“Ne tirez pas sur le pianiste…”
The warning was carefully written in beautiful and elegant red handwriting, on the enormous mirror above the bar counter. Cigarette smoke in the air, bottles standing to attention behind the bar and the sea of hats of the agitated crowd; and above twinkle of hurried toasts, the words seemed to vibrate like a neon sign in the dark… It was one of those hot early July nights in Shanghai and there was I again, at the narrow mouth of Fuzhou Road on the Bund, the old “Blues & Jazz”.
The heat was as unbearable inside the dark bar as it was in the alley it looked out over. The big fan rotated lazily on the ceiling, projecting intermittent shadows on the stage curtains, and seemed to have given up and abandoned any hope of relief… but it was a detail as familiar and uninteresting as the warning on the mirror.
As far as I can remember, that inscription had always been there. France governed this part of the city, known as the “French Concession”, for almost a century and it was, for all purposes, just another region of the Republic.
Once World War II was over, control of this area was returned to the Chinese authorities… it would still be 15 years later, in 1960, when a young Truffaut signed one of the key films of the movement that would try to sweep away, like a gigantic Wave, all the films made by previous generations which certain indignant people disdainfully labelled as “academic cinema”. It was the period of “Nouvelle Vague” and, of course… “Tirez sur le pianiste”.
Impossible not to smile at the cinematographic reference and its negative reflection on the mirror.
In any event… a story in which no one gets murdered will probably won’t contain more than trivialities and paths as beaten as they are boring I thought, once again, as I passed before the mirror looking for a seat at the end of the bar. Among suspicious glances, and a few shoves, I made it there. It was at that precise location that my perspective changed and I saw something that wasn’t there during my last visit… “Ne tirez pas sur le pianiste … nor the saxophonist, please”. Someone had scrawled this desperate plea in Spanish in a careless and hurried way after the pianist’s lovely silhouette. At that moment I suddenly became aware of the music on the stage and its big red velvet curtains behind the band, and sure enough, there was the saxophonist.
There was something about him that I instantly found familiar, the way he bent over his instrument, his impeccable ochre suit and the loud tie… maybe it was the light but both his hair, combed back, and his moustache had a copper shine and his face was framed by sharp sideburns.
The improvised number ended abruptly, and without waiting for the applause the man very carefully and reverently left his saxophone on a chair and rapidly made his way to the end of the bar where I was watching the scene.
“Sam, please”, he shot at the barman and his glass instantly clinked beside mine on the polished wood surface of the bar counter. Faced with the perspective of a good story…
– “May I buy you a drink, friend?”, I asked.
– “Listen mate, I don’t like your manners and whatever you’re selling, I’m not buying”, the saxophonist drily declared without raising his eyes from his glass.
– “Don’t worry, I’m not selling anything”, my reply made him look up at last.
– “In that case I happily accept!”, he celebrated by raising his glass, a gesture I mirrored.
– “So tell me… is the profession that dangerous? I asked as I gestured towards the mirror above the counter.
– “It’s not that bad, times have changed a lot, the most dangerous thing you can find in this joint still walks on stiletto heels… The doorman doesn’t even search you at the door anymore!”
We both burst out laughing, making a few heads turn for a couple of seconds. I won’t bore you with the rest of the conversation, but that was how, among references to old films and jazz pieces, that night I met Daniel Nel·lo, one of the key musicians in our country for more than 30 years in Rock’n’roll (he started his career in 1985 with “Los Rebeldes”), Rhythm and blues and Jazz with countless collaborations and musical adventures.
“What the hell are we doing here, Dani?… next Thursday on the 25th the new edition of the Heineken Jazzaldia in San Sebastian will start in a big way – Ruben Blades is back in San Sebastian!
– “It’s time for a change of scenery… it might even be possible to get the old band back together, give me a minute”
He quickly downed his last drink, returned to the stage and with a slight nod he said farewell to the rest of the band while he picked up his saxophone with his right hand. Back at the bar counter, he leaned over and hurriedly erased the words in Spanish on the mirror. We turned the corner towards the Bund, the waters of the Huangpu flowed darkly and by then the fog had settled on both banks. At the other side, to the east, we had Pudong… and “with that rhythm that handsome guys walk with”, we jumped into the first taxi that passed by us.
– “To the airport, Nando! I have a feeling this could be the start of a beautiful friendship”
“Life gives you surprises
Surprises life gives you, oh god…!”