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Decades After His Death, Django Reinhardt is a Star


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The Gypsy jazz guitarist, who would have turned 100 this weekend, is the toast of tribute albums and festivals.

John Jorgenson on Django Reinhardt: “It was so underground. Nobody knew anything about this guy, the music, or how you play it, or what guitars you use. It was very much like an investigative thing."

One of the world's leading proponents of the music of Gypsy jazz innovator Django Reinhardt, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday Saturday, guitarist John Jorgenson offered illuminating anecdotes and back stories about Reinhardt's life and songs when he performed last weekend before an intimate crowd of about 100 people packed into what's normally a guitar showroom at Culver City's Boulevard Music store.

But it wasn't the historical tales, nor the informed musical elucidation from Jorgenson that transfixed three children, all under 10, who looked on with delight from the front row during the performance by Jorgenson's hot-jazz quintet. It was Reinhardt's singularly ebullient music, joyously pure and direct, that pulled them in, the same way it has continued to win new audiences since his death from a stroke more than 50 years ago.

“I never thought this was anything I would do for a main gig," said Jorgenson, 53, who spent seven years in the '90s in Elton John's touring band and another half-dozen with Byrds founding member Chris Hillman fronting the Desert Rose Band, the boundary-pushing '80s and '90s country-rock group. “It was what I always did for fun."

This year's centennial -- he was born Jean Baptiste Reinhardt in Belgium and grew up in Gypsy camps outside Paris -- has spurred a wealth of live performances and recordings celebrating his spirited transformation of American jazz into a hard-swinging pan-European-flavored potpourri.

“I love to play Gypsy jazz," Jorgenson said, “because it has the elegance and virtuosity of classical music, the fire and romanticism of Gypsy music, the swing and improvisation of jazz, the string band sound of bluegrass and the energy of rock, all in a very accessible package that's extremely listenable."

All the more impressive considering that Reinhardt, a self-taught player, lost the use of two fingers on his left hand when he was 18 in a caravan fire, yet still became one of the most dazzling instrumentalists of the 20th century, as well as the composer of more than 100 songs.

Jorgenson has two Reinhardt-centric albums coming out next month: “One Stolen Night," a work featuring his combo modeled on Reinhardt's ground-breaking Quintet of the Hot Club of France and consisting largely of Jorgenson's original tunes; and “Istiqbal Gathering," an ambitious collaboration with Orchestra Nashville of Jorgenson's symphonic compositions for Gypsy jazz guitar and full orchestra. Two of his pieces also feature the genre-busting Turtle Island String Quartet.

Jorgenson will have company. On Tuesday, New York guitarist Frank Vignola releases his latest Reinhardt salute, “100 Years of Django," consisting of 10 of his favorite Reinhardt compositions.

“It's very infectious music," Vignola said from a tour stop in Missouri. “There's a tremendous amount of passion he had in his playing. A lot of guitar players, I think, when they hear Django and emulate him, they just want to emulate his speed. But you listen to old Django records, and he was playing with such great sense of melody and expression, his use of vibrato and the way he bends notes. It's very passionate music."

Vignola is marking the Reinhardt centennial on a tour with violinist Mark O'Connor, the esteemed instrumentalist, composer and teacher who once studied with Reinhardt's longtime collaborator, French violinist Stephane Grappelli. Last weekend they played the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to mark the 102nd anniversary of Grappelli's birth.

But Reinhardt's impact extends far beyond those who follow directly in his footsteps.

For many years after that, fans of Reinhardt's music constituted something of a secret society. Because he drew upon so many different elements, he was essentially orphaned: not strictly jazz, classical, folk or country. Yet he always has been lionized by fellow musicians.

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