Jean RoderesBorn: April 12th, 1923, Schifflange (Luxembourg)
Died: June 20th, 1993, Luxembourg-Ville (Luxembourg)
In 1943, Roderes had to cease all of his professional activities, being one of the Luxembourg males between 18 and 25 years old who were not able to escape being forced into the Wehrmacht. Thanks to his abilities as a pianist, Jean was not sent to the Russian front, but was allowed to stay in Munich to entertain German soldiers and officers who were on leave. During a Frontabstellungsurlaub, a short holiday-spell, in Luxembourg in early 1944, he deserted and went into hiding until war’s end, frequently changing locations to escape Gestapo. Listening clandestinely to BBC Radio, he was instantly attracted to the American jazz music which he heard and started playing it himself on a worn-down guitar.
In 1945, when Luxembourg was liberated, Jean Roderes was finally able to pass his piano exams in Esch, with the jury unanimously awarding him the ‘Prix de Perfectionnement’ with the maximum score. At Radio Luxembourg, which had now passed into American hands, he immediately was engaged to join the newly formed, yet short-lived variety orchestra, for which he also wrote many arrangements; moreover, he performed in a weekly classical radio concert with cellist Jean Join. Simultaneously, he was hired to play in English-language music shows, where his star rose fast by virtue of his excellent sense of rhythm. Because of this, between 1945 and 1953, Roderes was invited to tour abroad; he performed for the US troops in West Germany and played at NTS Radio in Hilversum (Netherlands) as well as for American-controlled radio stations AFN in Wiesbaden and AFT in Frankfurt. Since it had always been his ambition to be a classical concert pianist, he took up studies at the Royal Music Conservatory in Brussels, while financing the costs by writing arrangements for a score of entertainment orchestras in the Belgian capital. Unfortunately, severe inflammations in the muscles and tendons of both his hands forced him to give up his studies shortly before he was due to do his final exams; for the rest of his life, Jean Roderes was marred by nerve pains in his left hand.
Between 1945 and 1967, Roderes mainly worked as a band leader in bars in Luxembourg, most importantly Charly’s Bar, a posh nightclub, and – from 1956 onwards – in cabaret bar Chez Nous. His first combo at ‘Charly’s’, apart from himself, consisted of Carlo Pignocchino (percussion), the Uruguayan Hector Gentile (guitar, bandoneon), and Ria Martin; Martin was a singer from Antwerp who specialized in singing American jazz standards. Another guitarist who regularly played in Roderes’ band was Teddy van Dongen. In 1953, Roderes reformed his ensemble which from now on included Johnny Horne (genuine name: Hornemann), a Dutchman from Rotterdam who studied at the Luxembourg Music Conservatory after the war and played the double-bass; Edy Honken, who originally hailed from the Dutch East Indies and played the electrical guitar; René Klein, a percussionist and vibraphonist from Luxembourg; and of course Roderes himself at the piano. The quartet’s trademark was Polynesian folk music, often referred to as the Hawaii sound, with Roderes playing the ukulele and Edy Honken taking care of the Indonesian lyrics. In the Chez Nous, the ensemble frequently accompanied other artists who performed their acts, such as acrobats, dancers, and illusionists.
In 1955, when television in Luxembourg had just been introduced, broadcaster CLT asked Roderes to accompany various TV shows with his ensemble. These broadcasts included ‘Rendez-vous à Luxembourg’, for which French megastars such as Josephine Baker, Patachou, Tino Rossi, and Luis Mariano were invited; ‘La Coupe de Télé-Luxembourg’, a talent show presented by Zappy Max; and ‘A vos ordres’, a programme hosted by Robert Alain and Monette Auvray, in which Roderes’ band had to improvise playing the melodies suggested by TV viewers.
Generally acknowledged as being one of the finest arrangers around, Roderes’ scores were commissioned by Parisian orchestra leaders such as Mario Cavellero and Raymond Legrand in the early 1950s. Reluctant to leave his family behind, however, Roderes decided to stay in Luxembourg. Nevertheless, Jean’s particular style of play, which came to be known as ‘Piano Relax’, raised the interest from French record companies, resulting in a contract he signed with the Festival label. Up to 1960, Roderes – ‘Jean Roderes et son piano’ – recorded no fewer 302 titles, of which some were chart successes in France, particularly ‘Concert d’automne’ and ‘Cigarettes and whisky’ (vocals: Johnny Horne). Moreover, Roderes’ band toured extensively in Belgium and France and even gave a concert in the Olympia music-hall in Paris.
In the course of the 1960s, the number of CLT programmes which involved live music decreased; at the same time, the type of jazz entertainment which Roderes’ ensemble offered at the Chez Nous and Charly’s Bar, was progressively less in demand with the arrival of the rock-‘n-roll revolution. Moreover, two key figures, Johnny Horne (1964) and René Klein (1965) left his band; they were replaced by Bob Scholer and Fausti Cima respectively, both of whom left after a short spell only. In 1966-’67, Roderes’ ensemble was the Kurorchester in the Luxembourg spa town Mondorf-les-Bains. In 1967 he gave up being an orchestra leader altogether; the remainder of his band, which included Roderes himself as a pianist and arranger, was incorporated into the newly formed Luxembourg Singers. Its leader was Roderes’ trumpet-player, Tony Schuster, who had previously worked with the Max Greger Orchestra in West Germany. Consisting of seven musicians, including Raymond Grommes, Roger Gaudina, and Gilbert Lucas, as well as two girl vocalists, Marcelle Wenner and Roderes’ second wife Mésy Faber, the Luxembourg Singers performed their mix of French chansons and German sing-along repertoire with great success in both Luxembourg and West Germany.
In 1972, Jean Roderes left the Luxembourg Singers to found the Pop-Music-School, later renamed the Centre Audio-Visuel de l’Enseignement Musical (CAVEM) – the first music school in Luxembourg to teach the electrical guitar, percussion, and other non-classical instruments. Roderes developed most of the audio-visual methods himself, as well as the obligatory solfège lessons. Although the courses were primarily intended to teach children to be good amateur musicians, some of Jean’s students became successful professionals in their own right, most notably guitar virtuoso and conservatory professor Cary Greisch. Later onwards, CAVEM, which originally resided in Luxembourg, set up branches in Esch-sur-Alzette and Ettelbrück as well. Roderes sold his school to René Wagener in 1983. That same year, the Belgian Association of Authors, Composers, and Publishers (SABAM) awarded Jean Roderes, who was of such modesty that he always maintained he had lacked the genius to become a good jazz pianist, with the medaille d’honneur in recognition of his contribution to popular music.
Jean Roderes in the Eurovision Song Contest
Because in 1961 Jean-Claude Pascal had won the Eurovision Song Contest representing Luxembourg, the festival of ’62 was held in the Villa Louvigny in the Grand Duchy’s capital. Although Jean Roderes had no experience as a conductor at all, broadcaster CLT commissioned him to be the show’s musical director and lead the orchestra which accompanied all entries. Why was this difficult task entrusted to him? Bob Scholer, who between 1965 and 1966 played in Roderes’ ensemble, comments: “Jean was a classically trained pianist, an able musician. Of course, he was primarily a band-leader and an exceptional piano player. His skills as a conductor would not have been sufficient for classical music, but when it came to entertainment music – no matter if it was with a small combo or a grand orchestra – there was no question that he was the right man for the job. After all, he was really talented; you only have to listen to the work he recorded to realize that.” Another reason which may have played a part in choosing for Roderes, was the fact that he was very experienced in musically accompanying internationally renowned variety artists by virtue of the contribution of his ensemble to the weekly CLT show ‘Rendez-vous à Luxembourg’.
CLT did not have a variety orchestra of its own. Roderes called on his own band to form the rhythm section of the Eurovision orchestra. The string and brass players were recruited from the RTL Grand Symphony Orchestra, to which some classical musicians from Paris were added. In the 1962 Eurovision Song Contest, sixteen countries took part; the eventual winner was the French entry, ‘Un premier amour’ by Isabelle Aubret. Roderes did not only conduct the beautiful Luxembourg entry ‘Petit bonhomme’, which was Camillo Felgen’s second participation in the contest – this time much more successful than two years earlier, respectably finishing fourth –, but the Spanish song ‘Llámame’ by Victor Balaguer as well.
Four years later, in 1966, the Eurovision Song Contest was again held in Luxembourg following the victory of France Gall with ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son’. Once more, Jean Roderes was the musical director of the festival, leading an orchestra which had been composed in the same way as in 1962. At that time, Bob Scholer was the bass-player in Roderes’ band and, thus, he was a part of the orchestra that year: “Our band was the rhythm section for all jazzy, pop, and rock orientated elements in the arrangements. It was somehow difficult to harmonize with the musicians in the string and brass sections, because classically trained musicians have a different feeling of tempo and are not used to playing to the beat. We always felt they were lagging behind us. There was also another problem of a more practical nature for myself during the rehearsals and the live broadcast, which was the oppressive heat in the studio. I was at the back of the orchestra, in the upper part of the scene, directly under these enormous spotlights, which were needed at that time because the cameras of those days were not as powerful as today. Due to the high temperatures, my double-bass’ tune was constantly getting lower and lower, and I had to fine-tune it all the time. Every time the lights were switched off after one of the rehearsals, I had to release the cords of my bass immediately, because, otherwise, it could have cracked or even exploded. After all, a double-bass is very susceptible to sudden changes of temperature. I did not have one minute of relaxation back then!”
Another of the musicians of Roderes’ original band who was in the Eurovision orchestra in ’66 was drummer Fausti Cima. Cima remembers some other technical inconveniences: “Like Bob, I sat at the back of the orchestra. Behind us, there was this beautiful see-through plastic wall adorned with flowers… no seriously, I hated it! This wall around us caused an annoying echo: the sound which was produced by strings and woodwind sections of the orchestra reached our ears with a considerable delay. For us, the rhythm group, this was more than a bit worrying and hence we protested. As a result, most of us were given headphones which were connected to the sound system, but, unfortunately, there were not enough available and I was unlucky enough to have to play without the phones on. This week of rehearsing was hard work, starting at 10 o’clock in the morning and continuing all afternoon; afterwards, Jean, I, and the other members of his band rushed to Charly’s Bar, where our contract dictated us to play until after three o’clock in the morning. Nevertheless, I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity of being part of a Eurovision orchestra.”
Roderes’ orchestra played the music to seventeen of the eighteen entries in the contest – originally, Domenico Modugno’s ‘Dio come ti amo’, the Italian entry, was to be played with the orchestra under the direction of maestro Angelo Giacomazzi, but eventually, the singer himself decided otherwise. Bob Scholer remembers this episode well: “Modugno was quite arrogant, playing the big star and refusing to perform with the grand orchestra. He simply said we were not good enough and did not play his song correctly. That is why a trio of musicians was flown in from Italy to accompany him in the live broadcast. As you will understand, when Modugno did not even get one single point in the voting and finished last, all of us orchestra musicians were really gloating and satisfied!”
Jean Roderes himself conducted no fewer than three songs in the 1966 Eurovision Song Contest: of course the Luxembourg song ‘Ce soir je t’attendais’, interpreted by Michèle Torr; ‘Un peu de poivre, un peu de sel’, the Belgian entry, sung by Tonia; and lastly ‘Ne vois-tu pas’ from Switzerland, performed by Madeleine Pascal. Neither Belgium nor Switzerland had brought along a guest conductor that year, which meant that Roderes himself had to jump in. Eventually, the 1966 contest was won by Austria, with Udo Jürgens singing his self-penned ‘Merci chérie’, which afterwards was a hit record in many European countries.
Roderes was involved in the Eurovision Song Contest in various capacities. After having participated as a composer in 1960 and as the musical director in 1962 and 1966, he made his last appearance on the festival stage in 1973, when the contest was held in Luxembourg for a third time; on this occasion, Roderes was the pianist in the orchestra which was now led by another musical director, Pierre Cao, a classical conductor and a personal friend of his.
Other artists on Jean Roderes
Percussionist Fausti Cima was another young musician who joined Roderes’ band in the mid-1960s: “For me, Jean is the best musician Luxembourg has ever known… a very intelligent man, who spoke English and Dutch to perfection. By virtue of his intelligence, he naturally dominated all other musicians in any band he played in. It took me a long time before I managed to stop calling him ‘sir’. Although he was a gentleman, he did not shrink from telling others his opinion in all frankness. That was exactly what I needed at that time, because I was a young guy and somewhat spoiled because of the universal praise for my drum solos. Thanks to Jean, I was introduced to the world of studio recording. Without him, I would not have met producer Rudolf Strassner from Saarbrücken, who contracted me in ’69 and helped me landing a hit in West Germany with my first recording as a singer, ‘Pretty Belinda (Ich sitz’ hier im Schlauchboot)’.”