, la chanteuse! Bienvenue! Welcome,” he gushed as he ushered us further into the room. “La musique est la,” he continued, escorting us to the next room, even smaller than the bar area, with a tiny platform at the end with a piano, drum set, and upright bass ready to be played. The walls were all carved stone, and we found a seat on a small banquette right up against the stage. We were the first ones there, but even full, the area would hold only 15 to 20 people.

As we waited for the music to start, I took deep breaths and tried to calm my racing heart. What did I have to be afraid of?

I returned the smile, feigning confidence. “Merci, monsieur! A quelle heure…does the music start?” My high school French was pretty rusty, but luckily his English was much better.

“9:30 or so. Please, have a seat. What can I bring you to drink?”

The thought of drinking anything more and then having to climb back up those stairs gave me pause, but given the “Consommation Obligatoire” sign on the wall behind where the musicians would play, we gamely ordered more wine.

As we waited for the music to start, I took deep breaths and tried to calm my racing heart. What did I have to be afraid of? After all, I’d successfully navigated us through the Parisian metro, spoken French to many waiters and shop owners, and even tried some of Terra’s escargots, the two of us sopping up the delicious gravy with baskets of chewy bread.

What did I have to be afraid of? After all, I’d successfully navigated us through the Parisian metro, spoken French to many waiters and shop owners, and even tried some of Terra’s escargots

The room filled quickly with snappily dressed Parisians mostly in black, a few carrying instruments. A couple crowded around our tiny table, perched on small round stools more suited to their slender French bottoms than our more ample American ones. The house musicians made their way to the stage, and Andre (the drummer) introduced the first set, entirely in French of course with an accent that would make you swoon. I caught about every third word but it didn’t matter, as the music was about to begin.

Remembering that the jam session didn’t officially start until the second set, I relaxed into the familiar sounds of the piano playing American jazz standards, with the thump of the bass and chickety-chick of the drums. They were good. Really good. Oh crap. My shoulders tightened again and the familiar buzzing set in just behind my eyes. Deep breaths… don’t think about it.

After the break, they started swapping out musicians, bringing up people from the room to play bass, drums, piano, and even a trumpet and sax at different times. In this tiny cave, only inches from the stage, the music was truly fantastique. I almost forgot what was coming, until Andre smiled at me from the microphone, telling the audience, “Nous avons une chanteuse d’Amérique.” The audience applauded wildly as I stood, my smiling face reddening and hands clammy, and made my way up to the stage.

Choosing a song was a challenge. I consulted with the pianist and bass player (also amateurs up for the jam session), using my broken French and their limited English along with my list of jazz standards and keys I sing in on my iPhone. We found one song that we all knew, “All the Things You Are.” Key of F.

The music started, and I grinned at how cool it was to count off in French.

I took the microphone, and counted off. “Un, deux, un, deux, trois, quatre.” The music started, and I grinned at how cool it was to count off in French. I looked out at the audience, moving with the music, waiting for my entrance. It wasn’t long before I realized I had missed it. My heart stopped. These musicians were not used to accompanying a singer, and instead of vamping on the first few chords, they launched right into the song from the beginning. There was nothing to do but wait until they went through the whole form, then came back around to the top. I kept the smile plastered on my face and hoped my sweaty palms wouldn’t drop the microphone before I got a chance to sing.

“You are the promised kiss of springtime, that makes the lonely winter seem long.”

I did it. As the room erupted with applause and cheers, I thanked them—“Merci beaucoup”—and made my way back to my seat, my chest bursting with confidence and relief.

“So, what should we do tomorrow?” I asked Terra. “Bungee jump from the Eiffel Tower?”

Getting on Stage in a Parisian Jazz Club

Getting on Stage in a Parisian Jazz Club

About Mary Ellen Connelly

Mary Ellen ConnellyMary Ellen Connelly earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Electrical Engineering, and currently works selling software to engineers and scientists. In her spare time she enjoys traveling, writing, playing bridge, swing dancing, spending time with her family, and singing jazz and choral music.

Ms. Connelly’s memoir, Losing Bear: My Brother’s Journey into Schizophrenia, tells of her troubled relationship with her adored oldest brother, who descended into schizophrenia in his late twenties. She is currently working on a book about the challenges of women in the workplace. Her blog, Facing It: Looking at Tough Issues with Honesty and Compassion, can be found here.

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