Jane Ellen

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Evening in Paris

The first instrument I chose for myself was the accordion. When I was perhaps 2 years old I was given a toy xylophone which I played incessantly, and I was always keen to get my hands on any other sort of percussion instrument, generally remnants from long discarded music education rhythm bands lying unguarded at the various primary schools I attended.
 
I began playing piano (sort of) around the time I was seven; it wasn't my idea, I wasn't keen, and I wouldn't actually begin to take lessons (and practise) until I was 17. I remember coming across a child's accordion in the Army Caserne thrift shop in France, only weeks before we were due to head back to this side of the pond. My mother was immovable; I had been given every opportunity to learn piano yet had failed to do much more than spend rainy afternoons banging away in some sort of discordant, avant garde cacophony which I called 'composing'. Therefore, if I wanted another instrument, I could buy it myself. 
 
I gazed longingly at the object of my desire all covered with red faux mother of pearl (it would turn out to be the only instrument I would ever own that wasn't a 'sensible' colour until I purchased a bright blue rhythm tech tambourine in my 30s). It had 8 magical buttons on one side and what looked like 10 or 12 piano keys on the other. I tentatively unbuckled the bellows, pushed keys and buttons as softly as possible, and to my ears, the sound was pure magic. My mind was made up. I had saved the fabulous sum of $8 for our return to the States, a now forgotten country, but that day it was all in my mother's purse. Incredulously she watched me give half of it to the cashier. As we walked back to our first storey flat, I did my best to figure out how to play it, despite the broken shoulder straps and there being no way to fasten it on.
 
Why the accordion? It should have been the clarinet or the saxophone (both of which I would later learn to play). After all, it was those instruments that had impressed me most when I spent two evenings in an historic Parisian café listening to Benny Waters. I can still see the cigarette haze as we entered La Cigale; I didn’t know it was the only remaining jazz club in Paris at the time, nor did I realise that its location on the Blvd Rochechouart was deep in the heart of the red light district. What I did know, was that my mother was determined that I was going to hear live jazz in a Paris nightclub, and she made it happen.
 
The hours flew by far too quickly; the waiter was impressed with my French, and my appearance was that of any other French school child. He continually brought treats and seemingly endless cups of coffee heavily diluted with milk and cocoa to 'la petite fille des Américains', believing, as did our hotel staff, that I had been adopted by Americans serving in the military. Looking back, I must have seemed impolite, but I fear I paid little attention to his gifts as my eyes were glued to the bandstand, revelling in the magic of seeing a live performance from only a few tables away.
 
I didn't know that Benny was nearing the end of a 15 year reign at La Cigale; nor did I care that he was an American jazz expat with a musical resumé several kilometres long. I couldn't have foreseen that he would still be performing half a world away in 1998, when he died at the age of 95. What I did know was that he could pick up an instrument, blow into it, wiggle his fingers, and make time stand still. 
 
The second night we were there, I gathered up my courage and approached the bandstand between sets. I suspect most of the band members were Americans, but we chatted in French and I left clutching a piece of paper signed by all of them to 'la petite Jeanne'. Before they began to play again, Benny asked me what my favourite song was and I replied without hesitation 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow'. Their next set began with that song, dedicated to me, and the kindness of this amazing musician still brings tears to my eyes. 
 
Years later when I was working the music beat for a newspaper I discovered that Benny had never been accorded the recognition he so clearly deserved. He was not only a multi-instrumentalist, he was a singer, composer, and arranger, and had been playing jazz – with seemingly effortless and endless energy – since its earliest days. I wouldn't have known the name King Oliver when I was 8, but I couldn't have been any more impressed with Benny if I'd known then that he had worked with this early Chicago jazz legend. 
 
So, why the accordion? As much as I loved that humble, gentle, exciting man, someone stole Mr Waters's thunder on that second night. An accordionist, apparently a friend, sat in on a couple of sets with a magic all his own. I sometimes wonder if it might have been an icon in his own right, perhaps Gus Viseur, but the truth is I'll never know. What I do know is that I will never forget the kindness of Benny Waters and his band members that chilly Paris evening when they took the time to treat a small child as an adult and make her feel very grown-up. 

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