lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri Dec 1 12:21:17 MST 2000
For four nights this week (Nov. 29-Dec. 2), NYC's Birdland
(www.birdland.com) is hosting 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
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 café 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 Citroën 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
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
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