Decades after his death, Django Reinhardt is a star


One of the world’s leading proponents of the music of Gypsy jazz innovator Django Reinhardt, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday Saturday, guitarist John Jorgenson offered illuminating anecdotes and back stories about Reinhardt’s life and songs when he performed last weekend before an intimate crowd of about 100 people packed into what’s normally a guitar showroom at Culver City’s Boulevard Music store.

But it wasn’t the historical tales, nor the informed musical elucidation from Jorgenson that transfixed three children, all under 10, who looked on with delight from the front row during the performance by Jorgenson’s hot-jazz quintet. It was Reinhardt’s singularly ebullient music, joyously pure and direct, that pulled them in, the same way it has continued to win new audiences since his death from a stroke more than 50 years ago.

“I never thought this was anything I would do for a main gig,” said Jorgenson, 53, who spent seven years in the ‘90s in Elton John’s touring band and another half-dozen with Byrds founding member Chris Hillman fronting the Desert Rose Band, the boundary-pushing ‘80s and ‘90s country-rock group. “It was what I always did for fun.”

This year’s centennial -- he was born Jean Baptiste Reinhardt in Belgium and grew up in Gypsy camps outside Paris -- has spurred a wealth of live performances and recordings celebrating his spirited transformation of American jazz into a hard-swinging pan-European-flavored potpourri.

“I love to play Gypsy jazz,” Jorgenson said, “because it has the elegance and virtuosity of classical music, the fire and romanticism of Gypsy music, the swing and improvisation of jazz, the string band sound of bluegrass and the energy of rock, all in a very accessible package that’s extremely listenable.”

All the more impressive considering that Reinhardt, a self-taught player, lost the use of two fingers on his left hand when he was 18 in a caravan fire, yet still became one of the most dazzling instrumentalists of the 20th century, as well as the composer of more than 100 songs.

Jorgenson has two Reinhardt-centric albums coming out next month: “One Stolen Night,” a work featuring his combo modeled on Reinhardt’s ground-breaking Quintet of the Hot Club of France and consisting largely of Jorgenson’s original tunes; and “Istiqbal Gathering,” an ambitious collaboration with Orchestra Nashville of Jorgenson’s symphonic compositions for Gypsy jazz guitar and full orchestra. Two of his pieces also feature the genre-busting Turtle Island String Quartet.

Jorgenson will have company. On Tuesday, New York guitarist Frank Vignola releases his latest Reinhardt salute, “100 Years of Django,” consisting of 10 of his favorite Reinhardt compositions.

“It’s very infectious music,” Vignola said from a tour stop in Missouri. “There’s a tremendous amount of passion he had in his playing. A lot of guitar players, I think, when they hear Django and emulate him, they just want to emulate his speed. But you listen to old Django records, and he was playing with such great sense of melody and expression, his use of vibrato and the way he bends notes. It’s very passionate music.”

Vignola is marking the Reinhardt centennial on a tour with violinist Mark O’Connor, the esteemed instrumentalist, composer and teacher who once studied with Reinhardt’s longtime collaborator, French violinist Stephane Grappelli. Last weekend they played the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to mark the 102nd anniversary of Grappelli’s birth.

In addition, French Gypsy guitarist Dorado Schmitt brings his ensemble to Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood for three nights starting Tuesday, followed by a pair of performances Friday and Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center’s Samueli Theater in Costa Mesa. Activities continue well into the year locally, with the annual Djangofest L.A. slated for April 24-26 in Laguna Beach, with headliners Gonzalo Bergara and Fishtank Ensemble.

Other top Gypsy jazz purveyors working today include Patrick “Romane” Leguidcoq, the Netherlands-based Rosenberg Trio and French guitarist Bireli Lagrene.

But Reinhardt’s impact extends far beyond those who follow directly in his footsteps.

“Every major guitarist on the planet, every one of them was influenced by Django, from Paul McCartney to Keith Richards to Les Paul to Tommy Emmanuel, they were all influenced by him,” Vignola said. “It’s fascinating: The two major guitarists of the last 100 years were Les Paul and Django Reinhardt [and] when Les heard Django’s records, he would copy all of Django’s licks, and when Django heard Les, the first thing he did was switch to electric guitar.”

Vignola was raised on Reinhardt’s music, along with that of American guitarists including Paul and Joe Pass. He knew Paul for a quarter of a century before his death in August at age 94, and worked closely with him for five years. During that time, Vignola said the electric-guitar and recording innovator often spoke of his friendship with Reinhardt in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, and his plans to take him on tour in the U.S. when he and wife Mary Ford were in the midst of a streak of hit records such as “How High the Moon.”

“You could see when Les would talk about him, he would get so melancholy,” Vignola said. “He had it all planned out: He was going to make Django a star in America, that’s how much he believed in his music. And if anybody had the power to do it at that time, it was Les. But that was in 1952, and then Django died in 1953.”

For many years after that, fans of Reinhardt’s music constituted something of a secret society. Because he drew upon so many different elements, he was essentially orphaned: not strictly jazz, classical, folk or country. Yet he always has been lionized by fellow musicians.

Jorgenson was turned onto Reinhardt’s work by fellow musicians in 1979, and even then, a quarter-century after his death, he recalls, “It was so underground. Nobody knew anything about this guy, the music, or how you play it, or what guitars you use. It was very much like an investigative thing.”

Vignola helped push Reinhardt’s name into the spotlight in New York in 1988 with a series of performances covered by major media outlets. After that, Woody Allen saluted Reinhardt’s legend in his film “Sweet and Lowdown,” Johnny Depp played a Reinhardt-like character in the hit film “Chocolat,” which also featured Reinhardt’s signature “Minor Swing” and other tunes. And then the Internet boomed.

“Suddenly all these Django fans were able to find each other,” said Jorgenson, who in 2005 became the first American musician to headline the world’s premiere Reinhardt festival in Samois-sur-Seine, the small French town near Fountainbleu where the guitarist lived out the last years of his life.

“There was a band called Pearl Django up in Seattle,” Jorgenson said. “They had been to Samois and had seen the scene over there. They had gotten some radio play, enough so that they wanted to try a festival here. So they did, at Whidbey Island, and it was a big success. All of a sudden we’ve got Django festivals in America, whereas 10 or 15 years ago, no one even knew who he was. It all kind of converged to allow me to have a forum to play this music, and I’m so appreciative of that.”

Noted Vignola, “All over the world now, every town has at least one Hot Club-style group. Every town . . . He was an amazing musician. If there was one guy in the world I could have met and played with, it would have been Django.”