I hadn't realized it at the time, but Le Caveau de la Huchette is one of the jazz clubs in Paris, at which the greats such as Lionel Hampton and Count Basie had played regularly. The building itself is fascinating; a 16th century building on one of the tiny windy streets in the Latin Quarter, rumored to have a been a meeting place for the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons. Later on, during the French Revolution, the extremist Jacobims had conducted trials and executions in the cellar. Naturally, the sense of intrigue was evident as we made our way into the dark club, then down the winding spiral staircases into the cellar.
The medieval cellar itself was interesting, with the walls and low ceilings of a typical French cave, but different levels even within the basement. Several tables were tucked away in the corners up a couple steps, while there was a big empty space on a slightly lower level surrounded by seats in front of the elevated stage. I was initially dubious about this layout; not only had we arrived too late to grab seats with a view of the stage, but I found the empty space in the middle of the room to be extremely awkward; I would imagine most other clubs would have filled this space with tables to create a cozier ambiance. Furthermore, despite the dim lighting of the bar upstairs, the basement was surprisingly well-lit, almost too bright for what I would have expected for an 'underground' jazz concert.
Soon after we arrived, the quartet featuring a pianist, a drummer, a bassist and a tenor saxophonist started to play. They opened with 'There Will Never Be Another You', which I took to be a good omen - after all, you can't go wrong with a Chet Baker standard, right? Unfortunately, the band did not live up to these expectations. Their solos were not impressive, and though by no means offensive, the rest of their set was ... comme ci comme ça.
However, the ambiance of the club more than made up for that shortfall. As soon as the second song started, a brave couple made their way to the dance floor and started dancing, quickly joined by others. The movement of the dancers filled up the empty space and helped to create the cozier atmosphere which had initially been missing. Together with the smaller tables tucked away at the back, partially-shielded by the stone walls, this created a unique intimate setting for the group without feeling like you were intruding into someone else's private space. In fact, it managed to placate my earlier concerns about the awkwardness of the empty space, and the lack of intimacy.
This was in stark contrast to my first Parisian jazz club experience at the beginning of the quarter, when my host parents took me to see a jazz trio at the Jazz Cartoon in Montmartre. Though it was also underground in a similar cave, and the songs being played were similar (albeit by, dare I say, better musicians), Jazz Cartoon created its own sense of intimacy by squashing in as many chairs into the basement as possible, keeping the lighting extremely dim with candles on each table. Despite everyone feeling as though they were being squashed onto someone else's lap, the darkness and the layout of the tables made it easy to focus on the music, and I quickly found myself mesmerized. In a somewhat conflicting manner, I felt wholly submerged in the music and almost oblivious to my surroundings, yet still conscious of the crowd around me who shared exactly the same state of mind.
Rather, at La Caveau de la Huchette, the emphasis was clearly on the ambiance of live music, rather than on the music itself. This was made apparent by the dancing, the mediocre band, the ongoing conversations throughout the evening and the layout of the cellar. It was definitely not at all the experience that I had expected, but I finally came to terms with that fact, and it was nevertheless still a highly enjoyable evening of jazz.