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Django at 100

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Call it Django or Gypsy jazz, Hot Club, swing or Manouche (another name for gypsy), it's a style that hits you immediately—blazing, hard-picked runs played on a hyper-resonant, flat-top guitar (sound-holes are oval or D-shaped, never round), its intense momentum propelled by bass and rhythm guitar(s), often in tandem with violin, clarinet or accordion and working through standards and rhythms that belonged to the Swing Era. It may have been the first jazz style to develop fully outside the United States, but it's also the most vibrant style of early jazz practiced today, heard more widely and received more enthusiastically than either New Orleans traditional or other forms of swing.

For guitarist Joshua Assad, "This music has an uncanny ability to perk the ears of the harshest critics. It's infectious, spontaneous, approachable, unassuming and fascinating. The musical spectrum today seems to leave us either hungering for more than the obvious hook or, on the other hand, a style that's enjoyable without a PhD in harmony. Gypsy jazz is familiar and palatable and it seems to serve our hearts and tradition, while feeding the hunger for exploration and virtuosity."

No one conveys the sheer excitement of this music like Pat Philips, who has been producing the Django Reinhardt New York Festival for the past decade, presenting the greatest musicians in the Manouche tradition: "For the first year of our festival, Jimmy Rosenberg and another great, Bireli Lagrene, came and also Django's son, Babik Reinhardt...and you couldn't get into Birdland. The lines were all the way to Eighth Avenue.

"I believe this music is very exciting, romantic, virtuosic, hip, cutting edge. It will never go out of style. It's real, grown out of a gypsy culture, a lifestyle where kids at 3 are holding guitars bigger than themselves and imitating the elders."

Jan. 23rd marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Django Reinhardt, aquifer and fountainhead of this music. He's one of the unlikeliest giants of jazz, with a similarly unlikely influence. Born in Belgium in 1910 into a Gypsy family that would give up its travels for the outskirts of Paris during the First World War, Reinhardt had been a banjo-playing prodigy when, at 18, his caravan was engulfed in flames: Reinhardt had severe burns to a leg and to his left hand. Recuperating, he happened to pick up a Louis Armstrong recording in a market and concentrated on both regaining his facility and learning to play jazz, eventually developing a virtuoso technique with limited use of the third and fourth fingers on his left hand.

In 1934, he and violinist Stephane Grappelli formed the band that would take them to fame: The Quintet of the Hot Club of France, an unlikely combination of three guitars, violin and bass. For bassist Brian Torff, Music Director of the New York Festival, the instrumentation is a key to the music: "The way acoustic string instruments blend together has great appeal to a jazz and non-jazz audience. I saw this with Grappelli when we toured together. He drew not just jazz fans, but folk, bluegrass, and Grateful Dean fans. If the same music were played with drums and piano, it wouldn't have the same attraction."

The Quintet proved you didn't need drums and horns to play jazz, but more than that, it demonstrated that someone born outside America could emerge as a major force in the new idiom. Within a few years Reinhardt would cement his position as the first European to become a major figure in jazz. The routes of Reinhardt's influence have been many and different. While he and Grappelli clearly learned from the violin/guitar team of Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, Reinhardt's advanced harmonic sense would affect guitarists as different, and influential in their own right, as Charlie Christian and Les Paul. The string-band sound of the Hot Club played a role in the rise of the country/jazz hybrid called Western Swing, and you can still hear the influence today in the guitar playing of Willie Nelson and the Hot Club of Cow Town, a band that originated in the East Village and moved to Austin, Texas.

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