Gypsy Jazz

I’m honored to be the curator and director of the annual Esprit de Django et Stéphane Festival held each January at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley. Django and Stéphane… here’s excerpts from Wikipedia about two  incredible survivors, artists, and musicians.


Stéphane Grappelli

Grappelli was born in France at Paris’ Hôpital Larboisière, and was christened with the name Stéfano. His Italian father, marquess Ernesto Grappelli, was born in AlatriLazio, and his French mother, Anna Emilie Hanoque, was from St-Omer. Ernesto was a scholar who taught Italian, sold translations, and wrote articles for local journals.[2]Stéfano’s mother died when he was four, leaving his father to care for him. Though he was living in France whenWorld War I broke out, Ernesto was still an Italian citizen, and was drafted to fight in 1914. Ernesto had written an article about dancer Isadora Duncan during his time as a journalist, and turned to her when he needed someone to care for his son. Stéfano enrolled in Duncan’s dance school at the age of six, and it was here that he learned to love French Impressionist music. With the war encroaching, Duncan was forced to flee the country and turn over her château to be used as a military hospital.[3] Ernesto, having nowhere else to turn to, entrusted Stéfano to a Catholic orphanage. Grappelli is quoted “I look back at it as an abominable memory…The Place was supposed to be under the eye of the government, but the government looked elsewhere. We slept on the floor, and often were without food. There were many times when I had to fight for a crust of bread,” and claimed that he once tried eating flies as a means of easing his hunger.[3] Stéfano stayed at the orphanage until his father returned from the war in 1918 and brought him to live in an apartment in Barbès. Ernesto was sickened by all things Italian after serving his time in the military, so, on July 28, 1919, he brought Stéfano to city hall, pulled two witnesses off the street, and had his son nationalized as a Frenchman.[3] Stéfano was changed to Stéphane.

Stéphane began playing the violin at age 12 after his father pawned his suit to buy him a three-quarter size violin. Ernesto sent his son to proper violin lessons, but Stéphane preferred to learn on his own. Grappelli said that ““My first lessons were in the streets, watching how other violinists played…The first violinist that I saw play was at the Barbès métro station, sheltered under the overhead metro tracks. When I asked how one should play, he exploded in laugher. I left, completely humiliated with my violin under my arm.”[3] After learning independently for a brief period of time, Ernesto enrolled Stéphane at the Conservatoire de Paris on December 31, 1920 where he would learn music theory, ear-training, and solfeggio; Stéphane graduated in 1923 with a second-tier medal.

At the age of 15, Grappelli began busking full-time to support himself financially. Grappelli’s playing caught the attention of an elderly violinist who invited him to accompany silent films in the pit orchestra at the Théâtre Gaument. Stéphane played here for six hours every day over the course of a two-year period.[4] During orchestra breaks, Grappelli would visit a local brasserie, Le Boudon, where he would listen to songs from an American proto-jukebox. It was here that Grappelli was first introduced to jazz music. Stéphane was playing in the orchestra at the Ambassador in 1928 when Paul Whiteman headlined with Joe Venuti. Jazz violinists were rare, and, though Venuti played mainly commercial jazz themes and seldom improvised, Grappelli was intrigued by his bowing when he played Louis Armstrong‘s “Dinah.”[4]This led Stéphane to begin developing his own jazz-influenced play style.

Grappelli was living with a classically trained violinist named Michel Warlop, and, while Warlop admired Stéphane’s jazzy playing, Grappelli envied Warlop’s income.[4]After experimenting with piano, he gave up violin, choosing simplicity, new sound, and paid gigs over familiarity.[4] Stéphane began playing piano in a big band led by a musician who went by the name of Grégor. After a night of drinking in 1929, Grégor learned that Grappelli had originally played violin. Grégor borrowed a violin and had Stéphane improvise over “Dinah.”[5] Grégor was delighted by Grappelli’s jazz playing, and insisted that he begin playing violin once more.

In 1930, Grégor ran into financial trouble and was involved in a deadly automobile accident that forced him to flee to South America to avoid arrest.[5] Grégor’s band reunified as a true jazz ensemble under the leadership of pianist Alain Romans and saxophonist Ekyan. It was while playing with this band that Stéphane first metDjango Reinhardt in 1931. Django told Grappelli that he was looking for a violinist such as himself to play with, and invited him to play at the caravan he was living in. Though the two played for hours that afternoon,[6] their commitments to their respective bands prevented them from pursuing a career together. Three years later, in 1934, the two encountered each other at Claridge’s, and it was then that their partnership truly began. Pierre Nourry, the secretary of the Hot Club de France invited Reinhardt and Grappelli to form the Quintette du Hot Club de France with Joseph Reinhardt and Roger Chaput joining Django on guitar, and Louis Vola on bass.[7]

Django Reinhardt

Jean “Django” Reinhardt[1] was born 23 January 1910 in LiberchiesPont-à-Celles, Belgium, into a family of Manouche Romani descent. His father’s name was Jean Eugene Weiss, but he used the alias “Jean-Baptiste Reinhard” on the birth certificate to hide from French military conscription.[4] His mother, Laurence Reinhardt, was a dancer.[4] The birth certificate mentions: « Jean Reinhart, son of Jean Baptiste Reinhart, artist, and Laurence Reinhart, housewife, domiciled in Paris ».[5] Reinhardt’s nickname “Django”, in the Romani language, means “I awake.”[6] Reinhardt spent most of his youth in Romani (Gypsy) encampments close to Paris, playing banjo, guitar and violin from an early age. His family made cane furniture for a living, but included several keen amateur musicians.[7]

Reinhardt was attracted to music at an early age, playing the violin at first. At the age of 12, he received a banjo-guitar as a gift. He quickly learned to play, mimicking the fingerings of musicians he watched. His first known recordings (in 1928) were of him playing the banjo. During this period he was influenced by two older gypsy musicians, banjoist Gusti Mahla and guitarist Jean “Poulette” Castro. By age 13, Reinhardt was able to make a living playing music. As a result, he received little formal education and acquired the rudiments of literacy only in adult life.[8]

At age 18 in Saint-Ouen, Seine-Saint-Denis, Reinhardt was injured in a fire which ravaged the caravan he shared with Florine “Bella” Mayer, his first wife.[9] They were very poor, and to supplement their income Bella made imitation flowers out of celluloid and paper. Consequently, their home was rich in highly flammable material. Returning from a performance late one night, Reinhardt apparently knocked over a candle on his way to bed. While his family and neighbours were quick to pull him to safety, he received first- and second-degree burns over half his body. His right leg was paralysed and the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand were badly burned. Doctors believed that he would never play guitar again and intended to amputate one of his legs.[10] Reinhardt refused to have the surgery and left the hospital after a short time; he was able to walk within a year with the aid of a cane.

His brother Joseph Reinhardt, an accomplished guitarist himself, bought Django a new guitar. With rehabilitation and practice he relearned his craft in a completely new way, even as his fourth and fifth fingers remained partially paralysed. He played all of his guitar solos with only two fingers, and used the two injured digits only for chord work.[11]

The years between 1929 and 1933 were formative for Reinhardt. One development was his abandonment of the banjo-guitar in favour of the guitar. He also first heard American jazz during this period, when a man called Emile Savitry played him a number of records from his collection: he was particularly impressed with Louis Armstrong, whom he called “my brother”.[13] Shortly afterwards he made the acquaintance of a young violinist with very similar musical interests—Stéphane Grappelli. In the absence of paid work in their radical new music, the two would jam together, along with a loose circle of other musicians.[14] Finally, Reinhardt would acquire his first Selmer guitar in the mid-1930s. The volume and expressiveness of the instrument were to become an integral part of his style.

Reinhardt and Grappelli

In 1934, Hot Club de France secretary Pierre Nourry invited Reinhardt and Parisian violinist Stéphane Grappelli to form the “Quintette du Hot Club de France” with Reinhardt’s brother Joseph and Roger Chaput on guitar, and Louis Vola on bass.[15]Occasionally Chaput was replaced by Reinhardt’s best friend and fellow Gypsy Pierre “Baro” Ferret. Vocalist Freddy Taylorparticipated in a few songs, such as “Georgia On My Mind” and “Nagasaki“. Jean Sablon was the first singer to record with Django, (more than 30 songs from 1933). They also used their guitars for percussive sounds, as they had no true percussion section. The Quintette du Hot Club de France (in some of its versions at least) was one of the few well-known jazz ensembles composed only of stringed instruments.[16]

In Paris on 14 March 1933, Reinhardt recorded two takes each of “Parce-que je vous aime” and “Si, j’aime Suzy”, vocal numbers with lots of guitar fills and guitar support, using three guitarists along with an accordion lead, violin, and bass. In August of the following year recordings were also made with more than one guitar (Joseph Reinhardt, Roger Chaput, and Django), including the first recording by the Quintette. In both years, it should be noted, the great majority of their recordings featured a wide variety of horns, often in multiples, piano, and other instruments.[17] Nonetheless, the all-string format is the one most often adopted by emulators of the Hot Club sound.

Reinhardt also played and recorded with many American jazz musicians such as Adelaide HallColeman HawkinsBenny CarterRex Stewart (who later stayed in Paris), and participated in a jam-session and radio performance with Louis Armstrong. Later in his career he played with Dizzy Gillespie in France. Reinhardt and the Hot Club of France used the Selmer Maccaferri, the first commercially available guitars with a cutaway and later with an aluminium-reinforced neck. In 1937, American jazz singer Adelaide Hall opened a nightclub in Montmartre with her husband Bert Hicks, naming it ‘La Grosse Pomme.’ She entertained there nightly and hired the Quintette du Hot Club de France as one of the house bands at the club.[18][19] Also in the neighborhood was the artistic salonR-26, at which Reinhardt and Grappelli performed regularly as they further developed their unique musical style.[20]


Packing up the van…

Headed to Santa Ynez early on Saturday… performing at an event to benefit Santa Ynez Valley Charter School. Surprise request to back up Loggins & Messina on a little tune called “Your Mama Don’t Dance”. That’ll be after we wow the room with some Gypsy-jazz and Uptown Swing! On Sunday we’ll be rolling into the Sculpterra Winery to perform a set for Songwriter’s At Play. Planning on making a warm day HOT with great music, good people…