le Boeuf sur le Toit

Part 2

June, 1925, Paris, France

Louis Moyses said he wanted to introduce us to the heart and soul of le Boeuf sur Toit.  What could that possibly mean? And did this man just offer us a job at one of Paris’s most exclusive nightclubs, or not? I did my best to appear calm, but I’m sure I was failing terribly as I could feel excitement spread over my face.

Louis took my arm and escorted us across the room, out a side door and into an alley.  My excitement was instantly overcome by confusion.  Instead of offering us a job, it seems he was kicking us out the back door of le Boeuf sur le Toit.

We paused for a moment while Louis greeted two men who were standing in the alley, chatting.  It seemed to be a popular alley, but I still had no idea why we were here.  I looked up at a decorative archway that stretched across the alley to a building next door, and then up and down the narrow, cobblestone passage, unsuccessfully trying to find a clue.

It was then that I heard it.  Coming through the red door of the building next door was the faint sound of a piano, no wait – two pianos. Intrigued, I moved closer to the door. Even though the sound was muffled, I could tell the lovely melody and unique blending of the notes was unlike anything I had ever heard.

I was so intent at grasping every nuance of the music that I hadn’t noticed Louis had said goodbye to his friends and was at my side.

“Who are they?”

Louis smiled, “The heart and soul of le Boeuf sur le Toit.”

Louis opened the red door and guided us into what I now realized was the rest of the nightclub. With its white, linen tablecloths and fancy, crystal chandeliers, the room was more formal than the bar, yet retained its warm and inviting ambiance. It was early, so there were only twenty or so customers.  Some were sitting by themselves reading, while others were having serious conversations in hushed tones. Many were just quietly sipping their drinks, enjoying the beautiful music.

I turned to the source and marveled at the two men sitting behind elegant, white, grand pianos.  The notes melded so perfectly, it seemed their twenty fingers came from but one hand. There was no doubt both men were masters and among the best pianist in the world. Only then did I notice that one of the men was looking out the window, as if in the middle of a lovely daydream, and the other was reading a book.

“The one on the left,” Louis said, “is Jean Weiner, the heart.  On the right is Clement Doucet, the soul.”

As Louis guided us to a table near the stage, I suddenly recognized the tune they were playing and laughed.  It was a jazzed-up version of a Chopin work, one of the same tunes I use to drive Professor Boooring crazy with at Berkeley so many years ago.  I also realized that I wish I had paid more attention to some of the fingering techniques the Professor had tried to teach me, as I now wanted to create these magnificent sounds too.

“They are good. No?”  Louis said, as he pulled out my chair, the twinkle still in his eye.

“Magnifique. Oui!” I replied, using two of the pathetically few French words I had learned so far.

As we settled into our seats, Weiner and Doucet began playing another captivating melody.  I could easily do nothing but listen to them till dawn, but curiosity got the better of me.

“Louis, tell us more about your wonderful club.”

“The club is not mine.  I own it, most of it anyway, but the club belongs to them,” he said, waving his arm towards the customers, “to all of Paris. I am just their bartender.”

He paused for a moment as if reflecting on his words.  “After the war, I had no money and went to work as a manager at the club Gaya. The owner hired the son of a friend of his as the piano player, Jean Weiner.  Many of the customers preferred classical music and were not happy with the jazz he played.  One day I told Jean Cocteau that I might have to fire the piano player.  He said, ‘Keep him, fire the customers.’”

“I did what he said and, taking Jean with me, opened a small club. His music started drawing so many customers that I had to find a bigger space.  It was Jean Cocteau who advised me that if the bar was designed in such a way that it inspired creativity, it would always be full of the world’s best artists, writers, composers and musicians.  He was right.  Over time they have adopted the Boeuf as their own, and allow me to act like I belong.”

Louis’s humility seemed sincere and was quite charming, but his business side finally surfaced, “The problem is getting them to pay their bill.  Most of them are very poor, so I am forced seek out rich tourists who don’t mind parting with their money.”

Now understanding Louis’s interest in us, Bob and I exchanged a brief, excited glance. Rich American tourists had been pouring into the Cabaret Caucasian to catch our act and Louis knew it.  Was I in the middle of a wonderful dream, or was this really happening?

I was disappointed when the two pianos suddenly stopped creating the enchanting melodies. Weiner and Doucet were going on break and Louis immediately waved them over.  I tried hard not to act like a flustered schoolgirl as we were introduced, but I still couldn’t seem to control my mouth and ended up complimenting them multiple times.  Probably having heard it all a thousand times before, they politely smiled and chatted with us in surprisingly good English.  I felt so inadequate.  Most of these people spoke three or four languages and I only one. Bob doesn’t know it yet, but tomorrow we’re both signing up for French lessons.

My mind was racing with so many questions and possibilities, I barely recall us walking back to the bar side of the Boeuf and Louis being on stage introducing us. With my husband sitting next to me on the piano bench holding a guitar Louis had found, my butterflies started to subside a bit, until I looked up and saw Cocteau, Gide and Milhaud, their eyes glued to us.  A few tables away, Weiner and Doucet were also intently staring, as was everyone else in the room who were probably equally gifted and accomplished.

These were not easily entertained Americans or Russians looking for a reason to forget their problems and have a good time.  This was the “cream de Paris,” the elite of the elite and world leaders in their fields, who had politely conspired to set themselves up as our judge and jury. This is not a casual invitation to perform – this is a damn audition!

I stared at the piano keys feeling completely inadequate and afraid to touch one in the presence of true masters. A horrific vision flashed through my mind. Halfway through the number, Weiner and Doucet rushed the stage, each one grabbing a hand. As they dragged me off the piano bench and across the bar, I could see Gide had his arm wrapped around Bob’s neck and was pulling him off the stage too. As the men roughly tossed us out the side door of le Boeuf sur le Toit into the alley, Cocteau stood there shaking his head in disgust.

“You don’t belong here!” Louis proclaimed, disapprovingly. “Go back to America where you belong and never return.”

Somehow, I managed to strike the first chord of a jazzy tune we had chosen to play. The butterflies instantly morphed into buzzards. It was all I could do to keep from throwing up all over the back of Bob’s expensive, wool suit. What were we thinking?  We’re just a couple crazy kids out to see the world, not highly talented, seasoned performers.  At least not talented or seasoned enough to impress this refined audience. We were through the first chorus before I dared look up from the piano keys long enough to sneak a look at Bob, who was happily singing like he didn’t have a care in the world.  What is wrong with him?  Doesn’t he know what the hell is happening here?

As I launched into my solo, I did my best to replace the terror etched on my face with my best smile and glanced at the audience.  Where some of them actually smiling back?  It was probably them being amused at the thought of torturing us for a while before throwing us out.

As Bob and I harmonized the last note, I thought about jumping up and running out the door hoping to avoid capture and the inevitable humiliation, but froze when I saw Weiner and Doucet stand up and head towards me.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Cocteau and Louis doing the same.  I grabbed and squeezed Bob’s arm hard enough enough to make him jump.

“Magnifique!”  I heard someone yell.

My God, it was Weiner, and he’s applauding.  So is everyone else!

The group of men surrounded the piano, their hands stretched out not to grab us, but to offer congratulations.  I was in a daze and just sit there smiling, unable to speak.

Louis stood behind the rest with a satisfied smile and that silly twinkle still in his eye.  I get it now. He wants us, but thought it best to get the blessing of the le Boeuf sur le Toit’s unofficial curators and guardians first.

After a couple minutes of compliments, Weiner and Doucet said their goodbyes and returned across the alley to begin another set, followed by Cocteau, Milhaud and Gide who returned to their table.

Louis came closer and leaned over, “Shall we go to my office and have a chat?”

Bob and I both quickly nodded yes. As we made the short walk, my legs were so weak I was afraid I would fall on my butt at any moment, completely destroying the illusion that I belonged here.  This will take some getting use to.

 

Editor’s note – Weiner & Doucet played all kinds of music, including classical, jazz, broadway and popular tunes – all with their own special twist. To listen to how beautifully Weiner’s & Doucet’s pianos blended, click here to listen to a Bach arrangement.  Also, here is a jazzed up version of a Chopin composition by Doucet called Chopinata.