Olivier Lancelot, Knight of the Ivory Table, Bids Adieu- A Personal Remembrance by Dan Levinson

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Pianist Olivier Lancelot (photograph by Dan Levinson)


A Personal Remembrance by Dan Levinson

Olivier Lancelot, an exceptional French pianist and a master of the “stride” piano style, died unexpectedly in a motor scooter accident in Paris on January 20, while en route to a gig. He had celebrated his 56th birthday two days earlier.

Olivier’s career began in the 1980s. Inspired by such masters of the piano as Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and Donald Lambert—as well as the deified French pianist François Rilhac, a friend and contemporary of Olivier’s who lived only 32 years—Olivier went on to become one of France’s most sought-after musicians and a prominent figure in the world of stride piano.

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Olivier and I were friends for over 27 years. I met him in December 1990 while I was living in Paris. I was playing a two-week engagement at Le Bilboquet in the Latin Quarter with the Riverboat Shufflers, a band led by American cornetist and Bix Beiderbecke devotee Dick Miller that featured vocalist Madeleine Peyroux, then 16 years old. Olivier was performing a few blocks away at Le Montana with a band led by guitarist Bob Garcia. I went to hear the band and was immediately impressed by Olivier’s facility at the piano. I introduced myself to him and we bonded instantly through our mutual interest in early jazz and swing. During those two weeks, he would sit in with our band and I’d sit in with his.

Olivier had a steady solo-piano engagement for nearly thirty years at a bar/restaurant/cabaret club in the Quarter called Aux Trois Mailletz. When I first met him he was playing there on Sunday nights. Eventually the club also gave him “the graveyard shift” on Tuesday/Wednesday, accompanying vocalists from 11 pm Tuesday night until 4 am Wednesday morning. From the time I met him until I moved back to New York City eight months later, I was there virtually every Sunday night with my clarinet. We built a repertoire, including our own novelty arrangement of “Original Dixieland One-Step” that alternated between the standard key and the key a half-step up, which we called (wait for it) “Original Dixieland Half-Step.” In general, nobody paid much attention to us, but that particular selection would invariably turn a few heads.

After I moved back to New York City (where I’d previously lived from 1983 to 1990), Olivier and I kept in touch, at first by phone and later by email. From the time I left Paris until my next visit ten years later, I saw him only once, when he performed at the Great Connecticut Traditional Jazz Festival in 1997, filling in for pianist Louis Mazetier with the French band Paris Washboard. Olivier visited New York in 2002 and 2005, appearing as a guest with Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, the Grove Street Stompers, and other bands. In 2007, 2008, and 2009, at the invitation of festival director Dick Moore, he was a featured performer at the Hot Steamed Jazz Festival in Essex, CT.

I began making frequent trips to France in 2007 and performed with Olivier throughout the country as well as in Switzerland on numerous occasions, often in combos with washboard player Stéphane Séva. My visits to France would usually include an appearance with Olivier and Stéphane at one or more Parisian jazz clubs, including Le Caveau de la Huchette, Le Petit Journal, and Autour de Midi…et Minuit.

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Olivier had an airtight, computer-like mind that collected and stored copious amounts of information. He had, in fact, embraced computer technology before computers became fixtures in every household. When I visited him at his home in 1990, I saw the first MIDI keyboard I’d ever seen. He had transcribed Art Tatum’s virtuosic solo on “Tiger Rag” and played it into his computer, slowly, one section at a time. He then had his computer play it back, while he played along with it. While that technology is nothing to write home about in 2018, it was rocket science to me in 1990.

Years later, in 2007, I needed a CD-ripping program that could access the information from about 2000 CDs in my library that I had manually entered into a database, and then add that information automatically to the metadata fields of the mp3 files as it was ripping the CDs. (iTunes and other CD ripping programs use a database stored on the Internet to gather information; I needed a program that could communicate with my personal database.) I had already spoken with one professional computer programmer, who couldn’t figure out a way to do it. Olivier did it: he designed a program especially for me that did exactly what I needed it to do.

Olivier had lived in the United States for five years as a boy and not only had a thorough command of the English language, but understood idioms and irony as well. He had a dry, dark sense of humor, and loved wordplay. When he gave me directions to places in France, he would deliberately mispronounce French streets and Metro stops the way an American with no concept of French would mispronounce them, so I would recognize the names when I saw them (the Metro stop “Barbès – Rochechouart” became “Barrrbesss – Roe-cha-chwart,” for example). Sometimes he would don a fake French accent, putting “H’s” in front of words that didn’t have them and removing them from words that did (“I HEM very APPY to meet you”). Once he emailed me a list of instances of misused quotation marks that he’d found online, and then began sending me emails with random “words” in quotation “marks.” [sic] Sometimes we’d write each other to discuss chord changes on a particular song. Olivier always tried to learn the original harmony to songs as well as the chord “substitutions” that jazz musicians have adopted over the years.
One of Olivier’s bête noires was musicians and vocalists who read music or lyrics off an iPad during a performance.

Last October he wrote to tell me that a pianist he knew in France had to cancel a week’s worth of engagements because his iPad had been stolen and he couldn’t play without it. In a subsequent email, Olivier recounted a couple of conversations he’d recently had with vocalists he was accompanying. The first was with one who persisted in reading all her lyrics off an iPad, despite his insistence that she memorize them:

*Me: Hey, you know, about the reading, I’m sorry, you’re right after all. I went to see a Shakespeare play the other night, and all the actors were reading their parts off iPads, so I guess it’s ok.

Her: Oh, really?

Me: OF COURSE THEY WEREN’T! Go learn your f*****g songs!!!

And another conversation with a vocalist who was singing “All of Me”:

*Her (during my solo): I’ll come in at the bridge.

Me: Yeah, ok.

Her (after my solo): …. [deer-in-the-headlights look]

[Note to readers: “All of Me” has no bridge.]

Olivier had a no-nonsense approach to music and life: there was never any pretense. He knew his abilities and his limitations—a rare and valuable attribute, which I appreciated and have tried to emulate.

The last time I communicated with Olivier was nine days before he died, when a friend of mine who was writing an arrangement on a French song had a question about the chord changes. As usual, he responded immediately. For 27 years I could pick up the phone or send him an email or text message at any time, whether it be to discuss chord changes, ask his advice on computer software, or tell him about a debilitating existential crisis I was facing. In my darkest moments, he could make me laugh at the absurdity of it all. He was my alter ego. He was always there, and I assumed he always would be there. I’ve lost people close to me, but never someone so close, so suddenly. He was there one day and gone the next. I’m still feeling the impact of his loss, and will be for a long time.

My wife Molly Ryan, an established vocalist who knew Olivier well and performed with him on many occasions, says, “Olivier’s dark humor and satirical attitude toward life matched mine in many ways. Though it often seemed to pain him to smile, when he found something amusing, one side of his mouth would curve upwards. He always treated me with respect, as an equal. The last time I saw him, about a year ago, we were at the bar at Le Caveau de la Huchette. He leaned over to trumpeter Eric Luter and said, ‘Hey Eric, this is Molly Ryan. She’s a famous jazz singer from America.’ He made me feel like a superstar.”

Then again, Molly knows her lyrics.


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