Django in June
Django in June, as sure a sign of summer in the Valley as the Bright Moments Festival used to be, is celebrating its tenth anniversary this week in Northampton. Kudos to Andrew Lawrence for establishing and producing a combination music camp and concert showcase devoted to Gypsy Jazz, the worldwide phenomenon inspired by Django Reinhardt.
Lawrence said last week that Django in June has grown steadily each year in both student enrollment and attendance at the concerts that cap the week’s immersion in Djangology. “We are celebrating our 10th anniversary this year and it is going to be the French equivalent of a lulu. Up until two years ago, our Django Camp attendance ranged between 75 and 90. Last year it jumped to over 125. And today I've got 193 people registered to attend. There must be something in the Perrier." Either that, or the presence of masters like Gonzalo Bergara, Tcha Limberger, and the Robin Nolan Trio; they'll all be in town this weekend for concerts at the Academy of Music. In previous years, concerts were held at Hills Chapel at Smith College, which was always filled to overflowing, so now it's moving to the 800 seat venue downtown.
When Lawrence approached me several years ago with the idea of presenting a feature on Django in Jazz a la Mode during the week of the camp, I was all in. Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelly had long been favorites, and around the time Lawrence came calling, JSP Records had issued a multi-disc set of recordings by the Quintette of the Hot Club of France, so I was eager to immerse myself again in these remarkably timeless sounds. Tonight we’ll hear recordings by the Quintette as well as Django in 1937 with Coleman Hawkins’ All-Star Jam Band and in 1939 with Rex Stewart’s Feetwarmers; the latter, made with a trio of Ellingtonians, Stewart, Barney Bigard, and Billy Taylor, are among the lesser known of Django’s collaborations with American jazz greats.
Earlier this year, YouTube posted Django Reinhardt: Three Fingered Lightning. The 2009 documentary contains numerous performance clips of Django, including a rarely-seen promotional film made by the BBC when the Quintette was in London in 1938 recording for English Decca. Django is also heard discussing the Mass he composed for Gypsies. When asked, “Are you the King of the Gypsies?” he replies, “No, but maybe someday. They are fond of me and this is my way of saying thanks.” Later he discusses the landscape and portrait paintings he began creating when he was in his early 40’s. But this was surely only a sideline, for it's music for which Django is justly revered. As his longtime colleague Stephane Grappelly observes, "He could only express his feelings with his guitar."
“Three Fingers Lightning” is the term American GI’s gave to Django’s brilliant guitar playing during World War II. After the liberation of Paris in 1944, he played with the U.S. Air Transport Command Orchestra; the footage seen here gives a slight hint of the tour he made of the U.S. two years later with Duke Ellington, one which proved to be disappointing. (I wrote about the tour here.) Nonetheless, it was recordings by Ellington and Louis Armstrong that Django heard during a stop in Toulon in 1930 that sparked his love for jazz and his decision to abandon Bal-musette for the American idiom. As the documentary states, “For Django, jazz was more than music. It was movement, risk, freedom. His very nature.”
(If you haven't got an hour for the doc, click here the six-minute BBC feature that introduced listeners to the uniquely "Hot Jazz" that the Quintette would be performing for English audiences in 1938.)
Guitar legend Johnny Smith died last week at age 90. When Django toured the States in the '40's, Smith served his idol as a companion around New York, and he discussed the experience in this interveiw with Guitar Magazine in 1976. Here's an excerpt:
"We played together, but really, I was just listening because I'd heard him on record and I idolised this man from when I was younger. I'd save up my nickles and as soon as a new record came out I'd be right there. I used to play along with his solos and on the old record player they wouldn't last long and I'd wear them out, so I kept having to get new ones of the old ones too. He really made me realize that the guitar was a musical instrument and not just something to scrape on."
Reinhardt and Grappelli were separated during the war. As Grappelli explains in the film, on the day they were scheduled to leave England for France, he was too sick to travel, and within 48 hours it was too late to get out. While the violinist waited out the war in London, Django became a hero to the French Resistance, claiming never to have played for the occupying Germans. In 1946, en route to the U.S. for his tour with Ellington, Django surprised Grappelli with a visit to his London flat. Once they saw each other, they began playing, "La Marseillaise." "We broke into it at the same time," Grappelli recalls. "Same key. I never understood how. It's called telepathy." They later recorded this version called "Echoes of France."