How Paco Got His Groove Back 

After 20 years, Jean Pierre Andre-LeJacque Pelitierre returns to jazz

Paco sits in the entertainer’s chair in front of the piano at The Raven, stroking out the old standard “Putting on the Ritz.” Taking a break from the tune’s traditional lyrics, Paco scats the words, his voice gravelly.

He turns around to the crowd of diners, coffee-drinkers and onlookers, and says, “Here is some more extravagant—[makes a juicy kiss sound with his lips, rubs the fingertips of his right hand together in the air]—cocktail shit.” Paco starts playing again. First it sounds like background music at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Then it starts to scale up musical tributaries toward the headwaters of a collective groove, pulling you out of cocktail haze and into motion, tapping and nodding, and maybe even a blurted “Yeah!” a la jazz, from time to time.

When Paco is in the chair, the whole place is on his channel. He hoots at the waitstaff and they holler back. People put money in his basket and he says, “Bless your heart.” Between songs he turns his chair half around, rapping with nearby clientele. His face looks like the sun in those children’s books. His Popeye arms bulge with sailor’s tattoos.

Paco was born Jean Pierre Andre-LeJacque Pelitierre in a houseboat in Pointe La Fourche, La., on the east bank of the mouth of the Mississippi River, where the Big Easy empties into the Great Salt Mother. La Fourche means “blossom” in French, which is what Paco was already doing in front of the piano at age 3, when he keyed out his first song, “La Paloma.” At age 10, he played for Louis Armstrong, and he won his first New Orleans child talent contest when he was 13. The same year that he won his second title, his parents died in a plane crash.

Orphaned and scarcely 17, Paco then went to sea with the Merchant Marines. For the next two decades, he divided his time between sailing and entertaining, alternating in stretches six months long. He entertained in New Orleans in all the right places, and he played on riverboats throughout the Mississippi system: Minneapolis, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Memphis, Pierre. But in one of his stints at sea, while towing a train of barges to Hawaii in rough waters, a cable winch chewed up his left hand.

Many surgeries, as well as tendons from cats and bones from his kneecap, were needed to rebuild his hand into three moving digits. But after years of physical therapy and rigorous practice at the keyboard, Paco still wasn’t comfortable in the entertainer’s chair. “The sound just wasn’t what I wanted,” he says. So for nearly 20 years, Paco hid from the limelight, privately searching for a way back to his groove. Then, for the first time since his childhood, he got his big break: In 1999, a scout for the U.S. Air Force called, having seen him play once in South Dakota, and invited Paco to audition for the entertainer’s chair at a big anniversary celebration for the Air Force Thunderbirds in Las Vegas. The call put enough hot sauce in Paco’s drawers to motivate him to polish up a few tunes and give it a shot. Paco got the gig, his first since the accident.

Soon after his return to the spotlight, Paco drove his trailer from the sweltering heat of Vegas to the cold spring of Missoula, where he played his second comeback gig, at the Trail’s End for Cinco de Mayo. Since then, he’s been on the mouths and minds of many of the Garden City’s scenesters. And never a mention of his hand.

“It works. It’s getting better all the time,” Paco says of his injury, glancing over to his new backup man. “Mark, let’s play ‘Diggy Diggy Do.’”

Mark Gutow, on drum kit, and Jean Pierre Andre-LeJacque Pelitierre, on piano and vocals, proceed to play “Diggy Diggy Do,” with vigor.

“I used to play in Chicago with Ikey Robinson,” Gutow says after the set, dropping the name of the jazz great who recorded in the ’20s. “Playing with Paco is like playing with Ikey, and Ikey was like Paco. It’s like picking up where we left off.”

For his part, Paco agrees: “We fit together hand in hand right off the bat, you know? In all my years of playing I’ve never seen anything come together like this.”

This could be the start of something big. Scoop on the street is that Paco and Mark are looking for an acoustic bass to play with.

Paco and company will certainly entertain you, his sunbeam face making it all too clear that entertaining is as good as it gets for him. And for his weekend listeners, it’s good to have Paco back in the saddle again. Attention Missoula: Don’t let Paco get away.

Paco and Mark Gutow play at The Raven Cafe on weekends during brunch, and at Larry’s Six Mile Tavern in Huson on Friday, Sunday, and Tuesday evenings. Call 543-3835.

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