by Joan Schweighardt
Bloomers Blazing is a new regular feature at BLOOM, presenting interviews with (and stories about) people who found their life’s passion after the age of 40.
We met Jean François Renaud in Barbados the second week in August. We were there as tourists, taking advantage of the cheaper summer rates. He was there because he’d recently made a significant life change: he’d moved from Quebec, his land of origin, to the Caribbean.
He was headquartered on the island of St. Martin, but he’d come to Barbados to play piano at the resort where we were staying. In exchange for room and board he was contracted to play three sets daily—one in the open-air restaurant during breakfast, one in the same location at dinner, and one late at night in the piano bar, in another building on the premises.
Because they are seldom at full capacity during the summer months, some Caribbean resorts will lay off staff until the real tourist season begins, usually in November. If they have entertainment at all during the off season, it is likely to be unexceptional. Since tourists are generally in a good mood—especially in resorts where the drinks are free flowing—as long as the entertainment is lively, nobody much cares. In our resort we had a D.J. most nights playing tunes by request off his computer. One night we had a dancer: dressed as a waiter (or maybe he was a waiter as well as a dancer), he astonished us all by doing a spirited calypso with a tray of drinks balanced on his head.
As such, the first time we saw Jean François approach the piano—it was our first morning on the island, very early, maybe 7:30—I wasn’t expecting to find myself so deeply moved that I would wind up crying in my coffee. A Billy Joel type (but of course less talented), I’d been thinking as I watched him survey the mostly empty tables. He took his seat and placed his over-sized tablet on the music rack. He was slim, bald, in his early forties. His smile was dreamy, suggesting to me that he was affable and gracious. In spite of the heat and humidity, he wore a sports jacket. Would he play older stuff? I wondered. Crooner tunes à la Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett?
Jean François played non-stop for about an hour. Being inept when it comes to all but the most celebrated classical pieces, I assumed I was hearing lesser-known compositions rendered by the masters; the music was profound and very emotional. Later I would learn that the extraordinary pieces that brought me to tears had been composed by Jean François himself.
How had a French Canadian virtuoso come to be playing for room and board in a pleasant but undistinguished ocean resort on the island of Barbados?
My husband and I had come to Barbados to enjoy the sea, and Jean François was there to work. When he wasn’t playing, he was preparing to play. Necessarily, our interview took place in snatches, whenever we happened to run into each other on the resort grounds. But it continued again when I was home and back at my desk. Each day I would send Jean François a handful of questions via email, and he would answer with short audio clips sent to my Facebook page. The advantage of this method was that I got to enjoy his lovely French accent. The disadvantage was that I missed a word here and there, precisely because of his accent—though I did not think of it as a disadvantage at the time. Generally I save all of my follow-up questions until the end, after I have begun to turn notes into prose. How was I to know that, in the wake of Hurricane Irma, Jean François would disappear before I ever got that far?
Jean François began to play piano at the age of four, studying with an instructor and practicing for hours each day on his own. He lived in his head, he says, in a dream world where he could compose rhythms and melodies even when he wasn’t at his piano. When he was nine, he switched from a traditional school to a music school, but there was not nearly as much focus on music as he’d been expecting. His reluctance to shift into the so-called real world made him less than popular with many of his school mates and even some teachers. “I was bored in their universe and wanted to be back in my own,” he says. “I said I was sick some days so I would not have to go to school. When I did go, I was composing, practicing my things instead of school things.” When he was 12 he got into a fight with another boy, was rejected from the music school, and made to return to the school he’d attended previously. This resulted in him having to repeat sixth grade, and it went downhill from there.
In the marine cadets, where he landed after being thrown out of school at the age of 14 (for throwing a chair at the wall in reaction to kids who were laughing at him), he learned about musical direction. He conducted his first orchestra at the age of 15. Within a year he was head of the music corps and helping to instruct the other children.
When he was 17 he did a stupid thing—the nature of which he did not reveal to me—and got arrested and wound up working in a “youth house,” what we might call a detention center. It turned out that the music teacher there, Mike, could play Beethoven on electric guitar, and of course Jean François could play him on piano. The two decided to start a group. They found people to play bass and drums, and they arranged the music together. “I learned a lot, because the other group members were all adults, all over 30,” he told me. But he had to pay his bills too, so he took a factory job, where he injured his hand. Since he wouldn’t be able to play piano or any other instrument—by then he could play several—for the next year and a half, he turned once again to conducting.
His list of accomplishments over the next several years is extensive. He received a grant to assemble a wind orchestra. He conducted in many prestigious concert halls for ever more esteemed orchestras. He began playing piano again; he composed. He founded the Fondation Music Art, an organization that gives financial assistance to talented young musicians. He founded the Orchestre Symphonique des Basses-Laurentides, an orchestra in the Laurentian region of Quebec. He received a grant from Conseil des arts et des Lettres du Québec, to organize a concert with l’Orchestre Philharmonique du Nouveau-Monde…
And so it went. He never went to university; he’d never cared for school, and as the Canadian music world had long since accepted him as someone worthy of both praise and endowments, there was no reason to consider it. He had never suffered from a lack of discipline; what he wanted to learn he could learn on his own (over the years, for instance, he would learn English, Spanish, German, and Italian). He was on a path, one brimming with prestige and acclimation, and he might never have left it…had it not been for The Lion King.
Once he got the idea in his head there was no shaking it loose. He would produce The Lion King right there in his own community using talent from within the community. He conducted auditions for singers, dancers, actors and other musicians. Before he knew it, he had 80 enthusiastic and talented individuals ready to work with him to make his dream a huge success. The buildup was exhausting, but also exhilarating.
On the first day of rehearsals he received a letter from lawyers at Disney saying he did not have the organization’s permission to put on the show. He was told to cease and desist immediately—to shut down the production and remove all mention of it from all social media. If he dared to move forward, he would be sued to the tune of $200,000. Jean François had known there was some risk regarding copyrights, but as it was a community project, he had thought it would be minimal. Apparently he had done too good a job promoting the production.
Cast and crew were devastated. And so was Jean François —at first. But then he saw a way to save the day. The talent was there, as were the rigor and endurance. “We will create our own musical,” he told them. “We will tell our own story. It will be ours.”
Some people left anyway. They had come to star in The Lion King, and they didn’t want to stick around to await a production that hadn’t even been thought up yet. But most stayed on. There was a 15-year-old in the group, Thomas Hinse. Jean François had been his music teacher at one time. “When he talked I was listening, because he was an old soul, very special,” Jean François told me. “He taught me things. What he said made so much sense.”
And voilà! Working along side Thomas Hinse, Jean François and others in the group created a musical based on an Aztec legend. It featured a prince of night and princesses of the sun and gods that wanted to destroy them. “It was a very good story,” he assured me. Jean François set himself a challenge; he would compose 17 songs for the production in 17 days. He managed 14 songs (close enough).
But the pressure—the shifting gears from one production to another, the starting from scratch—was immense, even for someone as energetic as Jean François. And because he had no one there to focus on the details, he had to take on the marketing, the promotion, even the ticket sales himself. When he went home at night, he admits, he yelled at his girlfriend. He didn’t understand why she wasn’t helping him. He sensed he was no longer pleasant to be around but he couldn’t seem to do anything about it.
After the initial run, some of the actors wanted to do the same Aztec show again, but bigger and better this time. Jean François could not resist. But this time he needed help from the start. He founded a foundation and invited people to join the board of directors. Before long he had a president, a vice president, and secretaries, of which he was one. The board helped him to make decisions about hiring the people he would need to do the best possible job. But when he brought up the matter of generating a salary for himself, they said no. He argued with them; he wanted and needed to be paid. Rather than concede, they quit on him, the entire board. And so it came to pass that he was alone again after all. He did the show, and, yes, it was bigger and better, but by the end he was utterly burned out.
He was drinking by then. He’d begun just after the foundation board quit, but once the project was over, his drinking became more serious. He and his girlfriend split up. He was falling into a deep depression.
In spite of its success, the show had not made very much money. In a last ditch effort to save the foundation, Jean François arranged a fundraiser. The world record for marathon piano playing was 26 hours and seven minutes. Jean François played for 24 hours, a nod to the record-holder, a well-know musician whom Jean François regards as so much better than himself. He raised $3,000—not enough to save the foundation.
In the hope of shaking his depression, Jean François decided to make a major change in his life. He had been to St. Martin once before, between the first and second productions of his Aztec show. Hurricane Gonzalo, then a category one storm, had arrived on the island just after him. As a result, he had been shuddered in his hotel with other guests and staff. He’d played the piano for them. He’d made many new friends and connections that would turn out to be useful in the future.
In January of 2016 he went to his beloved St. Martin again, with the intention of starting an orchestra for the children there. He had always loved teaching, and as soon as he was settled, he began to make arrangements to bring different instruments (he had brought 25 to the Caribbean with him) into schools, to introduce the kids to the basics of classical music. “The children did not know a clarinet from a trumpet,” he told me. “But they were naturally talented. And they learned fast.” He taught them little tunes that they could play together.
Jean François turned his attention to “exploring his gift” in earnest. All his life people had told him how good he was; they had encouraged him to push on, do more, go further. But when you are playing in a huge concert hall, you cannot see the faces of the people in the audience. In St. Martin, Jean François looked into faces, especially when he was playing at his hotel. He began to understand the ways in which his music affected people. He became enthralled with the idea that he could change lives for the better by sharing his gift in less august surroundings.
He asked his friends on the staff of the hotel what their favorite pop songs were and added them to his repertoire. Then, when he saw various staff members coming into view, he segued from whatever he’d been playing to that person’s favorite tune, a secret greeting of sorts. Even though they risked getting into trouble, sometimes staff members came by to sing at his piano. This was the kind of one-on-one experience Jean François had been craving.
Once the local people in St. Martin saw that this distinguished musician was accessible to them, they began to ask him questions. They wanted to know everything about him, his musical life and his personal life too. I asked him why he thought people were so hungry for information about him. “My story is inspiring,” he said. “It’s entertaining. I don’t do stuff like usual people. I go to my dreams all the time, from one dream to another, one inspiration to another, and it turns out well, because I follow my heart.”
Jean François conducting his own compositions
He was doing other things as well as teaching children and playing piano in St. Martin’s. He had been researching the use of music in healing. He made arrangements to work in a mental health facility, playing not only traditional instruments but also gongs and singing bowls, instruments that focus on vibration. He believed that the right vibration could facilitate circulation and increase healthy activity in the cells. He also began working with other musicians on the island to plan a production of an opera (originally entitled Treemonisha) created by Scott Joplin, an African-American composer and pianist. Back in Joplin’s time (he died in 1917), white people were not interested in operas created by blacks. And black people didn’t generally attend operas. Jean François and company planned to change all that. So many doors were opening.
Moreover, Jean François had begun meditating on the island of St. Martin, a natural consequence of going to the beach at five in the morning to watch the sunrise. “Sometimes I don’t want to come back [from meditation],” he explained, “because it feels so good. I see life moving, I see energy moving. I can feel it coming and going from my body. When it’s stuck, I can feel it. I don’t know much about chakras, but I can feel where it’s stuck and then I can fix things. I ask for inspiration when I meditate, for where to go next, what to do, and voilà! It comes to me.”
When Jean François accepted the invitation to come to Barbados, he didn’t bring his 25 instruments with him. He was happy to spend some time on Barbados, but his life was blooming in St. Martin, and he knew he would be going back before long.
We were wrapping things up with our interview when Jean François moved back to St. Martin, an event he marked on his FaceBook page with the words. “Where in the world am I now?” This was in early September. I asked him why he hadn’t stayed in Barbados just a little longer. “St. Martin gives me what I need,” he told me. “I never worry here. I have almost no more money, but I know something will happen.”
In his last audio message before Hurricane Irma hit on September 5, Jean François spoke again about his great love for his new life. “Always in St. Martin, the moment I feel something missing, it comes. Like today, I was packing my stuff in the hotel, because the lady didn’t want anyone there during the hurricane. And a friend comes and says, ‘Hey, I have something for you, in Orient Bay.’ If I had to choose where to live, I would always say Orient Bay. The energy there is good, calm, and the view is beautiful.”
If you visit his FaceBook page, you can see the apartment he moved into that day. In fact he made a video of the various rooms, including the walk-in closet. Most of the shelves in the closet were empty. His instruments—except for his clarinet and sax, which he always carries with him—had been safely stored in the school where he’d been teaching. A while later he made another video, in response to the many friends who were posting their concerns for him in English and in French. “Don’t worry about me,” he replied. Ne t’inquiète pas de moi. “But thank you for worrying.”
The only other FaceBook posting from that day was in the middle of the night. It reads: “Nothing to say except it’s just sooo intense and it’s not even the real thing yet. The whole mountain is shaking.”
Six days passed before I saw activity on Jean François’ Facebook page. He appeared in a photograph on a rooftop from which many shingles had blown away. He was unshaven, shirtless, wearing a baseball cap and a big smile. In another post, which showed a scene from the destruction of the island with a link for people to send recovery donations, he had written: “I’m alive! I survived Irma! I’m rebuilding St. Martin.”
A few days later I received my first direct communication from Jean François since before the hurricane, a few short audio messages. He explained that he could only get internet reception sporadically. He must have been recording from the same (or another) rooftop, because there was quite a lot of wind interference in the background, as well as the voices of people working nearby.
“I’m exhausted,” he said. “I am working so hard to build, to repair, to clean. Everything with my hands. Hammers, saws… It hurts. My finger… I played piano yesterday on the little keyboard, and it was not that bad but it was tough.”
Jean François reported that everyone who remained on the island was tired, and, understandably, there was a lot of negativity as well. His plans—to bring music to school children, to practice healing in the mental health facility, to create an opera with other musicians—had all been dashed, either by the displacement of people or the ruination of structures and equipment.
Jean François was happy to be helping out, but he is not a construction worker (“I didn’t hold a hammer since I was 22,” he confided) and for all his affection for her, St. Martin is not his home. He worried what staying on could do to him mentally and physically. “I miss my music,” he told me. “I miss playing the piano every day. Playing is like a meditation. When I play I am feeling my emotion, feeling my life.”
Jean François had had lots of time to ruminate as Irma was rolling in. “Before Irma, when I was at the hotel here, I met a troupe of dancers from Colombia,” he said. “They became my good good friends. And through them I discovered a passion for Latin music, salsa music.” Now, he has decided to follow this new passion to his next destination.
He plans to stay in St. Martin for a while longer and help with the clean up, he said. Then he will return to Quebec and ask the arts council to provide him with grant money so that he can travel to Colombia to learn more about Latin music. The arts council has supported his projects in the past; he believes they will do so again. He will go to Medellin, where his dancer friends are. “I am working on ideas,” he told me, “inspired by meditation. I want to compose music for them to dance on, Latin music, but with a big orchestra, not just a little group. I have started to write some things on my computer. The universe is pushing me this way.”
It can only be a matter of time before “Where in the world am I now?” appears on his Facebook page once again.
Joan Schweighardt is the author of The Accidental Art Thief, The Last Wife of Attila the Hun, and other novels.
Click here to learn more about Jean François Renaud.
Photo credits: Michael Dooley