Starring the Young Lions of Gypsy Jazz

By Elizabeth Ahlfors

Birdland  –  June 28 – July 3, 2011

For twelve years, November has been Birdland’s traditional season for celebrating the jubilant swing of Jean “Django” Reinhardt with jazz musicians from around the world. This summer, Birdland added a second festival, proving that for a jolt of pure joyful music, the spirit and sound of this legendary gypsy jazz guitarist is irresistible, an earthy exuberance not to be missed.

Django Reinhardt (1910 to 1953) has influenced most of the great guitarists who followed, like Les Paul, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, B.B. King, and Chet Atkins. Reinhardt’s guitar finger-work has echoed through the Texas string bands of the 1930s into country music today. In contemporary cabaret, he has influenced guitarists like Bucky and John Pizzarelli and jazz violinist Aaron Weinstein. In fact, Reinhardt spent his early years in Paris cabarets with Jean Sablon, later joining with Stéphane Grappelli to form one of the greatest jazz partnerships in Europe, the Quintette du Hot Club de France in pre-war 1930s. Their “hot jazz” has been used in numerous films, like Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown, for which Bucky Pizzarelli and Howard Alden contributed to the soundtrack. The hot jazz mix of romance and brio was also used in films like Chocolat, The Matrix, and Stardust Memories.

Reinhardt learned Manouche gypsy jazz as a child, but an accidental fire in 1928 threatened any future for the teenaged musician. It severely injured his legs and hands. He learned to walk again but never regained the use of the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand. Persevering, he devised a new method of using those fingers on the fretboard and brought his unique style of driving rhythm and intricate harmonies to the jazz clubs of Paris and around Europe.

“It’s the hippest music out there, at least in my opinion,” said co-producer of the Festival, Pat Philips, in an interview with “I don’t think there’s any comparison. It’s very romantic, melodic, very swinging; it gets inside you and makes you feel great—and I’m talking kids, all the way to old people. I just think it’s hip and cutting edge forever.”

With her co-producer, Ettore Stratta, and Gianni Valenti, owner of Birdland, Philips has hosted this Festival since it began at the legendary club. They called in many of the key players of Romany gypsy jazz, not to form a band but just to get together for a few days and make music. American bass player Brian Torff was the regular musical director, introducing the other musicians and sometimes, not always, naming the tunes. This week featured Samson Schmitt, the son of French gypsy guitarist Dorado Schmitt. Sweden sent renowned jazz guitarist Andreas Öberg. Another regular was Ludovic Beier on accordion and accordina (which resembles a mix of harmonica and small accordion), and the immensely talented French violinist Pierre Blanchard. Playing rhythm guitar was France’s Doudou Cuilerier, often called “Mr. Django,” who, incidentally, showed an additional talent for fantastic scat singing. Let’s just say he used his face as well as his voice. He also demonstrated a talent for foreign accents, singing “Undecided” (Sid Robin, Charlie Shavers) with a precise American accent. This was a crowd-pleaser. On Friday and Saturday nights, the special guest was Edmar Castañeda, playing jazz on a Columbian harp.

Though the warmth and enthusiasm of Reinhardt’s music are always evident, the Festival musicians are not glued to the 1930s and ’40s. Reinhardt, himself, was eclectic, venturing into evocative solos and discordant bebop along with roots of strong swing, dazzling technique and a distinctive European melodic link. Öberg, versatile in fusion and bebop as well as gypsy jazz, added an up-to-date rhythm to his gypsy guitar, scatting along to “This Can’t Be Love” (Rodgers & Hart). Beier, on the accordina, paired with guitarist Schmitt to deliver the seductive beauty of Reinhardt’s “Souvenirs.” In the ensemble’s up-tempo “Them There Eyes” (Maceo Pinkard, Doris Tauber, William Tracey), flittering fingers raced over accordion and strings in a vortex of traded ideas.

“The Young Lions of Gypsy Jazz,” while not fluent in English, are dazzling making music. Most are young, many in their 20’s, demonstrating that Django Reinhardt’s Manouche gypsy jazz possesses the musical elasticity to elicit international acclaim over a quarter of a century later. This is what Reinhardt struggled to achieve before his early death at age 43, which is to create music that continues to get inside you and make you feel good.