By Pat Moran
John Jorgenson thought he’d heard every possible description of Django Reinhardt’s guitar style—until he was asked to play the Gypsy-jazz guitarist’s music for the 2004 film Head in the Clouds. “The British director [John Duigan] said, ‘Django Reinhardt makes a particular sort of a racket on guitar. Can you make that same sort of racket?’”
Though Jorgenson chuckles at the memory, “racket” may be as good a word as any when trying to pin down Reinhardt’s fierce rhythmic and lyrical playing. Sixty-four years after Reinhardt’s death, his music has inspired more than 30 annual Gypsy-jazz festivals worldwide, including the Django A Gogo Music Festival, which in its tenth year is set to be the biggest-ever Django Reinhardt tribute show. The event is part of a six-day festival that includes master classes and concerts.
Scores of bands play music in the Gypsy-jazz genre he invented. The website last.fm.com lists over 470 Gypsy-jazz artists, past and present. Many take their name from Reinhardt’s iconic combo, the Quintette du Hot Club de France ( Quintet of the Hot Club of France), including the Hot Club of Detroit, the Hot Club of Philadelphia, Austin’s Hot Club of Cowtown and even Seattle’s Hot Club Sandwich. Musically, each has a regional twist (the Hot Club of Detroit, for example, infuses its swing with horns and hints of Motown soul).
Paul Mehling’s Hot Club of San Francisco, formed in 1990, is one of the oldest of these Hot Clubs, and one of the best. Mehling is just one of a cadre of guitarists singing the praises of Django.
Reinhardt plays “guitar with a human voice,” Mehling says. “He moves the listener in ways a singer can.”
He’s not the only one to admire Reinhardt’s skill. “Django’s playing is so fluid and precise,” says bluegrass flatpicking champion and bandleader Larry Keel. “He puts together an endless supply of melodic ideas.”
“Django plays multiple downstrokes within a lick,” Jorgenson says, describing Reinhardt’s sweep picking, or Gypsy picking. “He moves across the strings in a rhythmic manner so each note pops out.”
Adds Peter Frampton, who collaborated with Jorgenson on a Reinhardt-style tribute called “Souvenirs De Nos Peres”: “Django loved American jazz, particularly bebop. You can hear it when he plays these powerful brass parts on his guitar.”
“I thought he was playing notes that weren’t even on the guitar!” says Stéphane Wrembel, who was so impressed with Reinhardt’s playing that he moved to authentic Gypsy camps in rural France to learn how to play like Django.
“I can’t name another musician who generates this kind of following. That’s the power of Django’s music.’—Stéphane Wrembel
Dutch-born guitarist Stochelo Rosenberg got a head start on Wrembel by being raised in a Gypsy camp. “The music of Django is a natural part of my existence,” Rosenberg says.
Jean “Django” Reinhardt was born in 1910 in a caravan outside the Belgian town of Liberchies to a family of itinerant Romani—known colloquially as Gypsies—Reinhardt was serenading cabaret patrons on guitar and banjo by age 12. When he was 18, the wooden wagon he shared with his wife caught fire. The right side of his body and his left hand – the one used for fretting – were horribly burned. With full use of only the thumb, middle, and index fingers of his left hand, he invented a new way to play guitar—wide ranging, radical movement on the fretboard coupled with flurries of flatpicked notes.
Moving to Paris in the 1930s, Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli formed the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. With their swinging fusion of American jazz, Romani rhythms, and Parisian street singing, the quintet catapulted to worldwide fame with the genre they invented, Gypsy jazz. The group split with the advent of World War II. Grappelli stayed in England, while Reinhardt returned to Nazi-occupied France, where he miraculously avoided being sent to one of the death camps that claimed so many Gypsies.
After the war, Reinhardt realized a lifelong dream of visiting the United States. That trip cemented Reinhardt’s influence on guitar players well beyond the boundaries of jazz. “Chet Atkins drove up from East Tennessee to Chicago to see Django play with Duke Ellington, and to get his autograph,” Jorgenson says.
Atkins, who recorded some of Reinhardt’s 100 original songs, went on to influence every country guitarist who followed, Jorgenson adds.
From country music, Reinhardt’s influence spread to rock ’n’ roll, says Frampton, who still plays Django’s solos daily, after running the master’s recordings through the Amazing Slow Downer app on his phone.
“Django was the first guitar virtuoso,”
—Paul Mehling, Hot Club of San Francisco
In the late 1940s, Reinhardt briefly reunited and recorded with Grappelli, and began to experiment with electric guitar. In the 1950s, he went into semi-retirement near Samois sur Seine in France, the site since 1968 of one of the longest-running Gypsy-jazz festivals. On a warm day in May 1953, Reinhardt suffered a stroke and died. He was 43.
“Django was the first guitar virtuoso,” Mehling says from the stage of the McGlohon Theater in Charlotte, North Carolina. On this unseasonably warm January night, Mehling’s Hot Club of San Francisco is transporting the audience to a smoky Parisian nightclub from a bygone era.
Rhythm guitarist and vocalist Isabelle Fontaine sets the scene.
“It’s 1941,” she says. “Django and the quintet play a song no one has ever heard before, a tune Reinhardt wrote for this occasion. After the number is done, silence fills the room. It is followed by thunderous applause. The audience demands that the band play the song again. Then they demand it a third time. Each time, the reception grows louder, and more enthusiastic.”
The Hot Club of San Francisco then launches into “Nuages (Clouds).” Reinhardt’s best-known composition, after World War II the tune became a nostalgic and bittersweet paean to hope across France, an anthem for an occupied people.
“Our band’s identity is based on WWDD?—What would Django do?” Mehling says prior to the Charlotte concert. “What would he be playing now if he hadn’t passed on in 1953?”
Amid the flurry of interest in Reinhardt, the blossoming of Gypsy-jazz bands and a host of Django festivals, Mehling sounds a word of caution. He’s not certain Reinhardt would be honored by the present state of Gypsy jazz. He recounts an incident in 2000 when the Hot Club of San Francisco headlined at a Django fest in Samois sur Seine. Each act played ever louder, ever faster, an approach that gives Reinhardt’s repertoire short shrift, Mehling says.
“There is far too much imitation, and not enough originality” in the scene, and at the festivals, Mehling adds. When players attempt to replicate solos note for note, he says, the result is antithetical to Reinhardt who was more about improvisation and experimentation.
Speaking with the authority of a Gypsy upbringing, Rosenberg concurs. “My music school was and is the [Gypsy] camp, where I was challenged to create a sound of my own,” he says. “I do not want to just repeat. Rather, I express my own soul in the music, and give it my own twist.”
Guitarist Thor Jensen, who plays in Stéphane Wrembel’s band, understands the critique that festivals may stress imitation over innovation, but he’s not sure the charge is fair. “The same could be said about rock ’n’ roll, folk, or country,” Jensen says. “And just like all of these genres, if you look a little deeper, the uniqueness of the artists becomes more apparent.”
Adds Jorgenson, “Anybody who is first getting into this style need someone to emulate, so why not Django? That’s how musicians find their voice. The players who develop end up finding their own voice and sound within the genre. When the American scene started in the early part of this century, it was not all that unique and it was not as good as the Europeans.”
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But now, Gypsy-jazz festivals are fertile ground for innovative and surprising musicians, Jorgenson says. He cites last years’ Djangofest Northwest in Washington State, where he saw his former rhythm guitarist Gonzalo Bergara play. “(Bergara) is Argentinean,” he says, “so he brings that Latin influence to the table. But he’s still playing Gypsy jazz.”
Wrembel views Reinhardt’s legacy with optimism, and the imitation vs. innovation debate with equanimity. “I can’t name another musician who generates this kind of following,” Wrembel says, citing the worldwide proliferation of hot clubs and Django fests all over the world, as well as booming sales for Selmer-Maccaferri guitars, Reinhardt’s guitar of choice. “That’s the power of Django’s music.”
“The guardians keep the music authentic,” he adds, “and many people, including myself, are exploring new avenues. I am not too fond of the fight between innovators and guardians. There is space, and a function for everyone. The guardians keep a tradition available, the innovators keep if fresh.”