“SATURDAY MARCH 15 (1947 ) Jean Pierre is yelling: ‘Merde Reb! An Ovaltine Martini, what the hell is that?’ ‘Bombay gin and Campari mixed with a dash of Ovaltine,’ I said. ‘Three shots and you sleep like a baby!’ which is true.”
This is the first entry in a bizarre, tongue-in-cheek, but fascinating journal which the nephew found in the first of a 40 pallet book consignment just received from a US dealer. Knowing my growing interest in jazz and particularly in the Parisian jazz scene from the 1930s to the 1960s, he duly passed it on to me.
This most curious publication - it is difficult to call it a book - looks more like an elaborate and expensive restaurant menu than it does the standard volume found on bookshelves. The front cover bears the title: Observations from the Bar Aerobleu Paris 1947-1950.
Lifting the front flap the reader is further informed that it is “A verbatim reproduction of the diary of Leslie Ann Nash during the years 1947 -1954 when she served as the manager of the Parisian jazz nightclub Aerobleu.”
The diary is in the format of a press reporter’s jotter, each entry an individual cameo but the whole gradually emerging into an intriguing narrative with an ambience similar to that of Casablanca, brimful as it is of madly eccentric characters, would be spies, the CIA, Communists, left wing revolutionaries, Martini recipe after Martini recipe and, of course, sensational jazz.
The entry for Sunday March 23 1947 reads: “Django missing again. Jean Pierre says, ‘Reb Reinhardt’s expert at disappearing. He’s a Gypsy. How’d you think he escaped Nazis?’ I say, ‘So where do I find another three fingered guitarist?’
“Monday March 24 (4am ). Jazz session going great. Django walked through the door at midnight playing ‘When the Saints Come Marching In’ with guitar over his head, Four hours later, he’s going strong. Max and I drinking Martinis – he in RAF blue Ike jacket and fleece-lined boots, me in bartender’s smock – not exactly glamorous.”
Max is the enigmatic “hero” of the diary. A pilot, who has seen action during World War II. He is ever present in the narrative, although often physically absent. He has been given the bar by a mysterious countess (whom we never see ) becomes the narrator’s lover for a period, is being tracked by the CIA, wins a plane in a card game, and is purportedly involved with Castro’s guerrillas in Cuba.
One of the more eccentric characters of the diary features in the entry for June 12: “Got to do something about Madame Lafarge. Never cleans toilet except when it’s occupied. Then charges in using master key causing unfortunate man (or woman ) sitting there to run out, clutching his (or her ) underpants. Thinks it’s funny which it is. And since she’s formerly our landlady and still our concierge, we grin and bear it. Max, of course loves her. Said a friend found Lafarge in prison camp at end of war, recommended Max give her custodial job. So I ask: ‘who’s the friend?’ He just smiles and says, ‘Someone who had the idea for Aerobleu”.
As the narration progresses it becomes evident that the diary is something of a spoof which allows for some personal as well as satiric entries such as:
“Yves (Montand ) sang like angel last night – which was out of character. Django played. Henry Miller and Georges Simenon sat at corner table fondling floozies. When they arrived, Jean Pierre said: ‘The ass men cometh’ I said; ‘Not on my clean floor’.”
Once it has become evident that this is a spoof, the reader can sit back and enjoy the fun in the case of the more seedy patrons of the bar such as “Guy in Brooks Brother’s suit” and “skinny fellow wearing pockmarked face, houndstooth suit and false teeth”, the latter’s sudden demise giving rise to one off the more of the wall entries:
“Sunday, April 12. Commotion last night...Mme Lafarge barges into toilet with bucket and mop as usual, finds man in houndstooth suit, sitting on john, like he’s reading Guide Michelin – Except a knife’s in his chest. Lafarge runs out screaming giving us hope that she’s learned to knock before entering toilet.”
In fact, there never was a jazz bar called Aerobleu, all of the characters are gross caricatures, the jazz, while seeming authentic, probably never happened, but wouldn’t it make for a wonderful television series? God knows we could use some laughter over the next year or so.