PARIS – This has been a weird week: I arrived back very early on Tuesday morning from a two-day trip back from Sao Paulo via New York’s JFK airport, meaning an entire day spent in JFK, and two night flights in total to get back home. To say nothing of the number of time zones. And so I then arrived in paris early on Tuesday morning, and as I walked back to the apartment from the Port Royal RER station, I passed through a street market on the 11th November public holiday, and as they set up the market, several of the food hawkers said hello to me with bright, fresh morning smiles. Could this really be Paris? The place I was told decades ago that I would love for its city, but hate the people?
So anyway, I would end up sleeping off jet-lag that very same morning, then going to the Baroc open mic on the Tuesday night. It already seemed like a different culture, a different world, a different Paris, but the Baroc is also a fabulously atypical Paris. Or rather, it is perhaps one of the most quintessential Paris experiences in a bar that has kept its authenticity, and that loves music. The open mic, as usual, had a wide cross-section of fun and interesting acts, and the sound and MCing was done in the usual friendly manner by Réjean, the Frenchman with a more Quebec-sounding name than French French.
There were some familiar faces, but some new ones too. In any case, I need not go into detail, since you can just look at the videos…. Just needless to say, it felt like home after the two weeks away in Sao Paulo and Austin Texas….
On Wednesday night, it was off to the Swan Bar’s vocal jam of Wednesday night. And there, I found no familiar faces except that of the bar owner, the barwoman, and Sheldon Forrest, the pianist, MC, who has presented the vocal jam for several years now, as this has become one of the mainstays of the Paris scene, especially for those who like jazz – although Sheldon (who plays piano for the singers who need a musician) points out each time that all forms of music are welcome. My only problem with the Swan Bar is that it’s stiff prices won’t attract the majority of poor musicians, as there is even a cover charge for those wishing to play.
PARIS – I just finished a day of work at the office, and I find myself having to rush off for a meal before another, early-starting open mic tonight. That means I have no time whatsoever to do a blog item about the absolutely wonderful open mic I attended last night. But because it was so absolutely wonderful, I desperately want to write about it here – i.e., just mark it down in this blog, mark my territory, place it in the page before time takes over with another few adventures….
So with that in mind, and feeling desperate about being late for my dinner rendezvous and not being able to write anything that will live up to the great atmosphere of last night’s open mic, it suddenly occurred to me that, hey, how long does it really take to write a blog item just to get SOMETHING down on paper!?! (On the screen, not paper….) So then I thought of a challenge: Give myself a limit of three minutes and that’s the end of it! It doesn’t cost much in the grand scheme of things, maybe not even the metro I have to catch!
OK, but here we are now and I realize that it has taken me three minutes to write the above two paragraphs and I am losing my own self-imposed challenge! So I have to conclude this now before a fourth minute passes. IE, the open mic in question was the Wednesday night vocal jam session of the Swan Bar in Montparnasse, and despite it having a theme of jazz standards, it is entirely open to just about every kind of music, as you will see from the few videos I managed to take (and upload earlier in the day).
This is a very fun open mic of a different format, and much of the fun is thanks to the incredibly wonderful hosting of Sheldon Forrest, the pianist MC, organizer of the open mic who plays along with singers who do not otherwise play an instrument. Bring your sheet music and play with Sheldon, and now a sax or clarinet man and bassist. Or if you have a guitar or for that matter a harp, you can go and play that!
Anyway, I have now failed because that fourth minute has come and gone and I MUST go! Bear with me if you read through all this crap that I have laid down on the screen in the last four minutes and a bit more.
Hugely mixed emotions yesterday night as I had a couple of literary evenings mixed with music to attend. The first was not mixed with music, in fact, but was the most bittersweet. That was a visit to The Village Voice Bookshop, for a party to “celebrate” the closure of this Paris institution of the last 30 years. The store is closing as it can no longer survive as an independent bookshop in our Internet and ebook world. The second event was a celebration of Bloomsday, at the Swan Bar, where I was invited to play music and to listen to readings of James Joyce prose and other Irish things.
The Village Voice was one of my first Paris hangouts, and I went there in the second year of its existence, starting in 1983. I had seen many readings there, met many people, and got to know Odile Hellier, the woman who started the shop and has run it all these years. She is a fascinating woman who loves American literature, and decided to open a store with the true feel of the American literary expat bookshop in Paris – I guess she is a mixture of both Sylvia Beach AND Adrienne Monnier, who ran their stores only a few blocks away a few decades ago….
When I arrived for the closing celebration, I found that not even my personal invitation to the thing would save me from the impossibility of getting through the doors, so full was the two-floor shop of admirers and book lovers. In fact, they were bursting out into the street. All I could manage to do was glimpse inside and see Odile reading something from the staircase to the throngs below. I made a video of this, to give an idea.
I went off and ate a wonderful pizza dinner at a nearby pizzeria, where I also devoured the London Review of Books that I had bought in Montreal last week. Then I returned, sweating from that hot and spicy pizza, and found that I could now penetrate into the Village Voice. There I found the place now had enough room available for a visitor to wander around, and meet old friends. I started by saying hello to Odile outside the shop, where she was talking with someone and no doubt getting some fresh air after her various readings.
Inside, I found some old friends, including Jim Haynes, the American Paris expat supreme, whom, I recalled, I had met for the first time at the Village Voice in the back room cafe it used to have, in 1984, while I was reading Jim’s very own autobiography, “Thanks For Coming.” Jim and I kept contact over the years, I have been to his famous Sunday dinners at his atelier in the 15th arrondissement, and our lives have criss-crossed occasionally.
I also saw David Applefield, whom I had met at Shakespeare and Company in 1983 in the writer’s room, but whom I had probably seen more often in those early days at the Village Voice. David, at the time I met him, was working on the first Paris issue of his literary review called “Frank,” which would go on to have many more issues and a long life in Paris. Last night he passed on to me a book he has just published, right off the press, in a new imprint, and which was written by another Paris literary alumnus, John Strand.
Strand had started another Paris literary review in the early 1980s, called Exile, or Paris Exile, can’t remember quite. But I do remember him celebrating one of the issues at some kind of evening at the Village Voice in the early 1980s. Strand has gone on to become a multiple prize-winning playwright based in Washington D.C., and his novel is called, “Commieland.” I’m looking forward to reading it, and seeing where Applefield’s imprint, called, Kiwai Media, goes.
Unfortunately, I could stay long at the Village Voice as I had agreed so sing Irish songs at the Bloomsday evening at the Swan Bar, a newer American-culture hangout in Paris. In a brisk walk from the rue Princesse to Montparnasse, I managed to digest that pepperoni pizza and all the desert items – macarons – that I ate at the Village Voice. I arrived to find Sheldon Forrest hard at work accompanying a singer, and the Swan Bar was just brimming full of people.
This bode well, and as I waited to perform my first song, it occurred to me that I had a nice little story to tell about James Joyce, and I could connect it to the build up of my song. It was a story about how the journalist and novelist Eugene Jolas had spoken to Joyce one day and asked him what he accomplished that day, and Joyce responded that he had worked all day and managed to complete a sentence. “Only one sentence??!!!” “Well, yes,” said Joyce. “I knew what the seven words were, but I could not figure out what order I wanted to put them in.” I then told the audience that I had several songs, but did not know what order to sing them in. The one that went down the best, and which I did sing the best, was “Only Our Rivers Run Free,” by Mickey MacConnell.
There were lots of other musicians, lots of readers, and the evening was in general a bigger success – I felt – than last year’s such celebration at the Swan Bar.
I returned home, had a good sleep, got up today and finally, finally, after nearly four years finished the book I have been working on about my first year of musical adventures around the world. I also came up with a new, final, working title: “OUT OF A JAM: An Around-the-World Story of Healing and Rebirth through Music” In the end, I must say, that it felt appropriate to complete the book on such a literary weekend….
Last night the plan was to stay home and take care of things I never have the time for. Then a friend contacted me and asked if I wanted to go out for a drink. I sure did! Took my guitar, suggested we go to the Cabaret Culture Rapide, which is cool little bar in Belleville that has an open mic on Friday evenings – without a mic. Ended up listening to diverse musical and comical acts and talking with my friend and playing six different songs myself on three stints on stage. A fabulous night, in short!
But have to keep this extra short itself, as I have a potential three things lined up for tonight: The Village Voice party to mark the closing of this monument of a story in the Latin Quarter after 30 years; a performance at the Swan Bar to mark an evening of festivities surrounding Bloomsday; and finally possibly a jam in Menilmontant, if there is any time or energy left over….
The announcement on Facebook immediately caught my attention: The Swan Bar was holding an exceptional jam session on Friday from 9:30 PM to 1:00 AM. The Swan Bar is an American owned a run NYC-style jazz bar in Montparnasse, and it usually has fixed acts on Friday nights followed by an open stage from 11:30 to 1 or so. So this was an exceptional jam, and announced as such by the music master MC and pianist extraordinaire, Sheldon Forrest. That meant I had to go.
Of course, ever since my first visit to the Swan Bar a couple of years ago I have always felt that it was not really a place for a sort of rocky, folky, singer songwriterly type like me. But since every single time I go I am accepted with open arms – as are all other musicians of disparate styles – I end up going, and end up pleased and proud.
Last night was no exception. Sheldon accompanied all sorts of singers in songs of traditional jazz, broadway show type songs, right up to the pop stuff I do, like Canelle De Balasy the barwoman’s rendition of Bob Dylan.
And then the stage was mine twice, alone with my guitar. I did one of my own songs, and three cover songs, in two visits to the stage. It was very far away from the jazz standards that made up the bulk of the music, but as usual, provided a break and a change.
A wonderful evening, on the whole, and let’s hope they do more….
Trying to choose between the things I might be able to do last night, I decided I would head over to see a gig in a bar in the 18th Arrondissement of Paris of a friend, Thomas Arlo, and his new musical partner, Pierre Catton. I didn’t expect all that much, although I have always thought that Thomas is a fine and talented singer, both in his native English and French. From California, Thomas has been living in France for the last year or more, and he often plays at the Ptit Bonheur la Chance open mic. When I suddenly noticed that I could attend his gig at Clin’s Bar and then take the same metro across Paris to the Swan Bar and do the “Round Midnight” open mic there, I said, “That’s a plan.”
But once I got to Clin’s and listened to Thomas’s repertoire, both alone and with Pierre, and then Pierre’s solo stuff too, and once I found that I was in great company with a number of regulars from the Ptit Bonheur la Chance, in this very tiny but cool bar, I decided to stay there and not go to the open mic at the Swan Bar. Nothing against the latter, but I was just happy to spend some time amongst friends and good and fun music, and meeting new people too. So that’s what I did.
In fact, it even got really hot and exciting later on when a momentary riot broke out while Pierre was singing a song about three songs from the end of the night. Kind of a mini Altamont, but with no one injured and all ending happily….
Thanks to this blog, and especially my Thumbnail guide to open mics in Paris, I had the most interesting and gratifying evening of music and a meal last night with a beautiful African princess named Zahra Universe. Huh? Yes, and this lady is from Virginia, U.S.A., and whiter than me. And her natural singing voice is located somewhere in the region of Tori Amos, Rickie Lee Jones, Madonna, Adele and Amy…. She is a globetrotting singer songwriter who is at ease in techno dance music as she is alone behind the piano, like last night at the Swan Bar. But let me backtrack a bit….
This blog sometimes goes way beyond my wildest expectations in terms of what it gifts me with. Especially that list of places to play in Paris. So many times I’ve had people come up to me at open mics saying, “Hey, I found this place thanks to your list….” I met Zahra after one of her friends and band members in the U.S. found my list and queried me on where Zahra might play in Paris – ie, where there was an open mic and a piano. So I directed them to a few places, including the Swan Bar. Within a day or two I learned Zahra had just arrived in France and immediately booked at gig at the Swan Bar. That hooked my interest, so I went last night to listen.
I had heard her dance music stuff on Zahra’s web site and was curious to hear what she might sound like alone behind a piano. I was not let down. It was intimate, the voice was real, strong and sweat – as was her presence. Which brings us back to the African princess bit. It turns out that Zahra has done charitable work in Africa, that she was there last year to record a video in Cameroon with the musician Wes Madiko, and that during that visit she was honored by a government official and given the title of princess in Cameroon. Her latest CD, Dancing by the Fire, also features another Cameroon-born French rap star, Soprano. And last night she was at the Swan Bar with a couple of Cameroon friends and business connections, and we all went off and had a dinner in an Italian restaurant next to the Swan Bar.
There I learned Zahra will also be singing the opening song at the 2012 Africa Nations Cup, the biggest international soccer tournament in Africa next January. That’s kind of like the equivalent of the Super Bowl in Africa. What can I say to all that? “Holy shit!” seems the best, most honest, expression.
I have always been of two minds about the open jam sessions and open mics at the Swan Bar in Montparnasse in Paris. It is a wonderful, classy bar, run by the interesting Lionel Bloom, a former university professor and adorer of Joyce and Yeats. But the emphasis is on jazz and old-time cabaret variety music. This is not the kind of music I can play, even if I like and respect it. In fact, I grew up with jazz and listen to it all the time. But when it comes to playing it myself, I’m not in the swing, so it don’t mean a thing.
But last night after the Swan Bar had been closed for the month of August, it reopened and celebrated with a jam session. Sheldon Forrest, the wonderful and genial pianist, was hosting the evening, and I know he has alway encouraged my playing there. So I went. I did not regret it. Yes, there was a lot of the usual stuff. But there were other bits and pieces too, and a warm reception for me and a pianist who decided to play along with me, and a new woman working behind the bar who also took to the stage and did a wonderful job. That was Canelle De Balasy, and she did not do jazz either. At the end of the evening she, and some of the other women singers and I all joined in together to sing “Hey Jude.” Too bad I don’t know all the lyrics!
But it was an excellent evening, and I recommend taking a chance on the Swan Bar, even if you are not a jazz musician.
Yesterday was the mythical Bloomsday, the day on which the story of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses takes place. It is celebrated around the world in various forms by Joyce scholars and Irish literature and culture lovers. And although the Swan Bar on Montparnasse in Paris is owned an operated by an American – named, oddly enough, Lionel Bloom – he is a former literature professor and something of a Joyce specialist. So it is no surprise that under the guise of an Irish Festival this American jazz bar in Paris celebrates Bloomsday, and Irish culture in general on June 16.
I was invited by the artistic director of the bar, Sheldon Forrest, to come around and sing some Irish songs. I have played there a few times in the past, and I think I must have done a few Irish songs, so Sheldon knew I could. Even so, I was really flattered and interested, because I rarely have a chance to play my Irish traditional music at the open mics. The evening ended up being fun, and fortunately for me and the audience, I was not the only musician called in to do the Irish music. I pretty much exhausted the songs I know by heart as it was, and the format of the evening was a reading from Joyce, a song, a reading from Joyce, a song… and I would never have had enough memorized songs to do that. I did bring my songbook, however, and I would have been able to sing all evening long reading from the book, but that doesn’t look so good – and it is stressful.
So we had several readers, and we had Sheldon playing some Irish music on the piano, and we had the other musician. He and I spoke about what songs we would do in advance, and as we had some crossover, I let him do “Star of the County Down,” and he let me do “Raggle Taggle Gypsies.”
The reading star of the night was the main organizer of the event, Maria D’Arcy, who did not in fact read, as she has her pieces memorized. She did a 10 minute or more number that was quite provocative, and she ended the evening by “performing” the last page of the book, which ends, of course, with the famous last word from Molly Bloom: “Yes.”