A Jazz Escape in Brussels

A version of this article was published in Le Monde d’Hermès in Autumn 2009


A button on the building glows above the words “use me.”  Pressing it, I feel like Alice in Wonderland.  The heavy door cracks open and I slip through to L’Archiduc, making my escape from Brussels.  The glass entryway shatters the reflection of the swirling ‘A’ behind me, as if I’ve stepped into a kaleidoscope.  It is just before dawn and the interior is dark and jazzy: a high Art Deco ceiling held up by two columns, a piano at the center too large for the room, a row of secluded banquettes against the walls.  I sense the presence of ghosts here – Miles Davis, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Stan Brenders – but there is life, too, and I enter a room so crowded that it must inhale and exhale as one, finding a shared rhythm.  I am overcome by a feeling of bonhomie that rushes over me, flushing my skin like an opiate high.  It is a room of strangers that, I know, cannot remain strangers for long.

This is the magic of L’Archiduc: here, rich and poor, young and old, the beloved and the desperately lonely find common sanctuary; there is no room for anonymity, no space for judgment, no possibility of pretension as all are pressed into intimacy by the tight circumstances.  The unyielding struggles and failed relationships that mark the lives we lead beyond these walls, the desperate choices and deep, wounding disappointments, are left behind as we become, for a few hours, our true, unfettered selves.   On a banquette in the shadows, a woman is in the arms of a man a generation or two younger and in her imagination each stroke of his hand eases the wrinkles by her eyes and returns some of the youthful luster to her graying hair.  Another man passes, weaving unsteadily, his immaculate white suit and matching cowboy hat belonging to a more pristine life than the one suggested by his leathered skin and rough features.  I follow in his wake, the crowd parting to embrace him, and squeeze through to a back staircase that leads to the narrow catwalk balcony hanging overhead.  At the handrail, seeing but unseen, I look down on an ocean of heads that eddy and whirl like water flowing through the room.  I sit back in a velvet armchair, shrouded by darkness: in time, what gaps remain between me and the others will be filled in by cushioned stools, conversation will be struck up to relieve the awkwardness of proximity, and soon we will not be able to remember who knew whom when the night began.

Then, as the first light of morning brightens the opaque windows, a young woman emerges from the lingering crowd and gently rolls back the piano’s protective covering.  She sits before it, caressing the keys with her slender fingers as if unsure whether to begin.  She is one of us and we wait with her, silent now, not knowing whether her ability will be the equal of this instrument that so many jazz legends have played before her.  But she presses a single note, soft and slow; then another, and then several more, gradually taking shape as the classic Blue in Green.  The sound follows us as we pass, once more, through the kaleidoscope and out into the city to resume our real, flawed lives.


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