throwback: Meeting the Man (wherein I shamelessly name-drop)

A throwback from the archives, this email was originally sent to friends and family west of New York on Nov. 13, 2003.

The pocket notebook in which I occasionally jot random thoughts acquired a gem tonight:

"Hi Doll.
Les Paul"

Yes, that's THE Les Paul. As in the 88-year-old guitar legend. I wish I could scan the page of my journal in and include it here, just so you could see the precious wavering old-man script of his handwriting.
I don't usually get all mushy-gush over celebrities -- (rattles off in fast talking) except when I passed Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart on the street -- but that wasn't really meaningful anyway. A month ago I was privileged to see a really exclusive, intimate Norah Jones show I only heard of through word of mouth. Totally cool gig, and in a small Lower East Side scene where I could've gotten the autograph. But I didn't even bother approaching her. Seemed disingenous. What would I actually say, that approached normal conversation.

But Les is a different story.

This afternoon a friend invited me to a jazz performance at Iridium, a jazz club I'd never heard of. I'd also never heard of the "jazz" violinist before (Mark O'Connor, in case you've heard of him) but he's won at least a Grammy I guess. The show was styled as a tribute to Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt. That caught my attention, because just this week at work I've discovered Django's guitar playing and "gypsy swing," thanks to a friend's really cool world-music magazine. So I found a friend free at the last minute, and we met up at Iridium, an unpretentious downstairs club in the bustle of Midtown-just-north-of-42nd.

As we sit down, I start flipping through the flyer on the table, which profiles all the acts playing this fall. At the top is a blurb about Les Paul, whose name I mostly recognize from the guitar line. Apparently he plays this club every Sunday. "Wow, I didn't know he wasn't dead!" I think. I experience a passing interest in catching one of his shows, though without the comp ticket I enjoyed, 35 bucks is a bit steep for my budget.

The trio takes the stage in captivating form. And then midway through the 90-minute set, the violin player dedicates a song to Les Paul. But not until a subsequent comment does it become apparent he's actually THERE, in the crowd. At this point I started to get excited.

After the show, in the lady's room, I complimented the scarf of a woman about the age of my grandmothers. We start chatting and knitting and crocheting and tatting, so walk out of the bathroom together. As we're walking to our tables, I realize she's headed toward the table I think Les Paul was at, and where there's a conspicuously empty seat. By this time it had entered my head to get an autograph -- except that I don't actually know what Les looks like, and there's at least three gray heads at the table over yonder. But the lady mentioned a husband!

"Excuse me," I ask, "are you sitting at that table over there?" "Yes." "Is Les Paul your husband?" I blurt. She's very nice about it. "No, but my son works with him." "Do you think he'd mind if I asked for an autograph?" "No, he'd be delighted." A friend of hers agrees -- and luckily they point me to the corner where Les is standing. Because really, if you ask for someone's autograph, shouldn't you at least know which person to ask?!!

I hurry back for my noteback and walk over to where it seems a long line should be forming. But there's really no one. Just a stooped older man chatting with the guitar player from the trio, leaning over a railing as they talk.

Within minutes I'm shaking the Man's hand and explaining how I started playing guitar when I was six (I guess being a "pretty young girl" is sometimes useful). Les was just as nice as could be. At his age, it's probably not often to be approached by those of my generation. Despite his legendary career, he's unassumingly geriatric with hands a bit like my grandfather's. He signs the book, spelling my name right (with some discussion). And then we start talking guitar. Before I know it, I'm explaining about my dilemma at work today, trying to find a guitar feature in the Django Reinhardt song I want 7th graders to hear.

"You've got to break it down the way Stephane and Django did," he says. Not with MY music theory! I'm thinking. "Stick close the melody. When you're writing music, you're writing the melody." And then he starts going on about -- of all things, coming from a JAZZ musician! -- his disfavor for improvisation. "These guys are all technical," he says, gesturing toward the stage. "But I want someone to know what I'm playing when they come in -- not to have to wait until the end of the song." It was one of those amazing moments.

I don't often have experiences I find truly amazing. It's rare that I actually sit someplace and think, "I am having a terrific time. I don't want this to end." I have a lot of good times, don't get me wrong, but a lot of things you don't treasure until they're photographs. Tonight though ... is a moment I feel like I'll be reliving -- and of course retelling ;) -- a very long time. As soon as I left the building, I started scrolling through my mobile phone book in search of friends who would know who Les was and appreciate my story. Only one answered her phone, so it was all I could do not to accost some stranger on the train with my story. Had the musician in my car carried a guitar instead of a horn of some kind, I definitely would have bent his ear.

But instead I get to bend all of yours. :D I hope you don't mind my exuberance ... I'm just pretty stoked about the whole thing. The coolest thing, I think, is that we actually had a neat conversation. There was some kind of substance to our passing. So now I'll buy some Les Paul records, and probably drop the $35 to hear him live. Hey, at least I discover his music while he's alive! None of that posthumous fan-club guilt I have with Johnny Cash, where I'm aware of joining a large crowd that bought his records only when he died. :( :(
And now good night from briefly magical New York!

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