Banker Turned Musician (a career story)

14 Apr 2022. Jacques Letalon with Bob Kaplan

Editor's note:

Before I met Jacques Letalon I heard his cornet. It was the spring of 2020 in New York City and COVID had just hit the city hard. Everything was closed. Depressing. Sirens rang out day and night, rushing people to the hospital. Unnerving.

But in Central Park beautiful music suddenly sprung up like daffodils. It was Jacques, artfully rendering French and American ballads on his cornet. Here he is playing "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White:

Central Park

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I was born in Paris in 1947 and, when I was growing up, music was a big part of my life but that is not what I studied in college. And it wasn't the career I chose.

My mother was always singing! She knew all the songs of her era and wrote out the lyrics in a book, 100 pages worth. There is not one cross-out. She was not musically trained but she had great pitch and taught me all the traditional melodies; her singing had a huge impact on me.

My mother died at the age of 101. She did not take any medicine. During the last several years of her life, she lived in a nursing home, near Paris. There was a piano in the room where the residents had their afternoon snack at 4:00 p.m. Whenever I visited, I would play her favorite melodies on the piano and she would come alive whispering the lyrics. I was always amazed at the reaction of the residents who seemed asleep but perked right up when they heard the songs of their youth: eyes would open, some sang along, smiled, swayed in their wheelchairs; a few would even stand and start trying to dance. Music may not be the most important thing in the world but it's close. I am reminded of what Beethoven said: "Music is the language of God."

My father too was very musical. His passion was dancing: Tango, valse, paso-doble, Java. In fact, the songs I later wrote for children were about dancing, singing, and laughing! My father was particularly fascinated with the accordion—it was the most popular French instrument at the time—and he wanted me learn to play it but I never did (until very recently!). I learned to play the piano instead.

In college I studied law and economics and graduated from the University of Paris I, Assas/Pantheon/Sorbonne, with an MBA. I then went to graduate school specializing in monetary theory. Before getting my doctorate I moved to Colombia where I taught micro-economics at the University of Antioquia. I thought about writing my doctoral thesis there. Life was wonderful and easy for me in Medellin. My apartment was on the rooftop above a hotel that was used for prostitution, but the great thing about it was you had those Latin rhythms coming from the bar all day and night long. I played the guitar in those days because that was the instrument of the place. After two wonderful years there I came back to Paris and looked for a regular job.

I had a big brother, three years older than me, and he was my god. I decided to follow him into banking even though I had no interest whatsoever in finance. My father had created two businesses, both of which failed, and I thought that if I succeeded at banking and made a lot of money, it would somehow vindicate him. It turned out that I was very successful, so much so I thought I could retire at 35 years old.

I worked for the International Bank for West Africa and attended the training program of Citibank in Beirut and then was sent to Senegal. My job was to do credit analysis for mid-size companies. I must have been 27 years old. I will always remember a meeting with the head of one of those companies. He was around 60 and owned several businesses. He was well known and very successful. But he surprised me by saying, "I messed up my life, I've spend my entire life working." Here I was looking up to him and there he was crying right there in my office. It really struck me: to be successful and rich wasn't the full picture. I decided I wanted to make sure that when I got older I wouldn't be crying about my life.

I stayed two years in Dakar and every weekend I would go with some friends to a village by the sea where there was traditional music and dancing. All the men and boys were playing drums and all the girls were dancing wonderfully and sometimes frenetically. Fascinating rhythms! As the drummers would get wilder the girls would move their arms and legs more and more intensely! It was not halfway; they gave it 100 percent. Those weekends, in that village by the beach and those drummers and dancers are still very present in my memory.

I had planned to stay in Dakar for only a year or so and then take a year off. So after sixteen months I told my manager that I wanted to quit. He said: "Are you crazy? The bank has invested a lot in your training and you have a great career ahead." Then a colleague suggested that instead of quitting I should ask for a sabbatical, to study in the U.S., where I wanted to go. Perfect! So that's what I asked for, telling my manager that I wanted to finish my doctorate. In fact, the only thing I was interested in was jazz and maybe studying music. I also had another goal for that "sabbatical year," which was to go back to Colombia where I had a girlfriend I liked very much.

On sabbatical, I had money, I had time. I spent hours listening to the best musicians and attending classes and workshops for pleasure. Then I received a letter from the bank asking me to shorten my sabbatical and take a big position in Nigeria. I agreed but negotiated to stay a few more weeks in Colombia.

I was appointed deputy area manager for eastern Nigeria, heading twelve branches and a staff of 450 people. When I arrived, the area manager had resigned due to a mental breakdown and I ended up being the regional manager. It was scary and funny because my experience in banking was very limited. It's like you don't know how to swim and someone pushes you into the deep end. It was a joke.

But it worked out: a lot of it was about was about communication and relationships. I got along very well with the staff and I had good relationships with the branch managers who were all very experienced and knowledgeable. I was told I was doing a great job and was even promoted. The truth is that I was still not interested in banking; music was my main activity. I had a huge house (seven bedrooms) and I transformed the living room into a little auditorium. There was a piano, an organ, a guitar, a trumpet, and a big sound system by the bar; I added lots of beautiful plants. I loved that room.

I still had in mind to work one year and take the next one off but I made so much money in Nigeria I said to myself, you would be stupid not to stay longer: power and money can be very seductive.

Finally, after four years in Nigeria I went to Paris intending to announce my resignation to my president but before I could tell him, he informed me that the bank was to open an office in Zimbabwe and offered me the position of director there. At that time, I listened a lot to reggae and especially to the song "Zimbabwe" by Bob Marley. Instead of resigning I accepted that attractive new position.

In Zimbabwe I was the representative of the bank, the director, and there were no limits to what I could do. First thing, I found a perfect house—there was a swimming pool, a tennis court, a beautiful garden. I hired a cook. I rented a nice office in the center of Harare and in Zimbabwe too I ended up being professionally successful, not because of any banking expertise but because of a series of happy coincidences.

With the money I earned in banking I bought seven little apartments in Paris, one per year of work. When I finally quit my job with the bank, I was 36 years old. My calculation was to have people rent my studio apartments and the revenues would be enough to live on. I could go back to music—a very good calculation, except that I turned out to be a disastrous landlord. For instance, I lent one apartment rent-free to an ex-girlfriend, two tenants never paid me, and I kept one studio for myself where I stored all my instruments (two pianos, two guitars, my trumpet). I don't even remember all the others!

At that time, one of my friends from Nigeria invited me to come to London and participate in an EST seminar, a six-day, sixty-hour course, held in an auditorium full of people. The idea was to take a fresh look at the principles around which you've organized your life. Although I hated the strict rules that we had to observe, the experience turned out to be, as advertised, one of the most transformative of my life. Something in me shifted. For the first time I said to my parents, I love you. That was a big thing. That program also led me to make big choices in my life, no more this, no more that. I used to call it the beginning of my life.

As a result of EST, I decided that instead of doing music just for myself, I had to do something for others. I decided to create a nonprofit that would offer a venue where people could express themselves, mostly through music, and I would be part of it. I called it "Le Piano Voyageur" because I was passionate about both music and traveling. I had money, so I could finance it. I found a beautiful space in Paris. I didn't realize until later how big, and expensive, a step it was for me.

I sold my studios and even then money was running short. I had to go back to work and I decided to move to New York.

But first I took a trip to New Orleans, Louis' birthplace: that was the fulfillment of a dream! Louis Armstrong had been my hero since I was a kid.

In New York, I miraculously got a job as a music teacher at Lycée Français de New York, a French-speaking school. At first it was very challenging—I had no background as a music teacher.

Also, it brought back bad associations: when I was seven or eight years old, I took music classes but I hated reading music. Once my music teacher asked me to come to the front of the room to solfège, to sight read a piec—a nightmare come true. To have to do that in front of the class was just awful. I was not good at it. My teacher became red in the face, called me an idiot and smacked his iron ruler on the table, a thick one, and broke the end of my wooden desk!

But, surprise, surprise, along with my position at the Lycée came visibility and a few miracles. In addition to teaching music, I became the musical director of the "Cadets Lafayette," the fanfare, or band, of the French War Veterans Association, created after the First World War. By the 2000s the Association was in decline. Most of the musicians involved were retiring and their children weren't interested in playing an instrument. I took the commitment to rejuvenate this Association's musical band.

That position brought exposure and produced another little miracle. I was asked to assemble a group of musicians to celebrate the arrival of the ship that brought Lafayette to the United States in the 1770s, the Hermione. Important celebrities like Henry Kissinger attended. None of the musicians I hired were French but they were all great professionals. I gave them French uniforms and taught them the "Marseillaise." It was a beautiful event that attracted a lot of media attention.

For Bastille Day (July 14) in 2021, a big event was organized on the Summer Stage of Central Park. The French Consul, Jérémie Robert, invited me to regroup the "Cadets Lafayette" to perform the national anthems of France and the U.S. I organized several rehearsals of the 19 musicians. On the day of the performance we marched to Central Park like it was a New Orleans parade. We accompanied Marie Viapiano who sang the Star Spangled Banner and La Marseillaise beautifully.

Then, yet another little miracle fell from the sky—a button accordion, a wonderful instrument. The only accordionist of the French War Veterans Association had died, and I got a call from the Association's president, Alain Dupuis, asking me what to do with his accordion. I told him I can do something with it! So I'm now finally doing what my father wanted me to do: I'm learning to play the accordion. It's very challenging to play but I am committed to dedicating time to practice. Its sound really reminds me of all those popular French songs that I heard when I was a kid. The accordion had been very popular in France but it was rejected by my generation, who felt it was for older people, for farmers or workers. It didn't have the elegance of the violin or the attraction of a rock 'n roll guitar. Soon I'll be playing all those popular French songs on the accordion in Central Park.

The most marvelous miracle of all happened right there at the Lycee Francais de New York. One of the parents suggested I create a choir made up of parents and I jumped at the chance. He brought sixteen people together, a nice group. Our first concert was for the other parents. I was excited and also a bit scared because I was not really a choir conductor.

I wanted to start the program with one of my compositions: "I Believe in You, I Believe in Me Too," but I needed someone to play the tambourine. A woman named Marie volunteered. I didn't know her at that time but I had noticed she was very beautiful. As I started teaching the song, she played the tambourine, and that was it! She had a quality, a way of moving to the music, the same qualities that attracted me to this country. It was a two-part song, and she took it upon herself to sing back to me, "I believe in you, I believe in mankind." It was as if it were her song. She had a natural energy and an Italian quality to her voice. I loved her voice.

After a few days we had an opportunity to be alone. We walked a lot and we talked a lot. It turned out she wanted to perform and she was looking for a pianist to accompany her or a singer who could play the piano. That was me. I was both. Music brought us together.  We never knew who chose who.

There was a big gap between us financially. Her ex-spouse was very rich. She lived in a big, beautiful apartment on the Upper East Side. I was a teacher, getting divorced with no place to live. A friend let me sleep in one of the practice rooms of his music conservatory located in Carnegie Hall. I slept under a beautiful Steinway. And it was in that room that Marie and I had our first kiss. Our wedding song was "It Had to Be You."

Marie and I started to rehearse and build a repertoire; our first performance was at a Thai restaurant on 9th Avenue in Manhattan; I think we got $50. Then we did a few performances for children, mainly in schools—in upstate New York, in Connecticut. The name of our program was "French is Fun."

We also performed at the French Institute/Alliance Française in New York where we assembled a choir, "Les Oiseaux" (The Birds), whose repertoire was mainly classic French songs by Piaf, Montand, Trenet, Dassin, Legrand, Brassens and Aznavour, along with some of my own compositions. Later we grew from a duo to twelve-piece band, "The Paris Swing Orchestra." We performed at the Plaza and Pierre hotels, the University Club, the Sofitel, the Rainbow Room, and on one Bastille Day we entertained thousands on 60th street.

Music has been important my whole life but my relationship to music hasn't always been easy. There's been frustration. I want to be in the moment, completely present, true to myself in that sense, but often my mind wanders. And I've been humiliated by all the things about music I don't know. I've often been jealous of how much other musicians know and how well they play. I felt like I'm not good enough, I'm not worthy, I'm not deserving. I let my "demons" hold me back.

But things began to change for me, ironically, in the middle of the pandemic. I went to Central Park to play the cornet—Louis Armstrong's instrument—and played it consistently, seriously. My father's simple directive to just "play the melody" came to mind. That phrase allowed me to re-discover the gifts that the great song writers like Gershwin, Kern, Legrand and so many composers have offered the world.

I was finally getting to the place where I really enjoyed playing music, where I was completely at one with the music. I had some great moments, moments of joy, moments when I was intoxicated, even with the accordion, that monster.

Playing in Central Park I realized another dream of mine, to be a street performer, a "busker." Doing that, I met many wonderful people and in a gorgeous surrounding. Inspiring, uplifting!

I think now I have the potential to do something truly great, something I can be really proud of. I have begun to create a musical, called "From Paris to New York." The story is principally autobiographical, of course. Although the musical is far from being ready, many of the songs are written. Marie and I perform them, among many other songs, every Saturday night at 42nd Street's theatrical bistro, "Chez Josephine." Here we are: 

Chez Josephine

I am now very optimistic, in part because I've given up the idea, a handicap really, that I have to do everything by myself. I am surrounded by highly competent, talented and loving people, starting obviously with Marie. The musical will be a team effort, a team production, and at this stage of my life I am very happy with that.