Django Reinhardt and the vagabond sound

Getting joyously lost in the dark alleys, flea markets and guitar workshops of Gypsy jazz

John Mole

book cover of Gypsy JazzThe great jazz pianist Earl Hines used to say, when he was exploring new musical territory, that if you saw him smiling you knew he was lost.
Turn the phrase on its head and the same could be said of Michael Dregni, Django Reinhardt's biographer and now the sleuthing author of Gypsy Jazz: whenever he gets lost you know that he's smiling, and when he finds what he's looking for, he's in seventh heaven.
"In search of Django Reinhardt and the soul of Gypsy swing", as the subtitle has it, Dregni journeys across Europe, following a trail which leads him down enticingly dark alleys into Romany caravan sites, backstreet bars, flea markets and out-of-the-way guitar workshops to meet and interview Reinhardt's musical heirs.
In the closing chapter, he jams with the maestro's nineteen-year-old grandson ("I muddle through the tune and receive a satisfied bien"), then falls asleep on the train back to Paris "exhausted by this most dangerous of all guitar lessons".
For Dregni, the "dapper swing, incandescent improvisation and deep emotion" of Reinhardt's playing is "joy made song".
And if he tells you once he'll tell you again: when he puts a record on the turntable it's "as if the grooves cannot contain all the joy in this song".
Likewise, the headlong progress of his narrative has difficulty containing all the enthusiasm with which he travels, but it is impossible not to get caught up in his adventures.
Gypsy jazz is a vagabond music made by musicians who live "portable lives" as fugitive members of a conservatoire des caravanes, and in tracking them down Dregni is as resourceful as they are elusive.
One of his searches - for the history of Baro Ferret and his Romany guitar dynasty - is "like venturing down a dark alley at midnight"; on another occasion he returns to the Cirque Tsigane in a Parisian encampment where he had stood six months previously "as if in an enchantment" but now, like Le Grand Meaulnes, "can't seem to find the alleyway . . . .
Maybe I was dreaming it all".
Dregni clearly relishes the romantic confluence of magic and danger which informs the soul of Gypsy swing.
The image and spirit of Reinhardt preside over the book, and its opening chapters tell his story with an emphasis on the miraculous.
From the start he was not merely born but "came into the world", the locked glass case in the Cité de la Musique which contains one of his Selmer guitars "could and should be a shrine", while the soundboard of the guitar itself is "polished smooth like an effigy's shined nose, the frets worn down like a cathedral's steps by penitents on their knees".
Dregni stands in La Java, a crumbling old bal musette, and imagines the twelve-year-old Reinhardt strumming out his first rhythm lines; later, he attends the Romany pilgrimage at Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and is surprised to hear the Gypsy congregation singing religious lyrics to the tune of Reinhardt's most famous composition, "Nuages".
The tone is one of continual awe and wonder, but Dregni manages to pack in a lot of information.
He is excellent on the musical crosscurrents within the tradition, both in Europe and the US - on how it has absorbed developments in jazz from the bop revolution onwards, and even embraced rap.
A guitarist himself, he knows the difference between a Selmer and a Gibson and the techniques required to get the best out of each.
He describes in detail how, among Romany guitarists, the devotion to a good plectrum is "near mystical".
Some readers may feel that he tends to fall to his knees rather too often, but anyone at all familiar with his subject will recognize that he knows his music.
Gypsy Jazz is also illuminating as a study, historical and sociological, of Romany culture, not least in its account of life under Nazi occupation.
Reinhardt himself seems to have managed to tread the fine line between resistance and survival.
His recording of "Nuages" sold more than 100,000 copies in Paris, becoming, as Dregni puts it, "both a war-lorn orison and an ersatz national anthem".
When he was requested to bring his quintet to perform in Berlin for the High Command, he countered by requiring an exorbitant fee, having vowed never to enter Germany, and when he was told that he had no choice he simply engineered his disappearance with that characteristic Romany flair for which, throughout this book, Dregni displays such admiration.

Michael Dregni
GYPSY JAZZ
In search of Django Reinhardt and the soul of Gypsy swing 333pp. Oxford University Press.