DJANGO REINHARDT & COMPANY: Jazz & The French Connection
by Ian Whitcomb
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer,
composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and
Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to ianwhitcomb.com
From the very start the French—at least a certain reasonably well-to-do elite—were bedazzled by American entertainment: from 19th century blackface minstrelsy to early 20th century ragtimers and finally, at the end of the Great War, by the incursion of rowdy battering “jazz” bands headed by colored and colorful gentlemen like Lieutenant Jim Europe and drummer Louis Mitchell. A healthy hit on the long-haired head of high and heavy European concert hall culture.
The French, juggling an age-old xenophobia with a peculiar addiction to exoticism, were particularly taken by the look of the African-Americans, by the ocean-to-ocean smiling teeth of the jazzers, by the curious drawling talk and easy-going loping walk. And by the sound of their friendly fury—by the apocalyptic bang of the drum, the clang and clatter of cymbal and temple block, the toot and blat of the horns.
Such splendid clashing spelled collision with—the intellectuals were pleased to point out—the turgidly obese slow-moving European old-world train of heavy harmony and little rhythm. American jazz would push this constipated Wagnerian monster off the tracks and usher in a modern era of heat and motion and stridency.
Jazz was an unthinking animal delight. The welcome strangers would perform while the local inhabitants would marvel, listen or dance. As yet there was to be no French jazz as such.
In the frenzy to forget the prosaic war and embrace the magic nothingness of no more great causes, no more patriotism, there was a sprouting of clubs, cafes and cabarets devoted to the pursuit of the primitive and the sensual, set in the louche and bohemian parts of Paris: Zelli’s -- a disreputable but exciting dive nestling by sinister cheap hotels, Le Grand Duc -- anything but grand, Mitchell’s-- homey with corned beef hash and a kind of jazz….
In 1921 there arose rather preciously, out of the canny thinking of a bar owner, a surrealistic nightclub named Le Boeuf sur le Toit (The Ox on the Roof) inspired by a Darius Milhaud ballet. Modernism was the name of the game: the arty elite quickly gathered there from Ravel and Satie to Picasso and the Dadaists. All were lured by the promise of the new music— whatever that meant. Evening gowns and satin shoes brushed up against workingmen’s blouses and sandals to mingle in the melee of loud music, pretty women and the latest gossip.
A version of the new music, smoothly cocktailed and spiced with sophisticated harmonies, was provided by Jean Weiner, a concert pianist with serious music connections who was attracted by the iconoclastic possibilities of jazz (He had been at a Paris band show by the American Billy Arnold and enjoyed watching them slide down banisters while singing and playing). Weiner and his partner Clement Doucet entertained nightly at Le Boeuf, making sure they augmented their ensemble with the regulation black saxist and black banjoist. At twin pianos they displayed a razzle-dazzle style employing Broadway vaudeville keyboard tricks such as tracing the melody with the thumb, playing cross handedly, and reading a detective novel with the right hand while the left hand trotted out rhythmic accompaniment. Ravel & Co, were amazed. Sometimes Jean Cocteau sat in on a drum set lent by Igor Stravinsky.
Modern, serious, art composers marked, learned and inwardly digested. But no French jazz was created.
However, all the while in this so-called Jazz Age, another popular music genre, an actual indigenous one, was coming into its own across town in rickety-rackety neighborhoods where lived the majority—the poor people of Paris. New Orleans boasted the birth of jazz and Buenos Aires the tango: Paris begat a dance music called musette centered on the shaking, vibrating, wailing sound of the accordion. Imported by Italian immigrants,
ousting the once-reigning bagpipe, this versatile piano-with-suspenders, capable of deep melancholy or high spirits, was by the early 1920s the soul of working-class Paris. Novelist Marc Orlan fondly remembered: “The smell of lilac in Belleville, for a twenty year old youth, is a waft of accordion.”
Bal Musettes, low-life dance halls and bars—hundreds of them—dotted the ramshackle outskirts of Paris in dangerous streets dubbed “The One-Eyed Rat” and “The Chatty Rabbit”. Few tourists dared venture inside. For there under a revolving glass ball and paper streamers, in a tobacco fug-fog dimly lit by red light bulbs, bobbed round and round an uncouth army of men in slouch caps that never came off, clutching women with spit curls and high skirts. Etiquette at the Bal boiled down to a shouted “Psst!” from the man across the room to the partner of his choice. Knives, revolvers and frenetic waltzes were the norm — in particular a new and debauched version called the Java, in which the female held on tight to her male in the whirl by locking her hands on his rear end.
The musette orchestra commanded the affray from high on a balcony, providing a wide variety of dances—not only the high-speed waltz but also quadrilles, polkas, mazurkas, tangos, rumbas and beguines. Around 1917 and the coming of the American foxtrot, the banjo was added for enhancement. With its characteristic high plink-plunk, the banjo was able to cut through the wet wobble of the squeezebox and jostle the music along with vibrancy and dramatic merriment. The best banjoists (and guitarists) were the gypsies from the manouche branch bringing a plaintive but also incisive sound to complement the accordion. They were happy in minor keys and they employed a peculiar scale that flattened notes in the manner of the American blues.
These Romanys, wandering Europe for centuries, were not always welcomed by settled upright citizens due to the gypsy habit of stealing anything not nailed down. Fortunately the tables at the bal musettes were all nailed down hard.
In 1922, Django Reinhardt, a 12-year-old manouche who lived with his mother in a caravan parked in the decomposing area of cesspits and mud called la Zone, started playing six-string banjo-guitar in a bal band led by fellow gypsy Guerino, also known as “Monsieur Sheepshead”.
Now Sheepshead had modern ideas—he played a new-fangled button accordion which not only allowed him to play impressive flurries of triplets and arpeggios but also had a dry sound unlike the quiver-quaver of the traditional musette. He enjoyed the better sort of jazz, too, and incorporated its easy swing into his playing. Kid Django was with him on this jazz—he’d been knocked out by seeing Billy Arnold’s crazed band. He practiced and practiced till his fingers bled. When he eventually got a guitar he always used a plectrum. There were no American jazz records in la Zone and certainly no printed music. Django and the gypsies knew nothing of dull print. What had literacy to do with music? They grabbed their melodies from out of the sky, inspired by God and nature. Django was fond of gazing at the moon and talking to it. That may be one of the reasons he often was often a no-show at the many gigs he was getting after word got around about this whiz kid who could play in any key and knew all the chords and more.
Still, he always sent a substitute, usually one of his cousins whose number appeared to be legion. Meanwhile the boy lazed in the caravan, tended to by his mother like all good gypsies were. Or else he went fishing with a branch fresh torn from a tree. Or he was relieving a farmer of one of his excess chickens. Oh, the delicious aroma from the iron stove that evening! And then the singing and dancing to the boy’s guitar—some of his finest music was made at these ad hoc gatherings where he’d play till sunrise, never demanding a penny. If there was a nice tip, thrown by an entranced visitor (“peasants” was the term used by the Romanys for outsiders) then the boy promptly lost it at a gambling den. Live like there’s no tomorrow!
Luckily Django did show up at some musette recordings beginning in 1928 when he accompanied Jean Vaissade, one of the accordion aces constantly seeking the lad’s dynamic banjo skills. Listening to “Ma Reguliere”, an up-tempo march, one is at once aware that Django is no mere accompanist. He’s in a race with the star, doing battle with his armory of bombshells, driving on the accordionist into a glorious finishing post. The banjo is aggressive, like a knight rattling in full armor.
One night in 1928 when Django was playing with Maurice Alexander, another top accordionist, at the notorious rough dance hall La Java, a dapper little gent with a fat cigar offered him a job: Jack Hylton, the English Paul Whiteman, led a symphonic “jazz” dance orchestra and was immensely popular all over the Continent. He’d been told of Django’s special speedy way of improvising on top American pop song chord sequences.
The boy was thrilled by the offer. He’d been wanting to free himself from the strictures of the musette scene and eventually gravitate to America where the jazz and the cowboys came from. But, in a fire at the caravan later that night, Django was to lose the proper use of all but two fingers in his fretting hand.
With a singular determination he worked for months to develop a new technique—single string fingering all over the frets and a unique way of chording using the thumb. There was nothing like it in the Paris guitar world and soon he was in demand again, playing at Russian cabarets and in Hungarian orchestras, with a little jazzing thrown in. He never rode the Metro, he always took a taxi; his mother pressed his trousers with a razor crease; his wife carried him on her back from the caravan to the street so as to avoid his stepping in the constant mud and cess of la Zone.
After some typical wanderings around France with wife and child, Django found work in the Cote d’Azur in a dance band, dressed as a sailor. At La Boite a Matelots he dazzled a dilettante called Emile Savitry, a globe-trotter with a nice record collection of Maori folk songs and American hot jazz: The latest imports of the real thing—not slam-bang émigrés or Billy Arnold banister-sliding. Savitry invited Django to his apartment to introduce him to the hottest of the hot: Louis Armstrong. Django listened to “Indian Cradle Song”. Within seconds he was slumped with head in hands and muttering: “Ach moune!”— gypsy slang for complete stupefaction. He added that he’d found his “brother”.
Savitry’s records of duets by guitarist Eddie Lang and violinist Joe Venuti should have been more to his immediate taste. Oh yes, they impressed him — but these white Americans, although freer than the bal musette accordionists, were essentially melody men, syncopating around the tune. Armstrong, in contrast, was bouncing about on top of the chords, building something fresh and exciting from the bottom upwards rather than horizontally like the hectic but dainty plucking and picking of Lang and Venuti. At last here was a way out of the prison of melody and into the bulging, throbbing jungle of harmonic extension. Django knew nothing of theory — of flattened this and sharpened that — but like an explorer without maps, he was determined to plunge in regardless. A Romany, an outsider, wearing the true clothes of freedom. A star in his mind. Even so, he still had to make a living…
In the early 1930s Django had been discovered by the crooner Jean Sablon, a local Bing Crosby who knew how to caress the microphone and how to make the ladies swoon. He also knew the importance of having at his side a guitarist on the lines of Eddie Lang, a constant Crosby associate. At a recording date he allowed his discovery to contribute his first gypsy-jazz solo on “The Day You Came Along”, a French version of a recent Crosby hit.
Django now also took a crash course in becoming a fancy man. Sablon’s bandleader taught him the importance of shiny shoes, of cutting the fingernails and knotting the tie. Sablon, to make sure his accompanist made the date, had Django picked up from the caravan in a new Ford V8, complete with chauffeur.
In 1934 Django was persuaded to fly with the Sablon group for a London engagement. He’d refused the boat crossing because, he explained, the steamers were full of spies. At the swell Monseigneur nightclub in Piccadilly the crème de la crème adored the show, with ubiquitous party-boy the Prince of Wales coming every night. The English expressed in person and in the press their love for Django-- and he returned the compliment by purloining a set of the finest silk ties from an exclusive tailor’s shop in the Burlington Arcade.
Back in Paris Django got a comfy gig playing in a big band at the up-market Hotel Claridge on the swell Champs-Elysee. Tuxedoed and gowned guests at the afternoon tea dance may have been taken aback by the saturnine fellow with the midget gangster mustache pushing past them with an object wrapped in newspaper, but when the stranger started to play they became relaxed. For from the sleek and sallow guitarist came smooth and restful foxtrot phrases in the true American dance band manner. The band’s violinist, Stephane Grappelli, was already an admirer of the Django jazz style even if wary of his life-style. Grappelli had worked both street and conservatory and knew his music back to front. He also loved jazz. He and Django had some tentative duetting on recordings with Andre Eykan, a local sax man. When their rest break came at the tea dance and the tango orchestra took over, Grappelli and Reinhardt instituted a regular jam session backstage. Django’s kid brother Joseph supplied a much needed rhythm guitar to allow the star to shine. Louis Vola, one-time accordionist but now the tea dance bass player, anchored well. Thus was the first jazz string quartet born. There were no French songs, only American warhorses such as “Dinah” and “Sweet Georgia Brown”. No blaring horns, no beating drums. And no necessarily sweet strings. Racing fiddle and guitar. Who would win? French jazz at last!
The good news roiled around the rarified air of the Paris jazz scene. And so it was that the officers of the Hot Club of France (founded with full manifesto in 1932) came to inspect and to give their seal of approval.
These were men who lived and breathed hot music and wrote about it in little magazines, who knew every Bix solo note for note, who worshipped at the shrine of Louis Armstrong and took every bit of his scatting as gospel, who saw Paul Whiteman and Jack Hylton as mercenary devils, who were, like illicit Christians in Ancient Rome, on a mission to proselytize the true religion of Le Jazz Hot.
Roving native jazz practitioners like Django & Co. were easily outnumbered by these sedentary native jazz buffs, enthroned in chairs, swaying and muttering as rare American jazz 78s were spun at the club. Sometimes black émigré Americans were rounded up to form an extempore jam band. They desperately wanted their country, once the cultural world center, to be represented in the new religion. In 1932 their magazine, Jazz-Tango-Dancing, had laid it out plainly: “Our idea is to form an orchestra of hot jazz composed only of the best French musicians, and of course they will be devoted to hot music.”
And now, here at the Hotel Claridge, clandestinely jamming behind a stage full of execrable tango musicians and even more execrable accordions, was the Real Thing. Pronounced Hughes Panassie, a chateau dweller and current Ruler of the Hot Club: These Frenchmen, despite not being black, embrace the essence of jazz—they swing, and they are composers when they improvise, rightly discarding the banal melodies of the original Broadway and in Tin Pan Alley material. They take the mundane and they elevate it. Strings, so very French, could equal horns in the great jazz movement.
Panassie and the Hot Club officers set about promoting Reinhardt and Grappelli. Another guitar was added and the group was dubbed Le Quintette du Hot Club de France. Blessings were sought but there were setbacks — Andres Segovia, the famous classical guitarist, turned his back on Django; Louis Armstrong, honorary president of the club, was too busy dressing for a party to pay attention to the hotel suite swinging of Django and Stephane; Paris record companies were dubious. Too modernistique, pronounced one executive after listening to test pressings.
Undeterred and on a mission, the club rented prestigious concert halls to present their authentic find — and the public, at least the hot jazz enthusiasts, came and were conquered. Django himself was indifferent and taciturn with the fans. How many times did poor sensitive, responsible Stephane or club officials have to dash round to Django’s caravan and rouse him from slumber or pull him from a billiard hall or fishing spot? Recording dates were even more of a trial: Django was used to bedding around bed 7am — so a 10 am session was impossible. Cars and escorts eventually got him grumblingly there. Sometimes a guitar had to be supplied.
But it was, in the end, a series of superb and innovative recordings that spread the fame of the Hot Club Quintette around the world. Club branches as far afield as Egypt and America sprouted as a result. The British were the most excited: “The most remarkable thing about these French discs is that there is no aping of Venuti and Lang,” wrote Swing Music. “These boys have the style, the technique, the personality, the tone and attack, and above all, the sense of hot playing, to enable them to dispense with all imitation.” The Gramophone singled out Django: “(He has) the knack of sustaining one’s interest so grippingly by being able to twist his phrases about in such an unexpected and intriguing manner”.
The best records are still fresh today: Grappelli states the original tune elegantly, even sweetly; Django embroiders with dazzling harmony-based runs that reflect his Romany roots; the backing rhythm guitars sustain that tough, steady and speedy chug-chug tramp—La pompe, they called it. Then there’s Django’s violent and sudden thrashing, a device the boys described as “shaking the bunch of keys.” At times this thrash sounds aggressive, as if Django is furious with gentle Stephane—and the winner is the listener. Highly dramatic, startlingly original. “Dinah”, “After You’ve Gone”—the old American pop standards injected with new life. More than swing, more than mere dance music.
By 1939 and the eve of another war, Django had become a star of cabaret and concert — and how he loved it! He bought Stetsons and Fedoras, he sported a gold watch on each wrist, he exchanged the gypsy horse for mammoth American cars. He lounged in hotels surrounded by his countless “cousins” who ran the bathroom taps all night because the sound, like a babbling brook, reminded them of encampment life and let them sleep.
There was a stint as the house band at Bricktop’s smart new club, The Big Apple (American music only!) where Cole Porter came up to thank them for playing his songs. There were nights when Stephane stole so many choruses that Django left in a stew for a drink in the bar across the street or for a long look at the moon. How he loved nature! How shocking that none of these magnificently obsessed musicianers showed any interest in the war clouds lowering overhead!
Yet in a sort of artistic omniscience perhaps they were aware of the cataclysm to come. A reflective ballad like their own original “Billets Doux” has a bitter-sweet flavor, while “Nuages” —another melancholy beauty that Django had been assembling in 1939 — brings the whole tragic European deluge debacle home in a pretty package edged in black.
They had been working on this cloud number, with its haunting and well-used ninth chords, backstage in July while on the first leg of a doomed tour of Britain. Starring on music hall bills that included comics, magicians and ventriloquists, the Hot Club Quintette were at the top of their form, in a formal — even stiff—line on stage. But they wowed everyone from diehard jazz fans to plain old mums and dads.
On the morning of September 3, while the band was back in were in London, there was a sudden wail of air raid sirens. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had just announced on the BBC that Britain was at war with Germany.
Django shouted up to Stephane from the street below their hotel. He was going home: “ And if you don’t come down straightaway, I’m off without you!" Stephane shouted back: “Go on then!”
That was the last time they saw each other till after the war. Stephane remained in England, playing in a band with blind pianist/accordionist George Shearing, doing their bit for the war effort. Django stuck it out in occupied France, living it up as a star, loved and protected by Nazi officers.
“Nuages” became a beloved hit of the war, expressing French sadness and an acceptance of fate.
Grappelli and Reinhardt reunited after hostilities ended but it was never quite the same as in the pre-war days. When Django suddenly died in 1953 at age 43 his caravan, as dictated by manouche gypsy rules, was burned to the ground. Among his few possessions was his special Selmer steel-stringed guitar.
“Ah”, reflected Grappelli later, “What troubles he gave me! I think I would rather play with lesser musicians and have a peaceable time than with Django and his monkey business!” But, he added, “If I had a friend in my life it was him”.
The fiddle was always wrapped in a silk scarf that the guitarist had once given him.
And thriving today, in worldwide homage, are countless Hot Club recreation groups thrashing and fiddling and trying their best to resemble the magical ensemble that for a short spell cooked real French jazz, with lots of Romany sauce stirred in.
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer,
composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and
Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to ianwhitcomb.com