Only a handful of jazz musicians have inspired the reverence with which guitarists still regard Django Reinhardt, the Belgian-born Roma musician who grew up in France, where he fostered a musical revolution during the 1930s. In bistros and nightclubs, in and around Paris, Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli led their drummerless Quintette du Hot Club de France – then and forever the model for what’s known as “gypsy jazz.”
This year is the centennial of Reinhardt’s birth and plenty of tributes have taken place around the world. Chicago takes a back seat to only a few of them. The city may be better known for its gypsy moths than its gypsy jazz, but in the next few weeks, there’ll be more than enough speedy, spicy acoustic guitar to earn a spot on the musical caravan.
In the early 1930s, Reinhardt overturned three separate stereotypes in western culture.
First, in applying jazz technique to the musical materials of his native gypsy culture to create a new music, he challenged misconceptions about his people (the Romani), who have long experienced widespread discrimination throughout Europe. And in creating this music, Reinhardt shattered a second widely-held belief – that only Americans (and certainly not Europeans) were able to make significant contributions to jazz.
And finally, in playing the guitar at all, Reinhardt proved you didn’t need ten fingers to create incandescent, technically complex music (thus demonstrating the surpassing adaptability of art). That’s because in 1928, in a gypsy-camp fire, the then-teenaged musician lost the use of two fingers on his left hand – the hand that navigates the neck of the guitar to choose the notes and chords.
After that, Reinhardt painstakingly taught himself a new method of fingering and emerged with a sound and style as fully-realized as any before or since. By the late 1930s, his music was admired and accepted by the top American jazz musicians, as well as once skeptical audiences and critics; today, the popularity of gypsy jazz has if anything increased, with well-known bands styled after the Hot Club Quintet in cities from San Francisco to Detroit to New Orleans to Santa Cruz.
Chicago has a few gypsy-jazz bands of its own, the best-known of which – the quintet Swing Gitan, under the direction of guitarist Alfonso Ponticelli – has held the Wednesday night slot at the Green Mill for several years now. Swing Gitan will also headline Thursday night’s Made In Chicago series at Millennium Park (6:30 PM); the program, titled “Django: A Celebration,” will include a slew of virtuosic guests in what shapes up to be a sort of “Foggy Mont-Blanc Breakdown.”
The guest list includes the Paris-born New York-based guitarist Stephane Wrembel – a wickedly adept player last seen in Chicago this spring, celebrating the release of a double-album retrospective – and Arturo Martinez, who includes flamenco music in his approach to gypsy jazz. Chicago artists Larry Bowen (trumpet), Pat Mallinger (saxes), and Howard Levy (harmonica) will join in as well.
Django: A Celebration also brings the French trio Ensemble Zaiti to town. Contemporary gypsy jazz bands tend to live up to that adjective: many apply the rhythms, phrasing, and instrumentation of the old Hot Club groups to latter-day material – often to good effect – and Ensemble Zaiti does this more than most.
Recording in a quartet format for their 2008 album Still Time, for instance, they included a sprightly take on the Wes Montgomery classic “Four On Six” that only hints at the Django sound. The album also featured a version of Weather Report’s “Three Views Of A Secret” that could have come from any modern jazz quartet – not necessarily a plus. (It’s one thing to bring Django’s style to bear on newer material, but quite another to allow that material to obscure the band’s very raison d’etre.)
Fortunately, the bulk of the trio’s music centers on the more traditional sound of gypsy jazz, which gives guitarist Adrien Moignard a chance to show off his prized and precise fretwork. Few idioms demand as much technique as gypsy jazz or so ably showcase it, and Moignard has the chops to exploit the genre with verve and passion.
Ensemble Zaiti will stay on to perform this weekend at the Green Mill, giving listeners plenty of chance to hear their entire range of musical motion. Meanwhile, one more artist taking part in Django: A Celebration will continue the Reinhardt-Fest into next week.
Chicago violinist Steve Gibons occupies a “quasi-guest” role at the Millennium Park event. He occasionally plays with Swing Gitan, but also leads the city’s other primary gypsy-jazz band, the Gypsy Rhythm Project, who have a few tricks up their own sleeves. The band has a distinct American presence, with guitarist Mike Allemana, bassist Dan DeLorenzo, and drummer Tim Mulvenna making up three-fifths of the group. And then there’s the secret weapon: the cimbalom (a hammered dulcimer specific to eastern Europe) as played by the Romanian immigrant Nicolae Feraru.
The presence of the cimbalom, along with the natural instincts of Gibons and Feraru, push this band in an unmistakably eastern direction – to the Mediterranean and even the Arab Peninsula, in tandem with the French Roma tradition. The result is something certainly different, at times a bit bizarre, and always engrossing. They’ll play the intimate Chopin Theater in Wicker Park next Thursday, August 26; the concert will include the nuevo flamenco band El Payo, in a Pyrenees-straddling cross-cultural event.
And if you’re planning ahead, the Green Mill has already scheduled its 8th annual Chicago Gypsy Jazz Festival for the first weekend in October. (More on that next month.) Django and his music live on.
REMEMBER, this coming holiday weekend: Labor Day is the second-deadliest holiday in the U.S. — 487 fatalities in 2008, 40% of which were alcohol-related. Stay safe and avoid being arrested for drunk driving by utilizing public transportation or taxi this Labor Day weekend.