Northwest 2003

Gypsy Jazz Puts Down New Roots

(Reflections on the 3rd Annual DjangoFest Northwest)

By Peter Anick (originally published in Fiddler Magazine)

3:30 Friday afternoon. I have to slow down a bit as I hit some of Seattle’s notorious rush hour traffic. I am on my way to an island off the north coast of Washington State, where the 3rd annual Northwest Django Festival is already underway. I check my watch again, wondering if I have made the right decision to come all the way from Massachusetts on the basis of a few recommendations in an online chat group. But, in some sense, this is a trip that I have been planning for a very long time. Maybe since the ‘70’s. I first heard the music of Django Reinhardt when it temporarily infected the greater New York bluegrass community. I remember being awestruck by the guitar wizardry of this French Gypsy genius who, having lost the use of part of his left hand in a caravan fire, developed a two-finger soloing style that dazzled the music world in the heady days of "le jazz hot". And I dare say that hearing his partner Stéphane Grappelli’s elegant and fiery violin solos was an inspiration for me to pursue the violin in earnest. Unfortunately for most of us bluegrassers, there was something about the feel of their "Quintet of the Hot Club of France" that seemed impossible to replicate. We picked up a few hot licks but eventually drifted back to bluegrass or to western swing, the American-grown version of string jazz based on a more familiar country beat. So it was with me. As a part-time musician, I always tried to inject a bit of swing into whatever group I was playing with, but it was hard finding anyone else with the drive or knowledge to tackle the "QHCF" sound straight on. So I continued to listen to my Django recordings on the sly, and catch Grappelli if he happened to be touring nearby, but I had the distinct impression that the music of the Hot Club of France was strictly a thing of the past.

That impression changed in May of 1998, when I chanced upon a Gypsy religious festival while on a break from a business trip in southern France. It was the annual pilgrimage to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a small seaside town whose church holds the remains of the gypsies’ patron saint Sara. There, amid the ubiquitous rhythms of clapping hands and flamenco guitars, I caught the unmistakable notes of a Django melody and followed them to find several young guitarists and a fiddler finishing up an impromptu performance alongside the church. Somehow my rusty French kicked in, and I learned that they were a family of Manouche gypsies from Alsace, near the French border with Germany. That evening, we traded tunes around the campfire - my American fiddle tunes and their… well, they called it "Jazz Manouche". As the bandleader Engé explained, Django Reinhardt was from the Manouche clan and in the sixty years since the heyday of the QHCF, most Manouche musicians had taken up Django’s swing style and made it a central part of their cultural heritage.

For the next few days, I immersed myself in this heritage, at street parties, campfires and church services. The thought returned to my mind that I’d like to learn this style, although Engé laughed when we shared some Django tunes on guitar the last afternoon, remarking that I "played with an American accent." He was right, of course, and later visits to festivals in Strasbourg to see many of the best players in the genre just confirmed my suspicion that you had to be born a Gypsy to play this stuff. Guitarists with names like Tchavolo, Biréli, Dorado, Stochelo – they must have been born with guitar picks in their hands! And the fiddlers – Florin, Schnuckenack, Schmitto – their passionate jazz solos seemed barely one step away from the csardas. This was folk music intertwined with jazz, soulfully played by people for whom improvisation was a way of life. Returning home after a festival, it was always a disappointment to realize that all this great music now lay a full ocean away.

5:00 pm. I’ve finally made it to the waiting area for the ferry to Whidbey Island. The lot is full of folks heading to the islands for the weekend and I head off to grab a sandwich at the café. I find it ironic that I’ll have to cross water yet again to hear "Jazz Manouche". Or perhaps I should call it "Gypsy Jazz", the name that seems to be gaining ground as a label for this genre? Curiously, it’s not just the name that has been gaining ground. The genre itself seems to have been generating more interest stateside over the last few years. In fact, the last "Gypsy jazz" concerts I’ve been to were actually in the U.S. There was the New York Django Festival, which in its second year at the Birdland jazz club brought French guitar/violin wizard Dorado Schmitt to America for the first time. And last March, Biréli Lagrène made a month long tour of the states with his Gypsy Project, playing to packed houses from coast to coast. What’s more, I was running across more and more folks right here who loved and played this music. I learned that Michael Simmons, fellow writer for Fiddler Magazine, was not only a fan but also an expert in the history of the Selmer Maccaferri guitar, the unique sounding acoustic jazz guitar that Django played for most of his career. And then I stumbled upon an internet discussion group on the subject, with daily exchanges between musicians who actually seemed to know what they were talking about. Guitars, picks, tunes, improvising, performing, concerts… Yes, apparently there were American bands playing this music – not Dawg music or western swing, but Gypsy jazz. And the more I lurked on the discussion group, the more I realized that a bona fide (albeit virtual) community of Gypsy jazz afficionados was growing larger by the day – thanks, strangely enough, to computers.

6:00 pm. Whidbey Island is coming into view at last and I start thinking ahead again to the festival. I’m curious about the American bands, after having listened almost exclusively to European Gypsy players for the past five years. Most of all, I’m looking forward to seeing the American Gypsy jazz community in the flesh, to associate names with faces, and internet messages with their authors. The line of cars rolls off the ferry and in a few short minutes I am at the bed & breakfast where I’ll be staying. I check in, drop off my bags, and drive around the bend to the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts. It’s an excellent venue, modern but intimate, with comfortable seats and incredible acoustics. The first act is Swing Gitan, a band from Chicago featuring guitarist Alfonso Ponticelli and violinist Steve Gibons. I’d run into Alfonso before, in Strasbourg, and it was clear from the opening number that this band knew this music inside and out and were comfortable enough with it to throw in a few tricks of their own. Their standout rendition of Django’s Rhythm Futur created a surrealistic cacophony of musical mayhem before breaking into the rapid fire notes of the melody. And Alfonso stunned the audience by playing the difficult waltz Montagne Ste. Geneviève with his fingers draped over the top of the neck (a technique he apparently transferred to the guitar from his mastery of the mountain dulcimer).

A tough act to follow, but Seattle’s Pearl Django is up to the task. After nearly a decade popularizing "Hot Club" music in the Pacific Northwest, they had achieved the virtual summit of success in this business last summer when they were invited to play at the prestigious Festival Django Reinhardt at Samois sur Seine, the French town where Django had spent the last years of his life. They brought a little bit of France back with them tonight, in the form of guitarist Patrick Saussois, who joined them for several numbers. The over-crowded stage was a joy to behold as guitarists Neil Andersson and Dudley Hill, fiddler Michael Gray and accordionist David Lange traded solos with a beaming Mr. Saussois.

9:00 pm. It’s break time before tonight’s headliners, the Robin Nolan Trio. I’ve already learned that the intermissions here are every bit as interesting as the concerts, since the outer hall features a table full of Gypsy jazz CD’s, a rare sight anywhere, and samples of the beautiful Selmer style guitars made by master luthier Shelley Park, a student of Canadian luthier Michael Dunn who would be performing here on Sunday. I extend my congratulations to festival organizer Nick Lehr, who is doing his best to enjoy the show while still keeping everything running smoothly behind the scenes. Like myself, Nick discovered this music by accident while traveling in Europe. In his case, he ran into the Robin Nolan Trio, who had recently moved to Amsterdam and were doing a brisk busking business with a repertoire filled with Django material. Intrigued by this style of music, Nick passed the hat for the trio and soaked up as much of the music as he could before returning to Washington state a few years later. With a background in theater production, Nick was interested in bringing the Robin Nolan Trio to the U.S. In ’97 he heard Pearl Django on the radio and before long he and they were plotting together to stage a festival. They chose the WICA Center as the venue because Pearl Django had previously sold out a concert there and in 2001 the first DjangoFestival Northwest took place, featuring Pearl Django, the Robin Nolan Trio, several music workshops and jamming. It was a great success, drawing people from as far away as Philadelphia, Denver, and Florida, thanks in large part to that aforementioned Yahoo internet discussion group, which had some 500 members at that time. It had been Nick’s goal from the start to encourage the formation of a Gypsy jazz community through a small festival and then grow it over time. Now, in only its third year, the festival was featuring four days of music, a full slate of workshops, and for the first time some of the legendary Gypsy jazz masters from France – Angelo Debarre and Patrick Saussois.

9:20 pm. Folks file back into the theater as the Robin Nolan Trio take the stage. While nominally a "gadjo" (of non-Gypsy heritage) Robin Nolan has made a substantial contribution of his own to the growth of the Gypsy jazz community. Having recognized the need for instructional materials to help other gadjos learn the repertoire, he created a series of playalong CDs containing the song heads and rhythm tracks. For many of the "newbies" in this genre who were searching in vain for musicians to practice with, these CDs were a lifeline. As for the Trio’s live performance tonight, Robin obviously enjoys giving the old standards a new twist whenever he can. A highlight of his set is a playful reinvention of Django’s famous ballad Nuages, cast unexpectedly atop a Latin groove.

10:30 pm. Concert’s over, and that means it’s time to break out the instruments a few blocks away at the Doghouse Tavern. The djamming (yes, that’s how they spell it) is already literally in full swing. Guitars, fiddles, an occasional mandolin and several stand up basses fill out musical circles in various corners of the bar room. It’s fun finally playing some of these tunes myself, and humbling to realize how many I don’t know. But listening or playing along, this is a great time to meet fellow fans and to attach faces to the names of those Yahoo group members whose posts I’ve been following for years. Somehow, I have a feeling it will be tough getting up for breakfast tomorrow.

9:00 Saturday morning. Ooh. It is tough getting up for breakfast. But the breakfast is excellent and most of my fellow lodgers, it turns out, are fellow musicians with entertaining stories to tell. I head back into town for the workshops. These turn out to be another pleasant surprise – for many of the festival performers are also excellent instructors. Pearl Django’s Michael Gray leads the only workshop geared specifically for fiddlers. With a history of self-taught fiddling and formal violin training, he’s good at helping fiddlers of any background adjust to the idiosyncrasies of Gypsy jazz. Michael Horowitz, fresh back from doing dissertation research among Holland’s Gypsy guitarists, may well be the best person on the planet to explain right hand guitar technique – and believe me, you have to change a lot of habits to execute this style properly! Alfonso Ponticelli, a veteran of the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, crams his lessons full of useful tips, homework, and handouts. Michael Dunn covers rhythm guitar technique and Robin Nolan licks. A special treat are the sessions with French master Angelo Debarre. The multi-lingual Patrick Berrogoin of the Hot Club of San Diego facilitates, trying to glean some understanding of how Angelo thinks when improvising over a tune - not an easy thing to put into words, however, in any language.

7:00 pm. What, 7 o’clock already!? Between the workshops and the afternoon concert, there’s barely enough time to grab a meal downtown before heading back to the WICA Center for the evening concert. First up is Swingamajig, a father-son fiddle and guitar duo from Vancouver. The son, fiddler Michael Fraser is only 14 years old but he’s so used to street performing that he nonchalantly shuffles from foot to foot as he knocks out one hard driving solo after another, like a miniature Stuff Smith. Robin Nolan, appearing next, invites him back to take some choruses with the Trio. The night’s headliners are Angelo Debarre, Serge Camp, and Patrick Saussois, and they deliver an exquisite set, made all the more entertaining by Serge’s congenial emceeing.

9:30 Sunday morning. Ooooh. Even tougher getting up for breakfast. It wasn’t so easy putting the fiddle away last night while the house party (yeah, the one that followed the Doghouse djam) was still cooking. More workshops and music today – including the charming swing of the Hot Club of San Diego. Alain Cola, HCSD’s rhythm guitarist, is perhaps best known among the Gypsy jazz crowd for his Dell’Arte guitars, one of the more popular brands of modern Selmer copies. He good naturedly provides an invaluable service throughout the festival, jumping up to lend one of his guitars to any performer who breaks a string. Today is also my first chance to catch the provocatively titled "Hot Club of Mars". This group, led by luthier Michael Dunn, proves there is life on Mars, and quite highly evolved at that. Between Romanian-born violin virtuoso Lache Cercel’s incredible bow work, Sam Shoichet’s explosive slap bass, and guitarist Don Ogilvie’s way with a melody (not to mention the oud), this group may be the farthest from traditional Gypsy jazz in form while the closest in spirit.

8:00 Monday morning. No time for breakfast as I head back south toward the Seattle-Tacoma airport, physically drained but spiritually energized. I check my watch again, but unlike last Friday, I am no longer wondering if I have made the right decision to come all the way from Massachusetts on the basis of a few recommendations in an online chat group. It’s pretty clear to me now that Gypsy jazz is alive and well in the Pacific Northwest, and poised to put down roots in other parts of the country. For a brief weekend, a virtual community had became a physical community - stories traded, licks shared, masters admired, novices encouraged, mysteries revealed and friends made. As I pull off into the exit lane for the airport, I am still smiling.


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