It’s rather an understatement when Norbert Slama says, “I’m moving all the time—I have to move all the time.”
As revealed in his recently published memoir, Norbert Slama: How a French Sparrow Conquered the World and Won the Girls with his Accordion, the 89-year-old musician has led an eventful life. He was born in Algiers, North Africa and lived in France, Switzerland, Israel and the United States with voyages to such spots as China, Japan and South America.
These days, his wanderlust primarily finds him traveling between his two homes, a bed and breakfast he’s building in Provence, France and his apartment in New Orleans. Slama regularly changed locales, occupations, wives (he’s had six) and lovers as he pursued his passion for music. He’s accomplished all of this, including the book, despite continually diminishing eyesight caused by retinitus pigmentosa that was diagnosed at age 14.
Slama, a master accordionist and pianist, has the ability to perform in an array of styles though he remains most recognized for what he calls “French musette” (or bal musette) and the gypsy jazz mode of guitar legend Django Reinhardt. On hearing Slama, people’s reactions (both in New Orleans and around the world) is that they feel as if they’ve been transported to the streets of Paris.
Slama, whose uncle bought him his first accordion, a Hohner Verdi I, is proud of the number of tunes in his songbook. “Give me a request,” he challenges. “I don’t know if anybody can beat me. There is no end.”
“Two or three days ago,” he continues, “somebody asked me to play “The Merry Widow.” And I played the whole thing. I can play Chopin; I can play Mozart. I can play any kind of music. Two or three weeks ago somebody hired me and my guitar player to play only Italian songs. I can play Russian music, Italian, French, Spanish, Israeli music. I can play the music of the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s; I don’t play no rock ’n’ roll, I don’t play no blues. My music is my music.”
As the title of his memoir suggests, Slama, admittedly, is a ladies man, and the women who moved in and out of his life play a prominent role in his book. It accounts for simply titled chapters like “I Get Married to Suzanne,” “I Meet Jacqueline,” and “I Meet a Ballerina.”
In his many travels around the world, he also encountered some famous artists, including the renowned vocalist and dancer Josephine Baker, with whom, by chance, he—as a teenager—and his band were able to travel and perform. In the book, he fondly remembers meeting and befriending actress Elizabeth Taylor and being hosted by vocalist extraordinaire Edith Piaf.
Slama was able to accomplish writing his memoir by being diligent about recording his recollections—both musical and amorous relationships—on cassette. He began this ritual early on after having moved to Paris and then Switzerland. This endeavor was, in some ways, in anticipation of his eventual inability to read the written word. With help, his stories were transcribed and edited to offer a very simply and personally told biography of Slama’s extraordinary life.
Musically, New Orleans was a logical place for Slama to land, though he didn’t get here until the late 1990s/early 2000s. He was close way before that when he played piano at a Florida venue called the Racquet Club and enjoyed accommodations on a millionaire’s yacht before Hurricane Betsy hit in 1965. He saw his beautiful grand piano floating in the sea. Years later, Hurricane Katrina cut short another of Slama’s gigs as a regular pianist at Burgundy Street’s Maison Dupuy hotel.
After moving from the Florida Keys, where he ran a restaurant and jazz club called Misty, Slama moved to Baton Rouge, where his son was living.
“I was told New Orleans would be good for me,” Slama remembers. “One day, [guitarist and artist] Tony Green called and said, ‘Norbert you should come down to New Orleans.’ So I went to New Orleans and played with him and I decided this was the place to be.”
“My first impression was that it was a town of music,” Slama recalls. “Every street, I can hear music; every corner, I can hear music; every upstairs, I can hear music. I can’t find any other place like that, even Paris.
Wearing his signature cap, Slama masterfully performs the music of his life at intimate spots like the Columns Hotel with guitar master John Rankin (see them December 3), at Frenchmen Street’s Yuki and the Bywater’s Bacchanal restaurants. Playing such romantic music, which he attributes to the sound of the accordion and the French musette style, he’s also called on to play at many weddings and anniversary parties or any occasion where dancing and romance are in the air. Never one to remain stagnant, Slama continues to expand his musical outlook, playing standards from the likes of vocalists Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett with his quartet that includes Rankin and violinist Matt Rhody.
“I love to play music,” says Slama, who continues to practice the accordion and piano some two to three hours a day. “Music is important.”