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Jazz Appreciation Month: 21st-Century Gypsies

Portrait of Django Reinhardt, Aquarium, New York, N.Y., ca. Nov. 1946
William P. Gottlieb Collection (Library of Congress)
Public domain
Portrait of Django Reinhardt, Aquarium, New York, N.Y., ca. Nov. 1946

The uplifting and swinging sound of gypsy jazz is no spring chicken. It’s pushing 90. So Nick Morrison decided to see how it was aging into the 21st century. Here’s his report.

The style of jazz known as "gypsy jazz" was born in France in the early 1930s and embodied by a group called The Quintet Of The Hot Club Of France, led by guitarist Django Reinhardt. Today, almost 90 years later, Django is basically the one-man Mount Rushmore of Gypsy Jazz—legendary and inspiring. Here he is in the Quintet’s 1938 recording of Fats Waller’s "Honeysuckle Rose."

Pretty good, right? Even without considering the fact that Django only had the use of two fingers on his left hand … while most guitarists employ four fingers and, in a pinch, a thumb. 

Pun intended. But for now, that’s by the way. Let’s take a look at what 21st-century gypsy jazz bands and players are up to, starting with the one closest to home, the Northwest’s Pearl Django. Though faithful to Django’s spirit, their instrumental configuration diverges from that of The Hot Club and most other gypsy jazz bands, which is three guitars, a violin and a bassist. Pearl Django, in more of the Romanian style of gypsy jazz, adds an accordion to their arsenal. This carefree little number is called "Prozac Musette" and features accordionist David Lange.

One of the exciting things about 21st-century gypsy jazz bands is their willingness to take somewhat more recent, straight-ahead jazz classics and put a gypsy spin on them. For instance, here’s The Hot Club Of Detroit, adding accordion AND saxophone to take a swing at Miles Davis’ "Seven Steps To Heaven."

But wait. If contemporary gypsy jazz can put its stamp on the mainstays of mainstream jazz, can mainstream jazz groups put its own spin on Gypsy classics? You bet. 

Here’s the fearless and peerless saxophonist James Carter taking a beautiful Django Reinhardt composition and moving it from Paris in the 1930s to today’s jazz scene on New York’s Upper West Side.

The one small drawback to many of Django’s sublime songs is that the titles are in French. This one, for instance. I absolutely adore the song, but I can’t pronounce its name. So I asked the French lady in my computer to do it for me ... so you could find it if you want. Madame. “Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure.” And wasn’t that helpful. You’re welcome … good luck … and good day.

Nick began working at KNKX as a program host in the late 1980’s and, with the exception of a relatively brief hiatus, has been with the station ever since. Along with his work as a Midday Jazz host, Nick worked for several years as KNKX’s Music Director. He is now the station’s Production Manager and also serves as a fill-in host on KNKX’s jazz and blues programs.