Thursday, November 03, 2011

Gypsy Jazz Provides Fascinating History of Django Reinhardt and His Legacy

Gypsy Jazz: In Search of Django Reinhardt and the Soul of Gypsy Swing
by Michael Dregni
Oxford University Press

Michael Dregni, who authored the highly regarded biography, Django: the Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend, and co-author of Django Reinhardt And the Illustrated History of Gypsy Jazz, adds to the literature on the Gypsy Jazz tradition that emerged from Django’s innovative music with Gypsy Jazz: In Search of Django Reinhradt and the Soul of Gypsy Swing. Its a historical chronicle of the music that was founded by Reinhardt and which thrives today with musicians still inspired by Django and extending his music today with his modern musical descendants being as exhilarating and original as Reinhardt was seventy odd years ago.

Dregni centers the book around Django and his biography but weaves in the world he was raised in and how that world changed as he grew up. We are taken to the Gypsy Caravans, the world of Gypsies and their music and musicians, and the musical scene of Paris and France dominated by the accordion based musette. Django’s biography is set forth as we are to the luthiers of Paris and the guitars that Django and his contemporaries used and the Pigatelle which is where many of the bals and dance halls were. The threads of his life are presented from his learning violin, banjo and then guitar, as he worked in the Russian cabarets, and the dance halls, his early exposure to jazz and the near fatal figure that left his left hand disfigured and scarred and where he had only use of the index and middle figures and had to learn new fingerings and chord forms.

There is the meeting with Stéphane Grappelli, the jams that led to the formation of the Quintette du Hot Club de France and the recordings under the auspices of Charles Delauney, first rejected by a major label because they were viewed as too modern. He traces how the Quintette became a sensation including a triumphant European tour cut short by the Second World War, and how music was Django’s salvation during World War 11, as his fellow Gypsies, like the Jews, were carted off to the death camps, as he played what the Nazi propagandists labeled ‘degenerate music.’ A new quintette was formed with clarinet replacing violin and a drummer added and in the midst of the horrors of the war, Django waxed two of his most famous recordings, the impressionist Nuages, and Les Yeux Noirs, or ‘Dark Eyes’. After World War II, Django was affected by the new harmonies and rhythms of bebop and continued to evolve musically. He toured America with Duke Ellington, and in 1953 he died of a cerebral hemorrhage and his singular musical voice was stilled.

As Dregni makes quite clear, the story of Django Reinhardt was not the only story of Gypsy jazz. There were contemporaries of his that were working along similar lines in the era of what was revolutionary musical changes. And he introduces us Django’s contemporaries such as his brother Joseph ‘Nin-Nin’; The Ferret brothers, Baro, Sarane and Matelo; legendary guitarist Tchan Tchou; Lousson Baumgartner (Django’s son from his common-law wife); accordionist Gus Viseur (who made pioneering recordings with Baro including Swing Valse); and their musical descendants including Les Freres Ferré, Jean-Jacques Boulou’ and Elié ‘Elios’, Stochelo Rosenberg, Birelli Lagrene, Dallas Baumgartner, Angello DeBarre, (Django’s great-grandson); David Reinhardt (Django’s grandson), and the American gypsies such as Johnny Guitar and Danny Fenders (google his name and you will come across a you tube video that the author posted that will blow your mind).

This volume is far more than a litany of performer bios. Dregni brings the performers and their world to life. He takes us into their world, catching them at performances as well as welcomed into their caravans. He vividly describes the annual pilgrimage by the gypsies at Les Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer with annual religious rituals and celebrations. He provides the cultural history and beliefs underlying this annual celebration which also provides a period of fervent musical cross-pollination by different musical traditions brought together along with a certain craziness.

Dregni describes a lesson in Django’s style that David Reinhardt teaches him and takes us to a performance by Danny Fender and His Band of Gypsies at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts Theater. In meeting Dallas Baumgartner, he is taken to the caravan of Dallas’ grandmother, Madame Rose. There is the touching moment when he is sharing family pictures of Django (that had been collected by Charles Delauney) with, Madame Rose, who had never seen photos of Django as a young man, and when she sees him at 18 with Madame Rose’s mother, Bella, and Rose has tears in her eyes as she had never seen a picture of her mother as a young girl. Dregni leaves the photo with her.

The author’s passion for his subject can be infectious. This writer purchased Django Reinhardt And the Illustrated History of Gypsy Jazz after reading this pre-release copy, as well as a number of recordings that Dregni recommends here. A remarkable work that serves as a marvelous entrance into this fascinating and exhilarating music.

I received a pre-release copy from the publisher. This review originally appeared in the April 2008 Jazz & Blues Report (issue 303). Inspiration to run this review at this time was provided by a performance of the Django Reinhardt All Stars featuring Dorado Schmidt at the Kennedy Center on October 29.

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