Slender branches traced dark, intricate patterns on an overcast sky as Otis and Company made their way along the Seine. The band had taken a red-eye flight to Paris, arriving minutes before dawn. After dropping their bags off at the hotel, they hit the streets for a closer look at the city. Otis, the band’s leader, and Richard, his friend and bass player, were in high spirits.
As they drew near the Pont Neuf, the silhouette of a familiar landmark emerged in dawn’s glow.
“Oooee, lookee there…the I fell tower!” Otis made a tumbling motion with his hands as a cool November breeze snatched ashes from his Cuban cigar.
Richard slapped his comrade’s back, a guffaw exploding from his throat. “That’s a good one, O.”
The band’s young pianist shook his head. “You embarrass me, man…two old men who don’t know how to behave yourselves.”
“Don’t be dissing them, Jimmie,” snapped Jasmine, her arm curled around Richard’s. “They were playin’ the Blues when you were crawlin’ ‘round in your diapers.”
“Bare ass, mo’ likely,” boomed Otis, prompting another burst of laughter from Richard.
“I don’t know you people,” said Jimmie as he dropped farther behind the group.
“Oh, come on! They jus’ funnin’ ya.” Sadie, their petite, sixty-eight-year-old drummer coaxed him over her shoulder as she stepped smartly alongside the ‘boys’, a floppy, faux leopard skin tam topping her wild mane.
“Young people have no sense o’ humor,” groused Otis. He pulled his wool peacoat tighter against the chill.
“You got that right. That one’s got no respec’ for his elders, neither,” complained Richard.
“Mm, mm, mm. What ya gonna do?” Sadie posed her favorite question.
“Ain’t nothin’ ya can do with kids these days,” was Richard’s pronouncement.
“Fersure,” purred Jasmine.
Jimmie was outnumbered, as usual.
Parisians love Blues and they packed the club that evening. Jasmine’s voice alternated between sweet and sassy, while the sultry notes dripping from Otis’ sax slithered around the room putting everyone in a mood. What kind of mood depended on each person’s inclination. One thing the Blues does not do is make you blue.
After the first set, the band sidled up to the bar.
“What ya got fer us to eat, bro?” Richard asked the bartender, a dark, mustachioed Middle-Easterner.
“For you we ‘ave Steak Tartar, broiled Swordfish Amande, and Shrimp Diable over pasta.”
“Don’t ya have any poke chops in this place?” railed Richard.
“What’s steak tartar?” he asked in an aside to Otis.
“That’s bloody meat, man. We don’t want that.”
“What we got left…swordfish?” Richard intentionally pronounced the ‘w’. “I don’t care for swordfish. I don’t care for pasta, neither.” He spoke the offending word with a derogatory ‘a’, as in ‘at’.
“Does Diable mean what I think it means?” Otis directed his question at the barkeep.
“Ees spicy, veery spicy.”
“That does it. We come all this way to entertain these folks and they can’t give us a decent meal? That pasta dish is heartburn city. I knows it.” Richard was ready to rush out in search of something closer to home cooking.
“Let’s try the swordfish,” begged Jimmie.
“I don’t know if I’d like dat.” Sadie’s face puckered into a frown.
“Could we speak to Monsieur Dugas, please,” inquired Otis.
“Certainly, sir.” The bartender disappeared into the back room and returned a moment later with the Frenchman who had engaged the band for a one-month stint in his club.
“Monsieur Jones, Farad says you unhappy with menu. What you like?”
“Well, sir, back home we eat steak, taters, greens, cornbread…”
“…a big pile a poke chops would be dandy,” interjected Richard.
“Fried chicken is nice,” drawled Sadie, “an’ biscuits an’ gravy. Do y’all grow okra here?”
“I’m partial to grits,” said Jasmine. “Ya know, grits are the blues of food. They’re simple, down home, make-ya-feel-good vittles. With a dab o’ sweet butter on top they soak right into yer soul.”
“That’s right,” said Otis. “Pipin’ hot they warm yer innards. Let ‘em git cold an’ they’re unbearable. Gotta be jus’ right, like the notes I play.
The little man chuckled and shook his head from side to side. “You Americans will die by the fork.”
“Look here,” persisted Otis, “I’m not sure we kin digest the food yer servin’. We’re not used to it.”
“Right on,” said Richard.
“Sho nuf,” echoed Sadie, “and a band plays on its stomach.”
“You got that right. I don’t know if I kin play bass on a diet of swordfish and pasta.”
“Please. Please. I have answer. You bring me what you like and my wife will prepare. There is an epicerie…oh, how you say…food mart around corner.”
“That won’t hep us tonight,” grumbled Richard.
“He said, we’ll make do with swordfish tonight,” corrected Jimmie.
Richard made a quick motion with his hand telling Jimmie to stay out of it.
“We have no choice.” Otis’s voice held a note of finality. “We’ve got to git back on stage faster than my Aunt Abby kin pluck a chicken.”
“All right,” sighed Richard, “but we’d better git some poke chops tomorrow. I’ll starve on a seafood diet.”
Later, as they prepared to start the second set, Richard slid onto his stool and cradled his bass, Corrina, in his arms. A pained expression wrinkled his brow.
“That swordfish is gunna throw ma playin’ off. I kin feel ma innards rumblin’.”
“You grumble too much, Richie,” whispered Sadie as she slipped behind her drums. “If I grumbled haf as much as you, I’d wear mysef out.”
“You said it,” seconded Jimmie, happy to have an ally for a change.
“All right yous kids, let’s git this show a rollin’.” Otis turned to the audience and stepped up to the microphone. “Bon soir, mes amies! I’m Otis Jones from Cincinnati, Ohio, in the USA. We’re Otis and Company, and we’re delighted to play for you tonight.
“Are you enjoying the show so far?”
The crowd responded with applause, whistles and shouts.
“That’s so fine. Thank you.
“Before we start our second set, I’d like to introduce the band. On bass is my good friend and fellow veteran of the Blues for nearly fifty years. Give a hand to the incomparable Rich King.”
Richard played a quick riff and bowed to all corners of the room.
“On keyboards we have jammin’ Jimmie Jackson from Atlanta, Georgia.”
Jimmie tickled the ivories and cast a gleaming smile at the appreciative listeners.
“Our vocalist is lovely Jasmine Evans…”
Jasmine curtsied gracefully, her opalescent gown shimmering in the colorful stage lights.
“…and on percussion, the eternally young, Hot Momma, Sadie Washington!”
The applause resurged as blushing Sadie waved off Otis’ compliment with her drum sticks, a grin spreading from ear to ear.
Before the audience’s adulation faded, Otis slid the sax’s slender mouthpiece past his lips and a low moan oozed from the bell of his instrument. It sent a summons to the bass, which in turn called to the piano. Coming in behind all three, Sadie tapped out a rhythm on cymbal and drums as they drew the listeners along to Blues heaven. The swordfish forgotten, Richard assumed his usual trance-like state, rich, sweet notes sliding from Corrina’s strings, a gift from the Blues gods. Jimmie’s fingers sailed deftly over the keys, at one with the music and the band.
When the first piece ended, Otis jumped into a spirited number, and Jasmine added her voice to the mix. Sadie heated up the drums, leaving no doubt as to how she earned the nickname, Hot Momma.
Otis and Company played on into the wee hours, but the French crowd did not want the evening to end. They demanded three encores before finally allowing the band to call it a night.
“You were smokin’, Sadie!” Richard held the door for the ladies as they stepped out into the chilly Parisian dawn.
“You were purty darn hot yersef, Richie. I guess dat swordfish did ya no harm.”
“Don’t get him started,” pleaded Jimmie.
“I promise,” intoned Otis in his rich baritone voice, “we will have poke chops fer supper tonight, even if we haf to buy ‘em ourselves.”
“Hotdog!” Sadie did a jig right there on the sidewalk to the amazement of her tired friends.
“Enough of that dancin’, Sadie. Git yer caboose in gear.” The talk of food had aroused Richard’s appetite. He headed resolutely down the street in search of an open café with the rest of the band in tow. “I’m hungry fer some bacon, eggs, an’ grits.”
“I doubt we’ll find grits in this food-fersaken town,” said Otis.
Richard paused only a second before resuming his forward momentum. “Remind me to pack a box o’ grits nex’ time we git a French gig.”
“Sho nuf, bro,” promised Otis.
Photo & story copyright Darlene Blasing 2006