Now I know what made my previous jazz experiences subpar: never before had the jazz taken place in a medieval dungeon.
Le Caveau de la Huchette in the effortlessly chic neighborhood of St. Michel fills this void. Its building is one of the many in Paris that benefits from what a few students have taken to calling the Harry Potter effect. In one of the Potter books, the characters camp out in tents that look modest from the outside, but within are magically manipulated to be able to accommodate the population of a small town. Likewise, Le Caveau’s street-level façade gives way to a cramped, narrow bar, with concerts held downstairs, in the magically expanded dungeon.
From the moment the Nicola Sabato Trio began to play, their music resonated to fill the entire room, including each person in the audience. With the warmth of every sound, from drum solo to applause, the wine or beer that many audience members held seemed redundant.
Having previously been to jazz concerts that placed the audience in stadium seating or at small café tables, the profound effect of Le Caveau’s layout surprised me.
I sat where in the photo above a woman in a white dress and white high heels is sitting, behind the dancing couple, looking straight ahead at the band across the small dance floor. From there without turning my head I had a view of almost every audience member, except for those in the alcove behind me. This perspective kept my impatient mind occupied, for I was not alone with the music I knew I grasped imperfectly at best; I was part of a kind of salon full of friends and strangers, all there to enjoy separately yet together.
The audience members smiled, kept the beat with tapping fingers on their knees or toes on the floor, occasionally chatted, and directed almost tangible appreciation toward the musicians. The band featured virtuosic soloes shamelessly targeted at audience approval, as well as the periodic fixed gaze of Sabato himself as he played the double bass. He stared from time to time at a space just past the microphone, a few feet from the ground. I would have thought he was referring to the sheet music, except that there was nothing there.
Le Caveau de la Huchette makes an American art form quite natural in a Parisian context, turns a fragmented audience into a living, breathing whole, and would admirably house an enemy to the throne. Situated between the Shakespeare and Company bookstore and half a dozen crêpe stands, around the corner from the Notre Dame cathedral, it offers jazz performances in an impossibly cool and potentially revelatory setting.