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Jack Elder

The New HOTS Jazz Orchestra, a 1920s-40s-style little big band based in Herndon, Va., toured Paris, Normandy, and the Val Du Loire in France during the last two weeks of June 1999. HOTS completed a tour of Provence and the Cote d’Azur in July 1997.

   HOTS was invited back to France by Francois Zomra, a former HOTS member. With assistance from local bands and orchestras, the band played a series of six engagements in and near Paris, Rouen, Blois and Fontainebleau while undertaking an ambitious schedule of sightseeing. HOTS invited along several of the Washington area swing dancers. In total, twenty-four persons made the tour this year, including ten band members, plus spouses, and friends.

   HOTS departed Dulles on Air France Monday, 14 June and arrived in Paris at 9:00 AM on Tuesday, 1 July. We cleared our luggage and band instruments, sound gear, etc., through Customs, rented five vans and a small 4-seater European sedan, and drove to nearby Achères to check into a provincial hostel. HOTS carried all its instruments, including electric piano, bass, tuba and drums, plus a full set of audio amplification equipment as we traveled through our various venues in France.

   The Centre d’Accueil Internationale MUTAXOSMO, a hostel and residence hotel for an industrial training center, provided clean, though spartan, non-air-conditioned double rooms, each with sink and shower (uni-sex toilets down the hall), and a daily continental breakfast of orange juice, fruit, yogurt, fresh baguettes, coffee, and hot chocolate. The hostel also graciously provided space for storing our shipping containers throughout the entire stay.

   At about 5 PM local time Tuesday, our first day in France, we drove into Paris around the Etoile/Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Elysèes into the Latin Quarter. Driving thorough downtown Paris during rush hour was a real trial by fire for some of our first time drivers in Europe, but despite some close calls, there were no accidents.

   The quais along the left bank of the Seine below Notre Dame Cathedral opposite the Ile Saint Louis are relatively wide, with a series of small parks. HOTS was invited to play for the Paris swing dance club “Shake It Good” in one of three amphitheaters cut into the river banks. The other two nearby amphitheaters were concurrently occupied by a rock club and a tango group dancing to records.

   HOTS set up its equipment, caught a quick steak-frites at the Buffalo Grill, and played three hours 9 - 12 PM for about 300 or more local jitterbugs. The band was well received, collecting the crowds from the other amphitheaters. Band members and dancers thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Language was no problem, and our American dancers learned to dance “Le Rock” with their French partners.

   Imagine a large enthusiastic crowd of dancers and listeners enjoying themselves on the banks of the Seine, the setting sun (about 11 PM) behind us illuminating Notre Dame and the Sacre-Coeur basilica on Montmartre, and a steady stream of the Seine's brightly lighted “Bateau Mouche” tour boats pulling over close to the banks to see and hear us at about ten minute intervals as they made their turns to return down the river. It was one of those unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime evenings; one that might have been considered a romantic evening if we had not been so tired.

   It was about 8 AM Washington time when the HOTS troupe returned to the hostel; by then, most of us had been awake for over 36 hours. We had really begun the trip with a rousingly successful performance, and we had cemented a good relationship with the Paris swing dancers which we hope will lead to engagements at significant Paris dance halls like “Slow Club” and “Balajo” if we are able to make another trip in 2001.

   After approximately four hours of sleep, we were ready to see Paris. For the next two days, tour members visited the Louvre and all the other principal sights in Paris. The weather was perfect, and in-town transport by train and metro was easy. The group gathered for dinner in the Latin Quarter on Wednesday evening and all ascended to the top of the Eiffel Tower that night, catching the last train back to the hostel.

   On Thursday, we drove to and spent the day at Versailles, then returned to play for an exciting evening of dancing for the residents of our hostel - mostly students and young French workers in company sponsored training programs.

   On Friday evening, we played a joint concert with the “Orchestre de l’Alliance Musicale” of Maisons-Lafitte. This was the local group that helped to organize this portion of our visit. We closed the evening with the audience dancing.

   On Saturday, we packed our gear and drove to Rouen in Normandy by way of Monet’s home and garden in Giverney. We checked into the Hotel /restaurant Clarine, a very nice and not too expensive French chain, in downtown Rouen. That night our host, Gerard Hoyes, escorted us to a truly French evening at a local guinguette (nightclub) on the banks of the lower Seine. We dined on a local specialty “moules-frites” (mussels and French fries) and danced to a “bal musette” (French accordion) orchestra. We learned several new dances, including the Paso Doble (a Spanish one-step to “bullfight” music) and the very French “Java” (something like a waltz where the lady’s (cavaliere’s) hands are laced behind the man’s neck, and the man’s hands lend gentle support the lady’s derriere.)

   On Sunday we explored the seaside resorts of Honfleur and Deauville, then drove on to see the tapestry at Bayeaux, arriving late in the evening at the Invasion Beaches near Arromanche. We had planned to regroup for a seafood dinner in Honfleur, but quickly discovered that the distances and time needed to sightsee were too great. Each van foundits own supper - mine had cous-cous royale in Caen - and we got back to the hotel after midnight.

   On Monday, or host Gerard led us on a walking tour of old Rouen. We saw where Joan of Arc was put to death and many beautiful old buildings in the Norman style, some dating back to medieval times. Some of the group then went shopping on their own while others toured several abbeys in the Brotonne forest.

   We were back together for supper in the Place Saint Marc on the sidewalk in front of the “Le Saxo Bar”. That night, June 21, (summer solstice), is a national holiday which has now been officially designated a country-wide music festival day. (It had previously been just a day for serious drinking.)

   Each city is illuminated and bands play in nearly every town square and in front of nearly every restaurant. HOTS was scheduled to play in front of a row of restaurants in the old section of Rouen. We had a quick supper at our host Mediterrania restaurant, then alternated sets with a loud local rock band which had set up only 30 feet away. A large crowd gathered for each set HOTS played. As best we can tell, dance bands like ours playing big band swing and hot dance music no longer exist in France, and the crowd raved about how good our music was. Most of the other bands in town were playing Euro-techno music (think bad-loud-amateur-rock-garage band with a serious social/political agenda.)

   On Tuesday we drove north to Dieppe, then south along the Alabaster Coast for a short swim in the ice cold English Channel after climbing to the top of the chalk cliffs at Etretat.

   That evening we shared a catered supper of local Norman specialties - including several meat, poultry, and fish turines, charcuterie (cold cuts), elegant French deserts, with plenty of wine. We played for several hours of dancing of the members and families of two local orchestras, with several of their members sitting in, and we finished the evening in a jam session with members of a local dixieland band. We ended our night about 2:00AM with several rounds of “Kir Royale” (a cocktail of Crème de Cassis and Champagne.)

   On Wednesday we rose very early and spent most of the day climbing through the shops and monastery at Mont Saint-Michel. Most of us had supper down the coast in the walled city of Saint Malo in Brittany. There just was not enough time to do either the bungy jumping or kayaking in the Suisse Normande that had been on our planned agenda.

   We left Rouen Thursday morning and drove to Chartres to see the cathedral. Then we continued south to Blois on the Loire River, checking into another Hotel Clarine, Where we played a concert that evening on their patio after supper for hotel and restaurant patrons.

   On Friday, we visited the chateaux at Chambord and Chenonceaux and drove by numerous other Loire valley chateaux. Some of the group picnicked on the Cher, while several others rented bikes for some close-up touring in Blois.

   Saturday was a day or wine sampling at local vineyards, and then moving to our last location, the hostel “Centre Des Loiters - Le Obis du Lies” near Fontainebleau. This hostel is a regional sports training complex. HOTS finds that the system of provincial hostels provide perfectly adequate and the most reasonably priced accommodations in France. This one had a complete bathroom for each bedroom and even offered a swimming pool.

   Saturday evening, the entire HOTS tour group gathered for a leisurely (six hour) four-course Alsatian-French dinner at a very nice restaurant in Fontainebleau. The profiteroles were “to die for.”

   On Sunday morning, while some went back into Paris for mass at Notre Dame and more shopping (Fragonard - perfume), a few of us took the vans back to Achères to gather up our shipping containers, etc. By afternoon, the weather had finally turned a little rainy, and tour members were thoroughly exhausted. Several had visited the chateaux at Vaux-le-Vicompte and Fontainbleau, while others had visited the medieval city of Provins or the artist‘s village of Barbizon. The last evening, most of us went to a Chinese restaurant in Melun for supper. We returned too late to play an impromptu dance for our fellow hostel residents, a touring group of British high school French language students.

   On Monday morning, we drove to Charles de Gaulle and flew home, arriving Dulles at 3:50 PM. Another success - no one sick, hurt, or lost, - good music, good dancing, good fun and good friends. We‘ve scheduled a reunion of the tour group for a photo swapping party, and we‘re sending band tour tee shirts and commemorative plaques to our hosts.

   In retrospect, while it was another great trip, we realize that because of the distances involved, we had optimistically scheduled much more than could be accomplished in the time available. Even so, despite our exhausting schedule, we got a surprising amount done. We‘ll have much more beach and relaxation time when we tour the western coast of France from Bordeaux to Biarritz - tentatively scheduled for summer 2001.
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