From the November/December 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY PAUL MEHLING AND TOMMY DAVY
In the 1930s, the Belgian-born guitarist Django Reinhardt and his violin partner Stéphane Grappelli created a new kind of small but mighty chamber music. Jazz Manouche or Gypsy jazz, as it came to be known, is a vibrant, irresistible pastiche of classical, Gypsy, dance music (think waltzes, polkas, tangos, etc.), and American jazz, blended into an acoustic all-string ensemble of lead guitar, violin, string bass, and not one but two rhythm guitars. Once you’ve heard it, you can’t forget it, and it has something for all tastes: a little romance, a bit of mystery, and a lot of fireworks. But mostly it swings like mad!
Currently enjoying a seemingly never-ending resurgence, and gaining popularity year by year, Gypsy jazz has become almost a cult of devotees that you may have heard of—Adrien Moignard, Stochelo Rosenberg, Dorado and Tchavolo Schmitt, and others. In this feature, we’ll trace the development of Gypsy jazz from its origins in 1930s Paris to its present status as a global phenomenon.
When you think of the legendary Django Reinhardt (1910–1953) and his close association with Gypsy jazz, do you know what molded the man who would not just pioneer the style but help revolutionize jazz guitar in general? First and foremost, Reinhardt had a rich level of musical appreciation, as did the many other innovators who would help create an entirely new style of jazz in France.
To place Reinhardt in context, we must first backtrack. Written accounts of Gypsy music throughout history have chronicled child prodigies and musicians of extraordinary talent. By the middle of the 19th century, the music would be elevated to high-society status in Hungary. Violinist János Bihari (1764–1827) would arguably be considered the first musical celebrity of the Gypsy people. The composer Franz Liszt wrote, “The tones sung by his magic violin flow on our enchanted ears like the tears. . . .”
Widespread acceptance in Hungary would set the stage for the spread of performing Gypsy musicians all over Europe. A young Django Reinhardt would have likely heard violinist Georges Boulanger (1893–1958) and other recording Gypsy musicians. Boulanger’s 1920s recording of “Serenade Tzigane” could be the first instance of Gypsy music being fused with the jazz stylings of a big band. At the same time, Gypsy musicians all over Europe began performing salon music, which was a mixed variety of repertoire including classical, folk, and popular music of the day.
When he was a teenager, Reinhardt and his family first settled in the outskirts of Paris in the austere La Zone and later near Porte d’Italie. Life for the Manouche in Paris was certainly melancholy, but despite great hardship, colorful and joyful music overflowed from the caravans. As a young musical prodigy, Reinhardt made a living for his family playing the six-string guitar-banjo—a simple and effective rhythm machine used commonly at the time.
During the late 1920s and early ’30s, Spanish bandurria music was much in vogue. Through a chance encounter with Jean “Poulette” Castro—who was known as “Le Grand Gitan” among the music community in Paris—Reinhardt learned to play a steel-string guitar with a plectrum, as did Baro Ferret, who became both a friend and rival. Auguste “Gusti” Malha was a hero to the young Reinhardt. Surrounded by these guitar masters who were, like Andrés Segovia in the classical realm, bringing the formerly lowly guitar to the big show by using it as a soloing instrument, a young Reinhardt began to find his voice. That much was already apparent in the first known recordings, made June 20, 1928, of Reinhardt with the accordionist Jean Vaissade.
The manner in which Reinhardt and others played the guitar is quite different from the approach that most of us have learned. It’s a way of getting maximum tone and volume from the instrument, while allowing for the expressiveness that comes from sheer speed and wide timbral range. While much is made of Reinhardt’s fretting hand—two of its fingers were famously paralyzed in a caravan fire when the guitarist was 18—the real power of his playing was in his picking hand. Reinhardt and his contemporaries played less like steel-string flatpickers than like mandolin, bouzouki, and oud players. The Gypsy jazz picking technique involves a floating wrist, which does not touch the top of the guitar, allowing for maximum range of motion for the picking hand.
As witnessed on Reinhardt’s 1930s recordings like “Limehouse Blues” (see full transcription in AG’s June 2018 issue) and “Minor Swing” (appearing in the October 1999 issue), the guitarist’s complete command of music, as well as his stunning technique, gave his genius the full opportunity to express itself. And of course the music reflected Reinhardt’s free-spirited personality. Reinhardt was born with wanderlust and lived in complete freedom to go where he wanted, when he wanted, and do whatever he wanted—qualities found to some degree in many improvisers. He was undeniably at the top of this elite group.
When Reinhardt first heard American jazz musicians like guitarist Eddie Lang, violinist Joe Venuti, and trumpeter Louis Armstrong, his improvisatory language—and, by extension, jazz guitar as we know it—was transformed. In 1931, Reinhardt met violinist Stéphane Grappelli, and encounter that would lead to the formation of Quintette du Hot Club de France.
Reinhardt and Grappelli’s partnership, forged from a mutual fascination with the ultra-new and, dare we say, sexy sounds coming from the United States, would turn out to be one of the greatest collaborations in the history of jazz. As the story goes, Reinhardt heard Grappelli improvising a hot melody that was clearly borrowed from Louis Armstrong. Reinhardt—who worshipped Armstrong from the very first time he heard the trumpeter’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings—jumped in to accompany the violinist, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Speaking the language of jazz together with a decidedly French accent and with Gypsy spirit and passion, as heard on recordings like “Nuages” and “Daphné,” Reinhardt and Grappelli created a new kind of jazz that was all their own. They were in fact arguably the first jazz musicians outside of the United States to acquire their fluency in the language.
In the wake of Reinhardt’s death in 1953, a new wave of close collaborators, disciples, and fans dedicated their efforts to paying homage to his legacy. Gypsy jazz would continue to emanate from the bars of Saint-Ouen and Pigalle, in Paris. La Chope Des Puces (near where Reinhardt had lived) became a central meeting place for all who idolized the culture around the music of Jazz Manouche. Guitarist Maurice Ferret and Joseph Pouville played their nightly duets at Au Clairon Des Chasseurs, a restaurant in Montmartre.
Reinhardt is undeniably the spark behind the creation of Gypsy jazz—without him, the music wouldn’t have existed—but there are some notable personalities that helped to launch the current revival. Biréli Lagrène, who released his first recordings when he was a teenager in the early 1980s, has proven to be the (almost) reincarnation of Reinhardt himself. But Lagrène pushed himself further than the confines of Gypsy jazz. After moving to New York in the late ’80s, he met and played with the fusion bassist Jaco Pastorius and has since continued to reinvent himself.
Similarly, Boulou Ferré, now in his late 60s, became a child star at 11 when he played his Charlie Parker–inspired lines on his guitar, while singing along an octave above. And Holland’s Stochelo Rosenberg, with his fleet-fingered, lightning-fast playing, lit the torch that led us all into the 21st century while bringing along a touch of bossa nova to the genre.
Naturally, Gypsy jazz spread outside of Europe. But when I [Paul Mehling] started the Hot Club of San Francisco, in the late 1980s, I experienced more than a few difficulties. In an era before YouTube made it possible to master the guitar in any style, nobody knew how to play Gypsy jazz, and audiences were not at all familiar with the genre. Though a select few listeners knew the name Django Reinhardt, nightclubs were reluctant to take up the large amount of space for a cumbersome name that was evocative only to those special people who knew of the Hot Club of France.
Thirty years later, the story is different. Annual concert series, like the Festival Django Reinhardt in France and the Django Reinhardt NY Festival, are dedicated to Gypsy jazz. The caliber of players is extremely high, and the audiences are highly familiar with the music. In a double-reverse fashion, Americans continue to appropriate Gypsy jazz—the music that was originally created by European musicians copying American jazz greats—as do players around the world.
With guitarists like Simba Baumgartner (great-grandson of Django Reinhardt) and Stephane Wrembel exploring new directions, and a growing number of musicians taking up the Gypsy technique and repertoire, it’s clear that the influence and inspiration of Reinhardt’s music has had a lasting impact on our lives. The old adage that “good music never dies” certainly seems more true than ever.
Get Pumped: Learning the rhythmic foundation of Gypsy jazz
The essence of Gypsy-jazz rhythm—la pompe manouche as it’s known—is a sparse and swinging canvas of sound. Well-meaning players often misunderstand the basic rhythm of la pompe (which translates as “the pump”) and whack the second and fourth beats way too hard because they think that they hear it that way. Careful observation will show that this is not correct: The rhythm actually feels lopsided when you do this, like a person walking down the street with a rock in one shoe.
If anything, a great Gypsy rhythm has a broad footprint of a strum on beats 1 and 3. While it’s true that the second and fourth beats are clipped or chopped, they’re not accented. Try a basic four-to-the bar pattern on a Gm6 chord as shown in Example 1, using all downstrokes. Then, in Example 2, shorten beats 2 and 4 by releasing pressure on your fretting fingers. —PM
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Paul Mehling, the leader of the Hot Club of San Francisco, is a Bay Area–based guitarist and educator who has played a pioneering role in the Gypsy jazz scene in North America. hotclubsf.com
Tommy Davy is a Los Angeles–based Gypsy jazz guitarist who leads Trio Dinicu. Davy is also the owner of the boutique DjangoGuitars.com, which specializes in Gypsy jazz guitars and accessories. triodinicu.com
Big Mouths, Little Mouths: The idiosyncratic guitars behind Gypsy jazz
The distinctive sound of Gypsy jazz most often comes from Selmer-style guitars, as their clear, bell-like tones make them ideally suited to the music. This type of instrument was born in the early 1930s, when the Italian musician Mario Maccaferri designed a guitar for the maker Henri Selmer Paris to produce. The first Selmer-Maccaferri guitar was essentially a classical guitar built for steel strings, with a large D-shaped soundhole (grande bouche, meaning large mouth); ladder bracing on both its gently arched (bent, not carved) soundboard and back; and a wide, floating bridge.
Maccaferri only partnered with Selmer for 18 months, and after he left, the company made modifications to his design, most notably through the Modèle Jazz, or petite bouche (small mouth), with its reduced oval soundhole. Selmer ultimately produced its Maccaferri-style guitars for only 10 years. Thanks to the instruments’ association with Django Reinhardt, not to mention their scarcity (fewer than 1,000 made), they’re quite collectible, as are examples by makers like Busato and Favino.
If you’re looking to explore Gypsy jazz, you needn’t necessarily score a prized vintage guitar or a modern boutique example by a luthier like Shelley Park. An instrument like the Gitane Cigano Series GJ-10 will give you an authentic sound for around $500 street, while another good option, the Altamira M, will set you back around $700. You might also consider Eastman’s DM1 (around $1,000), reviewed in AG’s October 2018 issue. —PM and TD
This article originally appeared in the November-December 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.