French Gypsy Jazz

Nick Catalano BY

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At various times since its origin, jazz has had an interesting claimant. The French have long maintained that the various musics leading up to the development of jazz in the early years of the 20th century contain Gallic seedlings....Their claim is justifiable. Without parsing the complex origins of the music one can simply make reference to the legendary Creole composer/ musicians led by Jelly Roll Morton and show how, because they were classically trained, they added new dimensions to the early Storyville Afro-American improvisations of early jazz masters i.e. Buddy Bolden.

Because of the outrageous Plessy vs. Ferguson supreme court decision in 1896 making segregation the law of the land, Creoles instantly became coupled with Blacks as the court ruled that there were only two races white and black and all mixtures were to be classified as blacks. As a result Creoles had to abandon their New Orleans opera companies, and symphony orchestras, and turn to jazz for creative remuneration. Hence the music of Kid Ory, Johnny St. Cyr, Sidney Bechet, Honore Dutrey, Ferdinand LaMothe (Jelly Roll Morton) other early jazz Creoles owes much of its legacy to the vestiges of French culture.

The most famous thread of French traditions in jazz is the Gypsy jazz music of Django Reinhardt and it is thankfully still with us. Reinhardt died at 43 in 1953 but his music continues to be celebrated at the annual Django Reinhardt NY Festival. For the past several years leading guitar interpolators of Reinhardt's music have headlined the show at Birdland. This year's lineup featured "The Django Festival All-Stars"—a group consisting mostly of French musicians who arrived for a June-July tour. I was able to attend the premier performance of the tour at East Hampton's Guild Hall on June 21. The musicians—Samson Schmitt lead guitar, Ludovic Beier accordina, Pierre Blanchard violin, Dou Dou Cuillerier rhythm guitar, and Italy's Antonio Luscati bass—just arriving from France that morning poured forth a litany of gypsy jazz improvisation from up tempo burners ("Late Train") to sentimental ballads ("Lovely Wife"). The authenticity of the Django legacy was never in doubt and the group paid tribute to Gallic harmonica legend Toots Thielemans who I had played with years ago out in the Hamptons.

And so the long standing claim of Frenchmen for a place in jazz history is buttressed each year with the Django Reinhardt festival. The culture certainly deserves its due.

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