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.

Marks of Reinhardt's legacy are numerous. The Modern Jazz Quartet's John Lewis composed an elegy at once limpid and resilient, "Django," to mark his passing in 1953 and it's been rendered superbly by guitarists as unalike as Grant Green and Jim Hall. Tony Bennett wrote lyrics for Reinhardt's Debussy-like ballad "Nuages" while Woody Allen clearly has a special fondness, evident in Sweet and Lowdown, dedicated to the misadventures and aspirations of fictional Swing-Era guitarist Emmet Ray, played by Sean Penn. Paul Brady, a Detroit guitarist, remarks, "That film was a huge contributor to the Django resurgence. The music from that film, and Howard Alden's playing in it, has been a huge influence on the Hot Club of Detroit." A full-length biography of Reinhardt, Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend (Oxford), by Michael Dregni appeared in 2004, presenting Reinhardt's life and mythology with a clarity and detail previously lacking.

Reinhardt's importance can be gauged by his presence in the CD bins. While Django recordings will always tumble over one another, mixing and matching sessions and periods with dubious sound, there are several exceptional efforts to provide thoroughness with excellent sound and documentation. The English company JSP in tandem with the brilliant BBC engineer Ted Kendall began working through the Reinhardt legacy in 1992. Their major efforts recently came to a kind of completion with the release of their fifth multi-CD box, Postwar Recordings 1944-1953, which documents Reinhardt adapting to an electric guitar and embracing the possibilities of bop.

Each JSP box has included four or five CDs for a total of 23 CDs covering Reinhardt's work from the formation of the Hot Club of France in 1934 to his death in 1953, including four CDs of Django in Rome 1949-50 and a five-CD set of Django on the Radio. While newcomers to Reinhardt might blanch at the thought of multi-CD sets, the JSP boxes are bargains as well. You might want to start at the beginning with The Classic Early Recordings in Chronological Order, chronicling the Hot Club, Reinhardt in solo and duet with Grappelli and with such visiting American stars as Coleman Hawkins. These are the recordings that initially set the style of the Hot Club and the essential pre-war legacy of Reinhardt and Grappelli, demonstrating that you could play hot jazz with a string band.

The French have also offered varying interpretations of the legacy, including several volumes in the Jazz Classics series, but none are apt to compete with Intégrale Django Reinhardt produced by Fremeaux & Associes and carrying the notion of completeness to spectacular lengths. First released in two-CD sets, the Frémeaux chronology ran to 20 of the dual jewel boxes. During the centenary year, the company is issuing the Django recordings in three "Saisons." Saison 1, covering 1928-1938, runs to 14 discs and the first three actually precede anything included by JSP, documenting Reinhardt the banjoist in recordings with French musette groups before the catastrophic caravan fire and before he heard Louis Armstrong. It's a trip deep into the origins of the Django legacy. Two similarly massive sets documenting his later career will appear as well.

There's bound to be debate as to the dominant contemporary Djangoloist, but the principal contenders all spring from the Manouche tradition in which Reinhardt has the status of a musical deity. There's Bireli Lagrene, the prodigy who first recorded at age 13 in 1980 and who has passed through electric phases to mature into a masterful musician in the gypsy idiom. The Rosenberg trio, with lead guitarist Stochelo Rosenberg, are superb interpreters of the tradition, as are the Schmitt cousins, most notably Tchavolo and Dorado.

Capturing the flavour of current Gypsy jazz perfectly is a DVD from the Django Reinhardt NY Festival Live at Birdland 2004. It features a quartet led by Dorado Schmitt with sparkling support from rhythm guitarist Mayo Hubert, pianist Peter Bees and Brian Torff. The group is joined by special guest, including James Carter and drummer Winard Harper, demonstrating how readily the best of the Djangologists can meld with mainstream modern jazz.

In addition to the archival recorded material, there will be Django commemorations at a number of local clubs. Joe's Pub is presenting two nights (Jan. 22nd-23rd) with several groups, including Stephane Wrembel, the French-born guitarist who adds a dash of African rhythms to the gypsy jazz mix and who works regularly at Barbès. Joshua Assad is appearing on the same program with the band Babik, a youthful group from Buffalo that's named for Django's son, who died in 2001. He views Wrembel as a significant innovator: "Maybe no one better shows the lack of limitations than Stephane and his Django Experiment. His original compositions are rooted in this style, while they rarely sound even similar to the jazz classics. Instead they're heavily influenced by various world and middle-Eastern rhythms and melodies. Stephane shines when he is able to let loose and allow the music to flow through. A wah-wah peddle and fuzz box are usually not associated with jazz or an acoustic guitar, but his efforts have proven them to be a nice fit."

Another guitarist playing at Joe's Pub is Biel Ballester, who recalls his first experience hearing Reinhardt: "When I was a kid I heard many great jazz guitarists of the past to understand the evolution. One day I arrived at a name: Django Reinhardt. I remember the first tune: 'The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise.' When I heard the second, 'Minor Swing,' I was completely hooked. That guy did with a guitar more than I dreamed of. I wanted to know more about him and how he did all that stuff!" Ballester has heard many changes in the Manouche style—"Wow, yes, many of them, from modern jazz flavors to Jimi Hendrix mixtures. This style if absolutely alive."

He thinks the style's ability to connect with other musics is at its heart: "Django mixed different types of music to create his own style, so I think this is the reason this style of music can be blended with others. It's in its nature. in my case it's an unconscious mix of the music I heard when I was a kid in my homeland, Mallorca, and the styles I've always loved. These go from '50s rockabilly music and its '70s revival to classical guitar music and, of course, jazz. It appears that when I'm composing I am a Mediterranean person more than something else, so when people hear my songs they relate to that easily."

Assad adds, "The band Babik has always tried to push the boundaries and bridge the connections to other styles, such as Klezmer, Flamenco, Classical, and other world music. It's not uncommon for us to quote a random rock song in the middle of a solo, or break out instruments like the ukulele or didgeridoo to find a round- about path to this music." For Assad, change is close to the music's roots. He thinks, "the blending of styles is indicative of the roots of this music. Gypsies have notoriously taken their travels and traditions and interpreted them into song. It is only fitting that the melting pot of styles that has shaped this music over the years continues to evolve and be reinterpreted."

Pat Philips has done more to bring the spirit of Django and Manouche jazz to Manhattan than any other person. She's been producing the Django Reinhardt NY Festival with her partner Ettore Stratta and bassist Brian Torff acting as Musical Director. All of them worked with Stéphane Grappelli for years and are particularly close to the Reinhardt legacy. While Philips presented the 2009 festival in November, she's producing three more days in honor of the centenary at Iridium February 1st-3rd with Dorado Schmitt, one of the greatest torch bearers of the Reinhardt legacy playing a Reinhardt guitar given to the recently passed Les Paul, and his son Samson Schmitt, who's significantly updating the tradition, part of a tour that begins at the Kennedy Center in mid-January.

For Philips, the music is all about its roots and its ability to convey the joy in its creation: "We've been to the gypsy camps in Europe and seen for ourselves. Above all else, there is a joy that they experience in this music, whether in playing it or just being around it. The culture is built around it. They're happy when they're playing their music, it shows, and people enjoy being part of it, experiencing it, and sharing in it. The audience seems to lose themselves for that hour and walk out feeling great, taken away from all their problems for a minute.

"After the festival, so many people write or call and say it was the greatest night of music they've experienced. I also think the musicians have a great attitude. They're 'living life,' enjoying themselves and enjoying their rapport with the audience. The musicians also write new songs that are still melodic, romantic and swinging. It gets to the audience's hearts. You really feel something, sometimes feelings that you haven't felt in a long time, like romance...and also freedom."

Part of what makes Django at 100 so worthy of celebration is that Reinhardt and his music will never seem 100. It's the sound of the fresh and the exotic in itself, a timeless Parisian spring, a world that's pre-World War II and a world that, for all its own inequities and pain, stands apart, at once immediate and mysterious. Like the doomed European romance of Swing Kids, it's the sound of youth and innocence celebrating itself in a world that insists its hopefulness is impossible. As a Gypsy, Django was, above all, a wanderer and his music is itself a transport, a vibrant presence that can lift one's mood in seconds.

Biel Ballister, for one is confident of the style's durability: "I think that in the late '80s what was important was to keep the tradition alive and fully understand Django's technique and ways. Nowadays, that is secured. Thanks to the work of many players we know almost everything, so now the natural move is trying to go forward and keep the style fresh and alive. Django's 100th anniversary couldn't find his music in a better state!"

Selected Discography:

Django Reinhardt, Integrale, Vol. 1-7 (Fremeaux & Associes, 1928-38)

Django Reinhardt, The Complete Django Reinhardt and Quintet of the Hot Club of France Swing/HMV Sessions (Swing/HMV-Mosaic, 1936-48)

Django Reinhardt, Memorial (Period-Empire Musicwerks, 1947)

Django Reinhardt, In Solitaire: Complete Recordings for Solo Guitar (Definitive, 1937-50)

Django Reinhardt, Django in Rome (RCA-JSP, 1949-50)

Django Reinhardt, Integrale, Vol. 18-20 (Fremeaux & Associes, 1950-53)

Photo Credit

Page 1, William P. Gottlieb

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