Gypsy Jazz

 

For four nights (Nov. 29-Dec. 2, 2000), NYC's Birdland (www.birdland.com) hosted a Django Reinhardt Festival that brings together musicians from around the world who were influenced by the great Gypsy guitarist. Last night I was fortunate enough to have been part of a sold-out audience that heard a performance by a combo that included guitarists Frank Vignola, Bireli Lagrene and Jimmy Rosenberg, bassist Jon Burr, and violinist Federico Britos. I knew it was a special occasion since I spotted an old friend there, the beautiful and talented Carla White, one of NYC's most accomplished jazz singers.

 

Vignola is a rhythm guitarist who has been a fixture in the NYC jazz scene for years. His role, along with bassist Burr who worked with Reinhardt's partner violinist Stefan Grapelli, was to lay down a solid pulse behind the improvisations of Rosenberg and Lagrene. Despite his Jewish sounding last name, Rosenberg is a 20 year old Gypsy from Holland who has been playing professionally since the age of 13. Lagrene, also a Gypsy, hails from France and has been recording for well over a decade.

 

Britos, a Miami resident originally from Uruguay, is one of the foremost Grapelli-type stylists in the world. Besides playing Reinhardt inspired jazz, he is also concertmaster of the Miami Symphony Orchestra, plays in a string quartet and has composed works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, ballet and films.

 

Django Reinhardt and Stefan Grapelli were co-leaders of one the legendary groups in jazz history, the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. Backed by two other guitarists (his brother Joseph and Roger Chaput) and bassist Louis Vola, they played a highly unique style they called "Le Jazz Hot". Eschewing horn players, the group improvised on pop standards and compositions by Reinhardt himself. Although some of these compositions like "Nuages" were highly sophisticated and evoked the harmonies of Ravel and Debussy, Reinhardt never learned how to read music and, except for having an ability to sign his name, was completely illiterate.

 

His illiteracy sometimes led to comical encounters. One day he sat down for contract negotiations with his English agent. In the middle of the discussion, according to his friend Alain Romans who was translating for him, he apparently wanted to show that he was no push-over. He took the contract in his hands, pointed to a paragraph, and exclaimed, "This I don't like." It turned out to be a clause stating that expenses would be paid by the agency!

 

According to biographer Charles Delaunay (son of the husband-and-wife painters Robert and Sonia), when Reinhardt mounted the stage to rehearse with Duke Ellington on November 18, 1946 in Cleveland, Ohio, the Duke asked him what key the tune was in. Django told him that he didn't understand what the word "key" meant. When they translated it for him, he told Duke to not worry about the key, just play.

 

A week later, Django was scheduled to play with Duke's orchestra at Carnegie Hall in an 8:30pm concert. As was so often the case, he was running on "Gypsy time" and showed up two hours late. Despite his tardiness, he thrilled the audience which gave him a grand ovation that occasioned 6 curtain calls. When Duke Ellington later asked him for an explanation, Django stated that he ran into boxer and fellow Frenchman Marcel Cerdan (husband of Edith Piaf) on the street. Happy to run into a countryman in a strange city, the two repaired to a cafť and chatted for over an hour.

 

This was typical of Django who when not playing before audiences enjoyed the carefree traditional Gypsy life. This included whiling away the hours in small talk with his extended family, playing billiards, fishing and driving along country roads. In 1949, after his career had entered a slump (partly the outcome of critics' anger at his Carnegie Hall lateness), he sold his Paris apartment, bought a Lincoln, attached a trailer to it, and head out to the open roads of France. Eventually he hooked up with a larger caravan that included his mother, who lived in an old CitroŽn that had been converted into a van. From his camps in the countryside, he'd venture into Paris for occasional gigs, always making sure to take some money from a fat wad of banknotes that he kept under his pillow.

 

Like most Gypsies, the younger generation of musicians tends to be more assimilated. One doubts that Lagrene or Rosenberg live this kind of life. However, there can be no doubt about the large role that Django played in their musical evolution. One of the glories of last night's performance was to see the fingering techniques of both of these musicians in a style that largely can often only be experienced on recordings. When listening to one of Django Reinhardt's solos, you constantly hear all sorts of quarter-tones and half-tones that have a bluesy inflection. Rosenberg has obviously mastered this technique and you can watch how he does it: strings are simultaneously plucked and pulled. The plucking yields the tone, while the pulling provides overtones and shading. It is also what gives the Reinhardt style its characteristic tremulous quality. It is a synthesis in many ways of the American blues and the Gypsy style, both of which emerge from the soul of deeply oppressed peoples.

 

The technical dexterity required to play in this style is all the more remarkable when considering that the inventor had lost the use of two fingers on his left hand during a fire in his caravan on November 2, 1928. When he was 18 years old, Django Reinhardt accidentally dropped a candle on some artificial flowers his mother was to sell at a fair the next day. During a six month convalescence in a hospital, he taught himself to play guitar with two fingers now permanently bent at an angle.

 

Gypsy music, like American jazz, is one of the great cultural achievements of modern civilization. As our civilization begins to be frayed around the edges in a period of economic crisis, it is no accident that American blacks and European gypsies are being scapegoated. Although the Birdland Django Reinhardt Festival obviously carried no messages about the persecutions of the Gypsy today, it is imperative for those of us dedicated to social justice to stay informed about their rights. Therefore, I recommend paying attention to the RomNews Network at: www.romnews.com and The Patrin Web Journal: Romani Culture and History at www.geocities.com/Paris/5121/patrin.htm. Finally, Django Reinhardt recorded prolifically throughout his life. I recommend "Django Reinhardt: Quintette Of The Hot Club Of France" on the GNP/Crescendo label as a good introduction. This can be ordered from CDNow, where a review by Harvey Pekar can be found. In addition to being a free-lance jazz reviewer over the years, Pekar is a radical-minded hospital orderly in the Cleveland area who has documented his life in a series of comic books called "American Splendor".

 

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In terms of sheer natural ability, Django Reinhardt was incredibly endowed. For years, he was easily the most technically proficient jazz guitarist. This CD illustrates implications of Reinhardt's that often go unrecognized. Django's long, complex eighth-note lines and running of chord progressions make him a precursor of bop, like Charlie Christian, who came along a few years later. He has a great rhythmic variety and, like Art Tatum, stimulates listeners with mixes of eighth notes and triplets. Before Wes Montgomery, he popularized the use of octaves. His subtle use of harmonics, bent tones, and vibrato variation also deserve praise.

 

And Reinhardt recorded what very well may have been the first free-jazz piece, "Improvisation," in 1937, which is amazingly rich in ideas and quite coherently structured. On that tune, Reinhardt exhibits a flamenco influence, something he rarely did. There and on "Parfum," another solo selection, Reinhardt uses rubato effectively.

 

For the most part, these selections were made with the "Quintet of the Hot Club of France," which originally consisted of Reinhardt, violinist Stefan Grappelli, two rhythm guitars, and bass. Clarinetists Hubert Rostaing or Gerard Leveque replace Grappelli on some tracks, and Reinhardt uses two clarinets on one session. The quintet sound with Grappelli was one of the most distinctive among jazz groups. Occasionally, Reinhardt replaced one of the rhythm guitarists with a drummer, resulting in a lighter rhythm-section sound. There are also a few larger ensembles here. Reinhardt's work is consistently amazing. Unlike Tatum, Reinhardt used his incredible chops for musical ends more than for grandstanding. Grappelli provides a number of highlights as well with his delightfully swinging work. Rostaing plays pleasantly, if genericallly, and the rhythm sections generally give Reinhardt soild, infectious backing.

 

Many of the tunes here are standards, but Reinhardt uses some of his excellent originals as well, e.g. "Nuages" and "Manoir de Mes Reves." His "Bolero," on which strings and brass appear, was inspired by Ravel's. There are also versions here of works by Grieg, Liszt, and Fritz Kreisler. "Festival Swing 1942, Part Two" is a Rostaing composition on which five different bands, ranging from a trio to a big band, are heard consecutively.

 

Harvey Pekar, CDNow