The morning I spotted Tony Gardner sitting among the tourists, spring was just arriving here in Venice. Wed completed our first full week outside in the piazza a relief, let me tell you, after all those stuffy hours performing from the back of the cafe, getting in the way of customers wanting to use the staircase. There was quite a breeze that morning, and our brand-new marquee was flapping all around us, but we were all feeling a little bit brighter and fresher, and I guess it showed in our music.
But here I am talking like Im a regular band member. Actually, Im one of the gypsies, as the other musicians call us, one of the guys who move around the piazza, helping out whichever of the three cafe orchestras needs us. Mostly I play here at the Caffè Lavena, but on a busy afternoon, I might do a set with the Quadri boys, go over to the Florian, then back across the square to the Lavena. I get on fine with them all and with the waiters too and in any other city Id have a regular position by now. But in this place, so obsessed with tradition and the past, everythings upside down. Anywhere else, being a guitar player would go in a guys favour. But here? A guitar! The café wont like it. Last autumn I got myself a vintage jazz model with an oval sound-hole, the kind of thing Django Reinhardt might have played, so there was no way anyone would mistake me for a rock-and-roller. That made things a little easier, but the cafe managers, they still dont like it. The truth is, if youre a guitarist, you can be Joe Pass, they still wouldnt give you a regular job in thissquare.
Theres also, of course, the small matter of my not being Italian, never mind Venetian. Its the same for that big Czech guy with the alto sax. Were well liked, were needed by the other musicians, but we dont quite fit the official bill. Just play and keep your mouth shut, thats what the cafe managers always say. That way the tourists wont know youre not Italian. Wear your suit, sunglasses, keep the hair combed back, no one will know the difference, just dont start talking.
But I dont do too bad. All three cafe orchestras, especially when they have to play at the same time from their rival tents, they need a guitar something soft, solid, but amplified, thumping out the chords from the back. I guess youre thinking, three bands playing at the same time in the same square, that would sound like a real mess. But the Piazza San Marcos big enough to take it. A tourist strolling across the square will hear one tune fade out, another fade in, like hes shifting the dial on a radio. What tourists cant take too much of is the classical stuff, all these instrumental versions of famous arias. Okay, this is San Marco, they dont want the latest pop hits. But every few minutes they want something they recognise, maybe an old Julie Andrews number, or the theme from a famous movie. I remember once last summer, going from band to band and playing The Godfather nine times in one afternoon.
Anyway there we were that spring morning, playing in front of a good crowd of tourists, when I saw Tony Gardner, sitting alone with his coffee, almost directly in front of us, maybe six metres back from our marquee. We get famous people in the square all the time, we never make a fuss. At the end of a number, maybe a quiet word will go around the band members. Look, theres Warren Beatty. Look, its Kissinger. That woman, shes the one who was in the movie about the men who swap their faces. Were used to it. This is the Piazza San Marco after all. But when I realised it was Tony Gardner sitting there, that was different. I did get excited.
Tony Gardner had been my mothers favourite. Back home, back in the communist days, it had been really hard to get records like that, but my mother had pretty much his whole collection. Once when I was a boy, I scratched one of those precious records. The apartment was so cramped, and a boy my age, you just had to move around sometimes, especially during those cold months when you couldnt go outside. So I was playing this game jumping from our little sofa to the armchair, and one time I misjudged it and hit the record player. The needle went across the record with a zip this was long before CDs and my mother came in from the kitchen and began shouting at me. I felt so bad, not just because she was shouting at me, but because I knew it was one of Tony Gardners records, and I knew how much it meant to her. And I knew that this one too would now have those popping noises going through it while he crooned those American songs. Years later, when I was working in Warsaw and I got to know about black-market records, I gave my mother replacements of all her worn-out Tony Gardner albums, including that one I scratched. It took me over three years, but I kept getting them, one by one, and each time I went back to see her Id bring her another.
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