Incongruous: you get on the piss all day, like hitting it student-style (because we were) and then you go out that night to the Michael Fowler Centre to see Stephane Grappelli. Oh, but it wasn’t on a whim, wasn’t some drunken fumble, like we thought Crusty Demons or the pro-wrestling was on but wandered into the wrong room. No, no. We planned it. Well, planned the concert-part. The drinking was always impromptu; never mind that it happened more often than it didn’t – still seemed improvised for the most part.
Very shortly after that concert – and I can’t quite place when, and it’s better I don’t look it up – Stephane Grappelli died. The tickets to his gig were about thirty bucks. No wonder we had money left for booze.
So, I’ll rewind a bit. My mum buys a CD of Stephane Grappelli and Yehudi Menuhin playing the music of Gershwin. And I’m about 12 or 13 years old. And I’m just stunned by it. Sure, it was easy-listening, two legends coasting (coasting on the music of another legend). But it was my introduction. And I loved it. I was hip to some jazz music but this was my introduction to Grappelli. Shortly after I’m onto Django Reinhardt – after reading all about him in the guitar mags – and then I find out that he cut some of these sides with Grappelli on violin. So from there I’m hooked, on Django and Yehudi, sure. But totally hooked on Grappelli. I’m finding records in bargain bins, I’m ordering in new CDs. I’m adding new jazz players to my collection and dipping a bit of a toe in the classical waters but for the most part – through high-school – I listen to rock. And metal. And rap. And the Flying Nun stuff. And then there’s everything else – a bit of pop or whatever, but really the adventurous stuff – and the incongruous stuff, for the most part – is in the jazz. All manner of jazz. And in and around Miles and Coltrane and Bill Evans and Brubeck and Buddy Rich and Max Roach I have a heap of Stephane Grappelli.
So I get down to Wellington and am (sometimes) at uni and (often) the pub.
And I’m going to as many gigs as I can because before university not much passed through Hawke’s Bay gig-wise. The winery shows were just starting, saw Ray Charles; that was big. And you’d catch a Finn brother or Dobbyn but not much else. Once a year through high school (or thereabouts) I get a big gig trip to Auckland but once I’m in Wellington I start attending anything and everything. But to start with it is mostly rock stuff. Great gigs – and the odd dud. But I’m hopeful to see a jazz great. Or something – you know anything – that’s just a bit out of the ordinary/obvious.
Probably for the first couple of years I missed out on some big jazz names through not being fully sussed with the circuit. But a couple of years on I know where to look, and I pick up flyers and read the weeklies, and anyway, I can’t believe my luck when I find out that Stephane Grappelli is going to play in Wellington. He’s nearly 100. Well, he’s around 90. I know that much. I have to see him.
And I do.
I buy a ticket and I’m not all that concerned about whether anyone else will go. I figure I won’t find anyone that will. But then I do – two friends. One, female, doesn’t get on the piss with us all day of the gig. The other, a male, does. So me and my mate are on the beers and we’re hanging with flatmates and it’s a typical Wednesday afternoon. Some guy bets himself he won’t go to the toilet for the duration of drinking a dozen. And his answer to it all is just to wet himself, because, somehow, that doesn’t actually count. Another guy decides it’s not cheating if you can find a way to pee without using the toilet. I find him, in my room, hovered over my bed, pissing into the electric frying pan (oh, the electric frying pan didn’t live in my room ordinarily; he’d just taken it down there).
So things are sizzling along.
And then my other concert-going friend turns up to collect us. She’s probably horrified at the state of us but doesn’t say anything. And we’re convinced we can shape up for it.
So we get to the venue.
Stephane Grappelli is wonderful. Just by being there he’s amazing. He’s about 90-something. He’s pretty much deaf and doddery. And it’s just him and two players. A guitarist and bassist, they’re about half his age.
Grappelli is wheeled on stage and he looks like he’s in a nearly vegetative state but for that fiddle. When he cocks it to his chin that thing sings. Boy, does it sing. It fills the room and it’s glorious and wonderful and so beautiful. So beautiful. It wafts and drifts and darts and stabs and it’s all the spring things. All at once. Always.
I’m back to hearing those Gershwin tunes for the first time. I’m watching a guy who played on those Hot Club records with Django Fucking Reinhardt!
At one point, mid-show, someone takes the violin off Stephane. My memory tells me it’s the bassist. But what I certainly remember is that Grappelli looked so confused, like he didn’t know where his keys were, or whether he even – or ever – was able to drive. Or if he’d done the washing that day. Or ever. And who were all of the people staring in, and what was that noise of applause. And what, in short, in the fuck was going on?! His lip trembled a bit and he looked like he might cry. But he looked, too, like a ghost. So I’m not sure if ghosts actually cry. But he looked suddenly so much weaker, about to dribble and possibly just peter out. (And, shit, he’d looked close enough to that when he came out anyway).
Then the guitarist made a vague signal – by taking his hands and pretending that he was pushing back down on some imaginary force-field erupting from his knees – that Grappelli was to then play the piano. You see, the whole time, there was a grand piano on stage. I had been the nerd that had informed my trio that Stephane Grappelli would be playing that. I’d heard the ladies behind me pondering whether it would be the guitarist or bassist that would at some point plonk on the keys. But I knew that Grappelli was a more-than-decent pianist as well as this extraordinary violinist.
I filled in my friends anyway, even though they never asked.
And then, as the bassist wheeled Stephane Grappelli over to the piano, the face peeled back to reveal some creepy semblance of a smile. This old ghost was damn happy he was getting to make some music again. He sat at the keys and poured his heart and soul into a stunning rendition of Someday My Prince Will Come – or whatever the fuck it was. I think it was that. But the beers had caught up just a bit, after holding them at bay.
But it didn’t matter what it actually was – because it was goddamn amazing. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. It was before I’d get to hear things like Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert and Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations but it was a hint. Just a hint of all that. And so many other things I’d go on to hear.
Then Stephane Grappelli was back on the violin. And boy, sometimes, this trio was really swinging. Never mind no drums. They pushed the swing more enthusiastically than a playground kiddie fiddler. Man, they had it. They were (all) so good.
It was – of course! – the Best Gig Ever.
And I remember, somewhat hilariously (to me anyway) that the opening act was a local chamber quartet. And they were good – that wasn’t the hilarious bit. They were solid. Fine. Correct. Maybe even quite lovely, if not lively. But I remember (and this is the hilarious-to-me bit) my mate turning around to the ladies behind us, the kind of Kelburn winners who practiced that face of speaking with a dog-turd right under their nose. And he leaned an arm over the back of the seat, all casual-like and said “so, did you enjoy that?”
Well they looked at him like he had just asked if they’d kindly mind if he might shit in their handbag.
And of course after more than a dozen beers in the sun, there’s every chance he asked something closer to that than what he thought he said. To him it was obvious he was saying “so, did you enjoy that?” But there’s every chance what he actually said was more along the lines of “ahgsoighsoghsghsg agosaghsgihasg sogbsogasoghsgoshg”.
He worked in a music store and knew his arse from his elbow when it came to jazz and classical, but after a few beers in the sun he might not have seemed so sure to anyone in the immediate vicinity being sprayed with spit. Him sitting there perched on the bit that’s placed between your wrist and shoulder.
After the gig one of my friends left – and you can guess which one can’t you? She decided she’d savour the magic, take what she could of that concert-experience home.
Me and the other guy went up the road for half-price cocktails and tried telling our pissed-up buddies we’d just seen the concert of a lifetime. And my pal, the Chairman of The Chamber Quartet Appreciation Society, finished his night by pretending to ride home on a motorbike. He said, in a thick-as-socks slur, “well, ahl shee you gars lurter” and pretended to kick the stand on the bike. When he couldn’t fold it back down properly he lay the bike down on its side and got a cab home. That cab dropped him off then phoned the police and told them he’d just seen a dude who pushed over a bike for a joke. He provided the exact address. Next thing six cops and a sniffer dog turned up to the house, students hiding knives, rolling spots into spaces in the cracks of the stove. Picking the one person to address the boys-in-blue as the wet grass was lit up by a torch. And then my mate arrested on a wilful damage charge.
But none of that really mattered then – or in the end. Because we knew enough to know that earlier that night we had seen and heard magic. Earlier that night we saw Stephane Grappelli.