Decades after his death, guitarist Django Reinhardt is a star

by Randy Lewis

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

26 January 2010


LOS ANGELES — One of the world’s leading proponents of the music of Gypsy jazz innovator Django Reinhardt, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this past Saturday, guitarist John Jorgenson offered illuminating anecdotes and back stories about Reinhardt’s life and songs when he performed recently before an intimate crowd of about 100 people packed into what’s normally a guitar showroom at Culver City’s Boulevard Music store.

But it wasn’t the historical tales, nor the informed musical elucidation from Jorgenson that transfixed three children, who looked on with delight from the front row during the performance by Jorgenson’s hot-jazz quintet. It was Reinhardt’s singularly ebullient music, pure and direct, that pulled them in, the same way it has continued to win new audiences since his death from a stroke more than 50 years ago.

“I never thought this was anything I would do for a main gig,” said Jorgenson, 53, who spent seven years in the ‘90s in Elton John’s touring band and another half-dozen with Byrds founding member Chris Hillman fronting the Desert Rose Band. “It was what I always did for fun.”

This year’s centennial — he was born Jean Baptiste Reinhardt in Belgium and grew up in Gypsy camps outside Paris — has spurred a wealth of live performances and recordings celebrating his spirited transformation of American jazz into a hard-swinging pan-European-flavored potpourri.

“I love to play Gypsy jazz,” Jorgenson said, “because it has the elegance and virtuosity of classical music, the fire and romanticism of Gypsy music, the swing and improvisation of jazz, the string band sound of bluegrass and the energy of rock, all in a very accessible package.”

All the more impressive considering that Reinhardt lost the use of two fingers on his left hand when he was 18 in a caravan fire, yet still became one of the most dazzling instrumentalists of the 20th century, as well as the composer of more than 100 songs.

Jorgenson has two Reinhardt-centric albums coming out next month: “One Stolen Night,” a work featuring his combo modeled on Reinhardt’s ground-breaking Quintet of the Hot Club of France and consisting largely of Jorgenson’s original tunes; and “Istiqbal Gathering,” an ambitious collaboration with Orchestra Nashville of Jorgenson’s symphonic compositions for Gypsy jazz guitar and full orchestra. Two of his pieces also feature the genre-busting Turtle Island String Quartet.

Jorgenson will have company. Tuesday, New York guitarist Frank Vignola released “100 Years of Django,” consisting of 10 of his favorite Reinhardt compositions.

“It’s very infectious music,” Vignola said from a tour stop in Missouri. “There’s a tremendous amount of passion he had in his playing. A lot of guitar players, I think, when they hear Django and emulate him, they just want to emulate his speed. But you listen to old Django records, and he was playing with such great sense of melody and expression, his use of vibrato and the way he bends notes. It’s very passionate music.”

Vignola is marking the Reinhardt centennial on a tour with violinist Mark O’Connor, the instrumentalist, composer and teacher who once studied with Reinhardt’s longtime collaborator, French violinist Stephane Grappelli. Earlier this month, they played the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to mark the 102nd anniversary of Grappelli’s birth.

Other top Gypsy jazz purveyors working today include Patrick “Romane” Leguidcoq, the Netherlands-based Rosenberg Trio and French guitarist Bireli Lagrene.

But Reinhardt’s impact extends far beyond those who follow directly in his footsteps.

“Every major guitarist on the planet, every one of them was influenced by Django, from Paul McCartney to Keith Richards to Les Paul to Tommy Emmanuel, they were all influenced by him,” Vignola said. “It’s fascinating: The two major guitarists of the last 100 years were Les Paul and Django Reinhardt (and) when Les heard Django’s records, he would copy all of Django’s licks, and when Django heard Les, the first thing he did was switch to electric guitar.”

Vignola was raised on Reinhardt’s music, along with that of American guitarists including Paul and Joe Pass. He knew Paul for a quarter of a century before his death in August at age 94, and worked closely with him for five years. During that time, Vignola said the electric-guitar innovator often spoke of his friendship with Reinhardt and his plans to take him on tour in the U.S.

“You could see when Les would talk about him, he would get so melancholy,” Vignola said. “He had it all planned out: He was going to make Django a star in America, that’s how much he believed in his music ... But that was in 1952, and then Django died in 1953.”

For many years after that, fans of Reinhardt’s music constituted something of a secret society. Because he drew upon so many different elements, he was essentially orphaned: not strictly jazz, classical, folk or country. Yet he always has been lionized by fellow musicians.

Vignola helped push Reinhardt’s name into the spotlight in New York in 1988 with a series of performances covered by major media outlets. After that, Woody Allen saluted Reinhardt’s legend in his film “Sweet and Lowdown.” Johnny Depp played a Reinhardt-like character in the film “Chocolat,” which also featured Reinhardt’s signature “Minor Swing” and other tunes. And then the Internet boomed.

“Suddenly all these Django fans were able to find each other,” said Jorgenson, who in 2005 became the first American musician to headline the world’s premiere Reinhardt festival in Samois-sur-Seine, the French town where the guitarist lived in his last years.

Noted Vignola, “All over the world now, every town has at least one Hot Club-style group ... If there was one guy in the world I could have met and played with, it would have been Django.”

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