Grand Man by Deb Jellet
Joni Mitchell would sit beside him on the piano bench and play until the wee small hours of the morning. He played for the Monkees, Red Foxx and Tom Selleck, to name a few. Paul Harvey featured him in a broadcast and called his music heavenly. He couldn’t remember your name, but he could always remember your favorite song. He was a one off, larger than life New Orleans Cajun musician who neither drank nor smoked. He was the pianist and band leader Sage “Jack” Normand.
Early pictures of Jack, almost always sitting at a piano, show a trim, dark man with wavy hair, unruly, bushy eyebrows and a dapper moustache turned up at the corners. He always has a smile on his face. There is a certain devilish Gallic flare in his look and attitude. Something of the bravado of Maurice Chevalier. As if he is about to deliver the punch line of some delicious joke. By the 1980’s, the moustache had turned gray and drooped, the wavy hair receded and the waistline expanded, but the smile and the affability, the larger than life qualities of the man, were undiminished.
Born in 1917, Jack Normand grew up in New Orleans. From solid Cajun stock and proud of it, Jack had little formal training, beyond the few piano lessons his mother made him take. During the Depression, he was making 50 cents a week working in a grocery store and playing music in his free time. One night he and a friend were hired to play at a dive. They only knew three songs, but they made it work. He never went back to the grocery store.
By 1940, Jack and his trio were playing the Fountain Lounge at the Roosevelt Hotel. Then a happy accident. In 1941 Jack and his group were booked for the reopening of the Grand Hotel in Point Clear Alabama. It took them a while to find what was then a sleepy little backwater on the map. It was not love at first sight. They couldn’t wait to finish their two week gig and get back to the bright lights of New Orleans. Then World War II intervened and Jack joined the Army Air Force. After the War, he returned to New Orleans and his music. But by 1951, he and his band were back at the Grand. They stayed for forty years.
The first Grand Hotel was built in 1830. Point Clear, Alabama, on the banks of Mobile Bay, is an affluent enclave of people who play golf and polo. Long before the Civil War, summer homes were built along the waterfront and Point Clear became a popular resort. Nestled on 550 acres along Mobile Bay, the Grand is a combination of sumptuous guest rooms and stately paneled day rooms filled with flowers and strewn with Persian rugs and overstuffed sofas. It has been knocked sideways by fires and hurricanes, most recently Katrina, but it has always made a comeback.
Jack and his band played most nights, first on a drafty veranda and later in the paneled dining room at the Grand. After a time, the management was forced to build a dance floor, as diners, lured by the rhythms and tunes, were dancing between the tables and bumping into them.
Jack’s five children eventually joined the band, morphing it into the Normand Family Band. Each of the three boys and two girls played several instruments and they would switch from one to the other and back again. The band’s theme song was, appropriately, “Stars Fell on Alabama”, but Jack and his group could turn their hands to anything from jazz to contemporary rock. The only family member who was decidedly not musical was Mrs. Normand, Genevieve. She was, Jack said, the best Cajun cook in the country. Family, food and music fused to form the Normand way of life.
Jack and his band became an institution at the Grand. Children of the original 1950’s diners came in during the 70’s. Grandchildren made appearances in the 1980’s. If you had been there before, Jack almost always remembered “your” song and greeted you with it when you came in the door. Children of diners would sometimes sit on Jack’s lap and tinkle the keys with him or hit a few licks with the drummer.
Jack died in 1990, at the age of 73 and it seemed the whole community mourned and paid tribute. In eulogizing Jack, a friend said, “He had a natural ability at the piano and the natural way to make people like him . . . Anything you can say about him would have to be good.”