On guitar nobody can touch me, except this Gypsy guy in France. It’s the most beautiful thing I ever heard. — Sean Penn playing (fictional) jazz guitarist Emmet Ray in Woody Allen’s 1999 flick Sweet and Lowdown
Penn’s character — self-declared “The Second-Greatest Guitarist in the World” — is not the only person fixated on Django Reinhardt. Half a century after the legendary gypsy guitarist’s death, an entire Django subculture has sprung up, feasting on the lore and lyricism of a guy who was part man, part myth, and 100 percent musician.
As European Gypsies make an annual pilgrimage to Les Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer to worship their patron Saint Sarah, Djangophiles flock to festivals around the world bearing their idol’s name. The Mecca for Gypsy jazz acolytes is the annual shindig at France’s Samois-sur-Seine, a lovely riverside fishing spot where Reinhardt lived out his final years before a brain aneurysm sent him to the big jazz cafe in the sky at 43. Decades before the rock ‘n’ rollers, Django — with a penchant for gambling, fast cars, and dashing clothes — lived fast and died young. But it’s the incredible music he made in his later years (particularly with the Hot Club of France) that has spawned a legion of imitators and idolaters.
In a quintet that included Django, brother Joseph (Nin-Nin) on guitar, and Stéphane Grappelli on violin, the Hot Club tore into the American jazz songbook with a fever from 1935 until the late ’40s — lightning tempos, punchy guitar-propelled rhythms, and the improvisation nonpareil of Reinhardt and Grappelli turned tunes like “Dinah” (their first recording) into flights of fancy. The cat could flat-out play, even after a caravan fire badly maimed two fingers on his left (fretting) hand.
Naturally, it’s the hardcore guitar-slingers who seem to glom onto the Django legend the most, and they’ll surface in droves at Yoshi’s starting Tuesday night for its debut Django fest to see fretmasters like John Jorgenson. Jorgenson, whose credits include the Hellecasters, the Desert Rose Band, and Elton John, has now spent a quarter-century doing the Django thang. Gigging with some jazzers in 1979, he asked the old-time banjo players to recommend Swing Age guitarists, and the answer was unanimous: Check out the Gypsy.
Jorgenson’s pre-Internet search began with vinyl, and he was hooked from the get-go. “It kind of freaked me out, the tone and energy of the music,” he recalls. (Not to mention the ambience: Most of the Hot Club’s recordings, stunningly, were recorded with the group assembled around one microphone, properly positioned for balance. Noises like scraping chairs are an artifact of that process.) Not a fan of mainstream jazz, Jorgenson was intrigued by the music’s swing, improvisation, and melodiousness: “I never heard anything quite like that.”
Already an A-list player in Nashville and Los Angeles, Jorgenson watched his Reinhardtian rep grow. In 2004 he was picked to play Django in the film Head in the Clouds, right down to the hair dye and prosthetically scorched hand, vamping to “Blue Drag” and “Minor Swing” while Charlize Theron and Penelope Cruz danced in a faux-Parisian nightclub. Jorgenson also scored a crucial headlining gig at the Samois festival last month, and he’s still in recovery. “It’s really the Carnegie Hall for this kind of music,” he enthuses.
One local bitten hard by the Django bug is Kensingtonian George Cole, the only son of Spanish Gypsies who grew up in the noncaravan setting of Richmond. Cole’s Hot Club of Berkeley kicked off last month’s DjangoFest SF, a four-day concert series that began in Seattle and now includes series in Los Angeles and Redwood City, aka the “Paris of the Peninsula.” Cole was like a kid in a candy store, gawking at the new guitars, jamming on the sidewalk, and soaking in performances from Jorgenson, the Hot Club of San Francisco (coming soon: Hot Club of Boise!), and genuine French Gypsies like the Ferre Brothers and Angelo Debarre.
But what exactly is “Gypsy Jazz”? In the four hands of Boulou and Elios Ferre (whose dad Pierre played with Django), it’s simply jazz played by Gypsies. Not demarcated by the punchy rhythms or swing of the classic Reinhardt quintet sound, these brothers’ languid twenty-minute vamps borrow freely from Miles Davis and whoever else they feel like; “They’re looking forward, not behind,” says Don Price, Webmaster for GypsyJazzGuitar.com. Audience members who come for a Sweet and Lowdown-style ’30s jazz revival are sometimes disappointed by this, preferring more familiar Django fare: revamped American classics like “All of Me” and “Sweet Georgia Brown,” typically played at Warp Five with a standup bass and rhythm guitar providing the staccato beat.
Then there are Reinhardt originals, like the ubiquitous and bittersweet “Nuages,” which became something like the French national anthem in occupied Paris during World War II. “‘Nuages’ is one of my favorites,” says DjangoFest promoter Nick Lehr. “It can be played so many different ways.” (Check Willie Nelson’s Teatro DVD for a killer version.) “Django was a great songwriter — his ideas were so good.”
Tom Murray, who taught a Gypsy Jazz workshop at the recent San Francisco Free Folk Fest, concurs on the wide range of styles developing within DjangoWorld: “It’s a living art form like bluegrass, taking what Bill Monroe did and putting their own spin on it,” he insists. Noted Djangophile Robin Nolan plays Beatles and Stevie Wonder tunes. Latin American influences have seeped in. Today’s crowd is growing the music outward like a many-petaled lotus.
Furthermore, while some Hot Clubs play it cool — the capricious Django was known for storming offstage when he felt the audience was being disrespectful — other disciples engage the audience a bit more actively. “People want to be entertained!” Cole notes, adding that Jorgenson, a vocalist like himself, is an effective showman in this regard. “He has a really well-rehearsed band — humor, virtuosity, and musicianship.” To really blow people’s minds, he’ll even bring in a pair of identical twins from Luxembourg who (individually) blow a mean trombone. “My goal is to expand the genre a little bit,” Jorgenson admits.
Still, there’s some period-piece theatricality involved. Though George Cole points out that Reinhardt played electric guitar at the end of his life and leaned toward bebop, hardcore Hot Club devotees tend to codify the style with a Maccafferri-style acoustic guitar. Django’s was made by Selmer, and while you won’t find any of those around any longer, there are quite a few quality knockoffs, complete with special-sized soundholes. Hell, you can even buy special strings based on the copper-wound variety Reinhardt would’ve purchased in the steel-deprived war era.
There’s even a vintage jazz-era look that goes with Djangophiles: Some don the Stetson-like brims the legend favored (he blew his first recording session dosh on a rakish white one), while others sport the pencil-thin mustache favored by Gypsy males. Cole takes it a step further, wearing red socks with an all-black outfit, something that Django’s bandmates tried to convince him to no avail was a fashion faux pas. To Cole, it’s an homage (and one that Boston Red Sox fans might even approve).
What’s driving all this? Nostalgia is part of it, but current trends play their role, too. “People are really starving for acoustic music,” says Patrick Berrogain, lead guitarist for the Hot Club of San Diego. (Coming soon: Hot Club of Union City!) “You can see it in pop music with Dave Matthews and guys like that popping up. On the jazz level, people are sick of electronic sounds and rediscovering the beauty of acoustic instruments. Django is a music you hear in your happiest dreams!”