Django Reinhardt and the vagabond sound
Getting joyously lost in the dark alleys, flea markets and guitar workshops of Gypsy jazz
The 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".
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
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
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.
himself seems to have managed to tread the fine line between resistance and survival.
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.
In search of Django Reinhardt and the soul of Gypsy swing
333pp. Oxford University Press.