Signs of the Django Reinhardt cult abound. His most famous band, the Hot Club of France, echoes decades later in names like the Hot Club of Toronto, the Hot Club of Cowtown, the Hot Club of the Rockies, the Hot Club of Philadelphia and more. His followers gather for festivals in his honor with the most famous being in Samois Sur Seine, France, and New York City, where they regale in his gypsy-tinged jazz (or jazz-tinged gypsy music?) and trade stories about their brilliant, free-spirited hero.
This week, his Detroit acolytes — Steve Jarosz, the Royal Garden Trio, the Gypsy Strings, the Hot String Playboys and the Hot Club of Detroit — gather for the first time for an audience and for each other. “I started hearing about these other bands around town kind of doing it,” says Gino Fanelli of the Gypsy Strings. And as he checked out the players with similar interests and contrasting approaches, he came to the conclusion that it was time to get them out of the restaurants and bars and put them on one stage for a grand shindig.
“It’s this gypsy, romantic, almost mysterious-sounding music that captures you and makes you want to just not stop listening,” says Fanelli. Evan Perri of the Hot Club of Detroit says that discovering Reinhardt was so captivating that he “has no aspirations to go back to standard jazz or rock ’n’ roll.” Similarly, the Royal Garden Trio’s Brian Delaney describes listening to his first Reinhardt CD as “like being hit over the head with a chair … bowled over … baffled.”
Reactions have been powerful since Reinhardt started recording in the late 1930s. Les Paul, Bob Wills and Wes Montgomery took tips from Reinhardt. B.B. King wrote in his autobiography that he heard Reinhardt on 78 r.p.m. shellac discs that a buddy brought back home to Mississippi after World War II. The discs were “wrapped up in tissue paper and cloth like they were precious jewels (which they were),” and the ideas in the grooves “lit up my brain,” wrote King.
The Modern Jazz Quartet’s John Lewis’ most famous tune is the eponymous tribute “Django.” Others from James Carter to Raffi (yes, that superstar of the preschool set) have recorded salutes, and both Woody Allen (in Sweet and Lowdown) and the novelist William Kotzwinkle (in Django Reinhardt Played the Blues) have based characters on him. And a character he was.
He was born in a gypsy caravan, learned to play guitar, and re-learned guitar after a fiery incident left the outer fingers of his left hand nearly useless. In his mid-20s, he founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France along with violinist Stephane Grappelli. The guitarist — who is said to have wept the first time he heard Louis Armstrong — helped pioneer a music that drew on American jazz and brought in the strains of the gypsies and Eastern Europeans. And with the usual fingerings impossible, he invented his own ways of leaping about the guitar neck to create shimmering runs and octave passages.
Until a stroke felled him in 1953, he gave his fans music and anecdotes aplenty. Delaney’s favorite story involves Reinhardt standing outside a gig in Paris or Brussels, guitar in hand, when a friend drives up and asks, “You want to go to Germany with me?” And just like that, Reinhardt blew off the gig for a mini-vacation.
Each of the musicians involved in the Detroit fest has a story about coming to the music. Delaney picked up a CD on a whim. Perri was guided by a former guitar teacher. Fanelli has the most direct connection. He is a native Detroiter, but his father grew up in France, and Reinhardt and other Hungarian gypsies would come through and play “across the street from where my family stayed.”
Fanelli says his grandfather would sometimes play accordion with Reinhardt and “my father used to fall asleep to that music.”
But just why so many musicians are coming to Reinhardt’s music in recent years isn’t clear. There may be a steamroller effect from gatherings like the New York Reinhardt fest, which both Perri and Delaney have attended in years past. Perri thinks the Internet has been important in making Reinhardt’s records — and song samples — more widely available. Delaney underscores that in the last decade, American guitar makers have gotten good at turning out the gypsy-style instruments necessary to really play the style.
If that kind of socio-musicology matters to them, the area’s best minds will be gathered to ponder it this weekend. More likely the music will be more than enough to keep them occupied.
Django Reinhardt Festival is Saturday, Jan. 17, at the Magic Bag (22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale). Call 248-544-3030 for details.W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.