Quintette du Hot Club de France

Back when I was initially taking guitar lessons (20 B.C. or so), I wanted to learn all the three-chord rock n’ roll I could stand. My guitar teacher had other ideas. He wanted me to learn about Barney Kessel, Joe Pass, and all those jazz guys. And especially about a guy named Django Reinhardt….

Jean “Django” Reinhardt was a Frenchman born in Belgium in 1910. His ethnicity was Romani, often referred to as gypsy. (Europeans believed they came from Egypt.) At an early age, he started playing guitar and violin. By the time he was 15, he was good enough to make a living playing guitar. Soon after, he started making recordings and his reputation grew, at least in Europe.

When he was eighteen, Reinhardt was nearly killed when his caravan caught fire. He was badly burned and – worse for him as a professional musician – he permanently lost the use of the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand. Overcoming all the odds, he taught himself to play using only his thumb and two fingers.

During the Twenties and Thirties, he and one of his distant cousins, Sophie Ziegler (whom he later married), traveled throughout France, with Django playing small clubs. Until this time he had also been playing the banjo. But somewhere during this time period, he started focusing exclusively on guitar, famously favoring the Selmer line. It wasn’t until Django heard Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington that he realized he wanted to be a jazz musician.

Nineteen-thirty-four turned out to be a fortuitous year for Django. Commissioned along with other musicians to play the Hotel Claridge in Paris (still there), he met violinist Stéphane Grappelli. Joined by Roger Chaput on guitar, Louis Vola on bass and Django’s brother Joseph on guitar, they formed Quintette du Hot Club de France. (So-named for the Hot Club de France, a somewhat purist jazz society that functions to this day.)

The quintet soon came to the attention of a small label called Ultraphone. Some of the early sides they recorded were tunes such as, “Dinah,” “Tiger Rag,” and the Gershwin’s “Oh Lady Be Good,” and “I Got Rhythm.”

Spotify link

The band’s style of swing jazz or “gypsy jazz” quickly became popular in Europe. (One can hardly imagine a Woody Allen movie without either New Orleans jazz or Quintet-era swing. In fact, Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown is about a 1930’s guitarist who worships Django. “Django was the definitive genius on the guitar, and the depth of his gift was so spectacular,” says Allen, a clarinetist himself.)

It’s funny, but just as much as I like listening to the solos, I find I enjoy that rigid guitar rhythm as well. I saw this interesting write-up in Wikipedia:

“Rhythm guitar in gypsy jazz uses a special form of strumming known as “la pompe”, i.e. “the pump”. This form of percussive rhythm is similar to the “boom-chick” in bluegrass styles. It is what gives the music its fast swinging feeling, as it emphasizes beats two and four, a vital feature of swing. This pattern is usually played in unison by two or more guitarists in the rhythm section.

They recorded dozens of songs for a variety of labels. You can see a listing here as well as a recitation of band members beyond the original five.

Here’s a tasty little Fats Waller song, “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Waller was an early twentieth-century pianist who did much to popularize the “stride” style of piano:

Spotify link

The band continued touring, winding up in London in 1939, where they were actually playing when England declared war on Germany. Django returned to France while Grappelli remained in England. By some miracle, Django escaped the fate of many of his people who were rounded up and sent to Nazi concentration camps.

On returning to France, Django composed his most famous song, “Nuages.” The song was so popular, it became a de facto national anthem when “La Marseillaise,” was banned by the Vichy government:

Spotify link

Django continued using the Quintet name, sometimes actually employing more than five players. He went to America, playing a few shows with his idol, Duke Ellington. Grappelli continued on in London, playing with a variety of musicians. He and Django reunited in 1946 and played for a few more years. Effectively the Quintet was a spent force by 1948-1949.

Grappelli played with almost everyone you can think of from Paul Simon to Yehudi Menuhin, to … Pink Floyd? According to Wikipedia: “Grappelli recorded a solo for the title track of Wish You Were Here.

This was made almost inaudible in the mix, and so the violinist was not credited, according to Roger Waters as it would be “a bit of an insult”. A remastered version, with Grappelli’s contribution fully audible, can be found on the 2011 Experience and Immersion editions of Wish You Were Here.”

For the curious, here it is. (YouTube only, can’t find on Spotify.) I wouldn’t call it Stéphane’s greatest solo. But who cares? Just the idea that a 1930’s swing jazz musician from a completely different era is playing with a prog-rock band is enough to blow my mind.

In 1953, at the age of 43 years old, Django Reinhardt collapsed and died of a brain hemorrhage in Samois-Sur-Seine, France where he had been living. Stéphane Grappelli died in 1997 at the age of 89.

Django Reinhardt is considered, quite simply, one of the greatest and most influential guitarists, jazz or otherwise, who ever lived. There is almost no guitarist who has not paid tribute to him or that he has not influenced. Country guitarist Chet Atkins considered him one of the greatest of all time. Jeff Beck described Reinhardt as “by far the most astonishing guitar player ever” and “quite superhuman.”

Rumor has it that Hendrix named Band of Gypsys for him but I cannot corroborate this. Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers wrote the song “Jessica” as a tribute to Reinhardt in that it was designed to be played using only two fingers on the left hand.

The Quintet of the Hot Club of France is considered one of the most influential jazz units ever. To this day there are bands and hot clubs all over the world that play “gypsy jazz.” And there are several festivals devoted to Django, most notably the Festival Django Reinhardt in Samois-Sur-Seine, about 75 km south of Paris.

Remember – it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

 

 

13 thoughts on “Quintette du Hot Club de France

  1. I’m listening to ‘Nuages as I type. What a good way to start the day! Popped over to the Floyd thing, yeah that fits. Great find (Where do you find all this stuff?). Love that tune.
    When you said you were going back to the 30’s you had me guessing, you being a guitar guy it kinda clicked. Hard to keep this short Doc but I’ll try. I came to Django through Grappelli (CB is a violin/sax kinda guy) who I am a big fan of. I have lots of his sides (first dip was him and Oscar Peterson). So over my musical journey both guys have been played at my pad a lot. You know I’m a big Hicks fan and his music is a direct descendant of these two.
    Your piece is excellent. To cover all that in such a succinct manner. I watched a doc on Django a while back, the injury to the hand and what he created is a story in itself. I tip my hat to you on a job well done. You talk about swing, this music is all over that. One last thing, the impact that Duke and Louis had on music is undeniable. You’re singing to the choir on this one.

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    1. It’s always gratifying to know that if I post about something that is maybe a bit esoteric, that there are fellow travelers out there. Those guys together, man, one of a kind. Imagine Grappelli playing with Floyd! Crazy to think of. You’re right about the Hicks connection. Hadn’t thought about this.

      Side note – I tried to comment on your site about “Deer Hunter” for a second time. Slipped into your spam box again near as I can tell. So, not sure if I’ll be able to contribute over there. Maybe Word Press support can figure out what’s going on.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I always liked the acoustic sound of the Floyd song so it makes perfect sense. I’m a fellow traveler for sure. I always loved Sonny Rollins on the Stones ‘Waiting For a Friend’ One of my fave Stones songs. (I can smell a Doc post coming). Again, great post.
        Falda is going to have a look at that spam thing for me tomorrow. I’d be interested in your take.

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        1. What you had to say about ‘Deer Hunter’. Spam is going to be looked into today. I don’t get why some comments get through and other don’t? We’ll see what happens.
          On the jazz guys playing with rock guys, i have a few at the top of my head. Chet Baker with Elvis Costello on ‘Shipbuilding’

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        2. I think that once a commenter falls into spam, they stay there until retrieved. The mystery is why they wind up there at all. I think that Word Press makes reasonable guesses about what is and is not spam. But sometimes gets it wrong. I know that as soon as someone makes a comment on my site and it disappears I head right for the old spam box.

          ‘Shipbuilding’ is a special fave of my wife’s.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. I looked at your instructions on the spam thing last time but some of the icons weren’t up for me. Faldas pretty good so we’ll see.
          I’m with the wife on that one. First time I heard it I had no idea, I’m listening and then this great trumpet solo kicks in and it had that Chet sound. Lo and behold it was him. Amazing you found that Grappelli thing. That was a little treat for CB

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I have to admit I haven’t heard much Django, despite hearing so many other guitar greats rave about him. I saw Grappelli at a jazz festival outside Cleveland in 1984. He and Oscar Peterson were the highlights. There’s nothing like hearing great jazz, outdoors, in the summer.

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  3. OK Doc here it is. You know how much I dig Dan Hicks and mentioned him above in one of my comments. When he had his band the ‘Acoustic Warriors’. One of the guitarists in the version of the band I saw was a guy named Paul Mehling. The guy could and still can play. So here’s the kick. I was looking him up a while back and came across something that i think might interest you. It fits in with this take you did on Django, your guitar playing and just your appreciation of good music. He has a band called The Hot Club of San Francisco and an album ‘John Paul George and Django’. It’s like Django and Stephane are playing one of your favorite bands music. It’s real good Doc. Not a throw away group of covers. The paying is fantastic and I think you will agree, being a musician and a fan. (I go from KC ripping it up to this. I’m listening as I type. I like violin and this has lots of the stuff I dig).

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