Kuumbwa Jazz celebrates guitarist Django Reinhardt’s 100th birthday in style
It’s hard to imagine a more daunting task for a musician than to try to fill Django Reinhardt’s shoes. Nearly 60 years after the celebrated gypsy jazz guitarist’s death, Reinhardt remains one of the world’s most revered jazz musicians. His superhuman chops are all the more impressive in light of the adverse circumstances with which the musician had to work: As most guitar fans know, the Belgian-born maestro was badly injured in a fire at age 18. The mishap rendered Reinhardt’s right leg—and, more distressingly, the third and fourth fingers of his left hand—paralyzed. Thwarting doctors’ attempts to amputate the injured leg, and ignoring their claims that his guitar-playing days were over, Reinhardt re-taught himself not only to walk within a year, but also to play guitar by way of a completely reinvented approach. He performed his intricate, high-speed guitar solos with the two fully operative fingers of his left hand, while he used that hand’s two partially paralyzed fingers to play chords.
Even with all four fretting fingers in full working order, precious few guitarists are capable of doing Reinhardt’s music justice. One highly notable exception is Dorado Schmitt, the winner of Europe’s Django award in 2000 and the man widely considered to be the heir to Reinhardt’s throne. (You may have heard his music in the French documentary film Latcho Drom.) Schmitt has lived and breathed Django’s music from an early age. Introduced to Reinhardt’s playing by his father at age 7, he refined his guitar playing technique by copying all of Reinhardt’s licks, right down to the most challenging solos.
“Jazz is an art form that demands a striving for authenticity. We do not try to recreate Django, but do our own interpretation of that music. The group is very spontaneous. It’s the gypsy tradition! You have to be flexible and keep your eyes and ears open.” —brian torff
It’s impossible to miss the parallels between Schmitt’s story and Reinhardt’s: On Feb. 23, 1988, a near-fatal car crash left Schmitt in a coma for 11 days. Having sustained 35 fractures and undergone several operations, Schmitt was in physical therapy for years. Like Django, however, he persevered, ultimately fully regaining his ability to play guitar.
This weekend, Jan. 23, marks Django Reinhardt’s 100th birthday. In honor of the occasion, Dorado Schmitt and his gypsy jazz group (Schmitt, his son Samson on guitar, accordionist Marcel Loeffler, violinist Pierre Blanchard and bassist/musical director Brian Torff) launched a cross-country tour that began Jan. 16 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The group plays two shows at Kuumbwa Jazz on Monday, Jan. 25.
Pat Philips, one half of Stratta Philips Productions (strattaphilips.com), the New York concert team presenting the “Django at 100” concert, describes Schmitt as “a great musician with amazing charisma and star quality.” Schmitt is a frequent performer at the Django Reinhardt NY Festival, which Philips and her partner Ettore Stratta have presented at the New York City club Birdland every year since 2000. Philips notes that the lineup of the Django Reinhardt tribute group changes frequently, but “Dorado as a leader knows how to work with the varying musicians no matter what the group is.”
Philips says it was French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, with whom Reinhardt founded the group Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934, who originally turned her and Stratta on to gypsy music. In the late ’80s, Grappelli, who had a long working relationship with Philips and Stratta, suggested that the pair go to Holland to meet Dutch guitar virtuoso Jimmy Rosenberg (then only 9 years old) and hear this exciting music for themselves. Following Grappelli’s advice, the partners spent a weekend in the gypsy camp among the caravans where Rosenberg lived. “We got caught up with the whole atmosphere,” Philips recalls. “Not only did we hear and see the brilliance of Jimmy when he was so young, but [we also witnessed] the atmosphere with the families. Everyone was into this music; everyone gathered around in someone’s caravan or small house to play and/or listen—even 3-year-olds. The music is binding.”
Philips adds that having worked with this music directly in concerts and recordings for more than 10 years, she and Stratta have formed relationships with many artists and become a part of the musicians’ lives. As a result, they’re more hooked on gypsy jazz than ever before.
Brian Torff, bassist and musical director for the Django tribute group that will appear at Kuumbwa Jazz, is similarly enthusiastic about the music. “I think people love acoustic music that is played with virtuosity,” he offers. “It has a warmth that makes gypsy jazz very appealing to even a non-jazz audience.”
Torff, who toured extensively with Reinhardt’s aforementioned musical partner Stephane Grappelli prior to the violinist’s death in 1997, says the group must avoid replicating Reinhardt’s music in order to stay true to the spirit of it. “Jazz is an art form that demands a striving for authenticity,” he notes. “We do not try to recreate Django, but do our own interpretation of that music.” This demands that the musicians fly by the seats of their pants. “The group is very spontaneous,” the bassist says. “It’s the gypsy tradition! You have to be flexible and keep your eyes and ears open.”
Monday’s concert should inspire longtime Django fans and make believers out of newcomers. As Philips states, “There is a need for joyous, romantic music these days, and this music never fails. A gypsy ballad makes you feel all those wonderful things that seem to be missing in a lot of today’s popular music: It is fun, swinging, very melodic, romantic. There’s a joyousness to it that reaches people’s hearts, makes them happy and feel part of the whole experience.”
Django Reinhardt Festival’s “Django at 100” takes place at 7 and 9 p.m. Monday, Jan. 25, at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25 in advance or $28 at the door for the 7 p.m. show; $20 in advance or $23 at the door for the 9 p.m. show. For more information, call 427-2227 or visit kuumbwajazz.org.