Monthly Archives: July 2010

Django

If there’s a gig at any jazz festival which is guaranteed to attract and delight punters who ordinarily wouldn’t touch jazz with a five-foot pole, it’s the one with the Django Reinhardt-inspired band. Thanks to the fact that, over the last 25 years, the genius gypsy jazz guitarist’s extremely accessible style of music has been heard on everything from Renault Clio adverts to movie soundtracks (Belleville Rendez-Vous, Chocolat), it’s familiar beyond the jazz world – and popular in its own right.

The Edinburgh Jazz Festival, in one of its smarter moves, has picked up on this year’s centenary of the guitar legend and has even more Reinhardt-style bands in its programme than usual. Reinhardt – actually, I’m going to call him Django, because nobody ever calls him by his surname – may have been dead for over five decades but his pioneering gypsy jazz guitar playing and legacy of recordings have undoubtedly inspired more imitators and tribute bands than any other jazz musician’s.

Why? Well, there are various reasons. One is that he was the greatest and the first; a true original who fused his native gypsy music with the swinging jazz that he heard on American records in the early 1930s. You only need to watch Woody Allen’s Sweet And Lowdown – the fictional story of “the world’s second-greatest guitar player” – to see how a musician could become obsessed with mastering the Django style. There are, unsurprisingly, an awful lot of Django anoraks out there.

If you’re a natural-born show-off who’s a gifted guitar player, imitating Django’s digital gymnastics is a sure-fire way of grabbing attention – while cashing in on the Reinhardt name. Similarly, a band with a variation on the classic Django/Hot Club line-up of three guitars, bass and violin (or clarinet) can also exploit the listening public’s love affair with Django’s gypsy jazz.

Another reason for the proliferation of Djangly bands is that the best-loved part of his output – the recordings he made as a member of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France in the 1930s and 1940s – is simply some of the happiest, most uplifting jazz there is. It’s sophisticated but easy to appreciate, and Django’s colourful and flamboyant flights of fancy – all the more impressive when you realise he was limited to the use of only two fingers on his left hand as the result of burns sustained in a fire when he was 18 – have been credited with paving the way for such great rock guitarists as Jimi Hendrix.

For me, Django’s appeal is multi-faceted. As both an improviser and a composer (of such beautiful ballads as Manoir de Mes Reves, My Serenade or his big hit, Nuages), he has a unique way with a melody; on slow numbers in particular there’s an ethereal, melancholy quality which is unmistakably his. Faster tunes showcase his wit and astounding dexterity. On solo numbers, or numbers with guitar and bass accompaniment, he brings so much drama and excitement that when you play them back in your mind you feel sure there was another soloist in there: play I’ll See You In My Dreams and hear what I mean.

In Django’s hands, the most familiar tunes go off in unexpected directions. Just listen to the wonderful, bright and optimistic-sounding chord with which he prefaces the chorus of the Marseillaise (renamed Echos de France) on the first recording he made when he was reunited with Stephane Grappelli after the war.

Of course his partnership with Grappelli is another reason for loving Django. That they came together in the early 1930s – they hit it off when they were both in a dance band at Paris’s Claridge Hotel – was fortuitous, but the fact they were able to keep the sparks flying throughout their collaboration is something to be thankful for. Their recordings in the late 1930s are as thrilling as the first ones, and even after a six-year separation during the war years, the magic was still there. Their partnership is one of the miracles of jazz. The recordings these men made as part of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France simply exude joie-de-vivre. Their playing, while dazzling in its virtuosity, has a warmth and casual but jaunty elegance about it that defeats many of their imitators who may be wizards at mastering the technique but can’t conjure up the jubilant, spontaneous spirit of that archetypal French jazz band.

And the Frenchness, that certain quelque chose – in this case, a beguiling mixture of playfulness, whimsy and laid-back charm – is another factor in my love affair with Django and his music. Of course, his playing was an expression of his restless personality which many friends and colleagues described as infuriating. He was an unconventional, lackadaisical and often unreliable character who had to be taken in hand by the older Grappelli to get the recordings done.

This was a guy who kept a pet monkey, turned up for formal concerts in odd shoes and splashed his cash from his first Hot Club recording date on a giant white stetson. Listening to interviews about Django, it shines through that – like such other eccentric geniuses as Lester Young and Thelonious Monk – there was huge affection for him despite his often exasperating idiosyncracies.

Django was not only the first European jazz musician to be revered by American players; he was also the first jazz musician to sound European: to give jazz, as the Glasgow-born guitarist Jim Mullen put it, “a local perspective”. His sudden death from a stroke, at the age of just 43, deprived the world of a true musical pioneer who was still exploring and evolving, pretty much to the end. Lucky for us he left more than 800 recordings which continue to delight and inspire successive generations of young players to offer their own take on Django’s jazz.

* The Edinburgh Jazz Festival begins on July 30. A special Django 100 theme runs through the festival. Visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.co.uk

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Sinatra @ Ibrox: A Night to Remember

Twenty years ago, my hometown of Glasgow celebrated being named a European City of Culture. One of the most eagerly anticipated events in the city’s cultural calendar that memorable year was a concert by the man who was arguably the greatest singer of the 20th century – Frank Sinatra. From the beginning of Glasgow’s year as a City of Culture, a visit by Ol’ Blue Eyes had been dangled tantalisingly before Glaswegians. And when it finally happened, on July 10, 1990, it proved to be a night to remember.

Scots jazz singer Carol Kidd and her London-based trio had been asked to be the support band after Sinatra’s “people” came to a concert and asked for all her CDs to be sent to the man himself. Kidd and her pianist, fellow Glaswegian David Newton, were in Ibrox throughout the day.

“We turned up quite early,” says Newton, “and watched the stand in the middle of the stadium being built, and saw these amazing sound guys sorting out what was the best sound I’ve ever heard. I mean, when the band started playing, it was like listening to a record.”

Kidd was also already there when Sinatra “breezed in” wearing a baseball cap and the famous bomber jacket with “The Guv” written on the back. “His soundcheck was four words of a song – Come Fly With Me. Then he walked off.”

Newton nods: “It sounded immaculate, so he said: ‘I’m outta here’. And off he went.”

Kidd played five numbers which, as Newton remembers, “went down a storm”. The atmosphere was charged. “A lot of people in the audience hadn’t heard him in such a long time and, of course, he had been the soundtrack to their lives. You could feel the excitement building.”

Neither Kidd nor Newton was aware at this point that the atmosphere was also charged because of trouble brewing. Outside the stadium, hundreds of fans clutching the most expensive tickets couldn’t get in; and inside – in certain areas – confusion reigned over where people were to sit. The stooshie over seating arrangements, which had been changed after people had bought tickets, would rumble on for days.

On a high as she came off, Kidd saw Sinatra arriving at the marquee beside the stage in a golf buggy. “He came upstairs into the marquee where he had his Jack Daniels and his cigarette. We shook hands very, very briefly while somebody fixed his tie. He was totally gorgeous,” she says categorically. “Drop-dead gorgeous. Even at 74 – because it’s in the eyes. And it was in his eyes. Plus he was in performance mode. At the soundcheck he’d been breezy and laidback, but by this point he was switched on and ready to go.”

When Sinatra walked out on to that Ibrox stage – at 8.10pm on July 10, 1990, 37 years after his previous visit to Glasgow – the audience went mad. Edinburgh-based singer and jazz promoter Todd Gordon says: “I had never experienced anything like the roar of that audience. It went right through your body.”

For 83 minutes – David Belcher, reviewing for The Herald, timed it – Sinatra held the audience in the palm of his hand with hit after hit, starting with Come Fly With Me. “When it came to My Way – forget it!” says Kidd. “He didn’t have to sing. He just stood there and the audience sang it back to him.” Belcher wrote: “His voice was amazing, for a man of 34, let alone 74.”

“Nevertheless,” says journalist Allan Brown, “for me, the music was the least of that evening. Something else entirely has stayed in my mind. There were maybe more than 15,000 of us there, yet the angle of the stand and the proximity of the stage created an atmosphere that was strangely intimate. You had the sense that, were you to rise from your seat and wave, you could easily attract Sinatra’s attention. And many did. The flavour of that night was one I have never experienced since: a blend of high devotion and downright gallusness, like a bingo night in the Sistine Chapel.”

There was a massive outpouring of affection – and emotion – from the generally geriatric audience. Newton noticed folk clutching bottles of whisky which they were clearly hoping to pass down to the stage, while Jeanette Belcher remembers the poignant sight of the two old ladies next to her “sobbing quietly and without any great drama” through the first few songs.

Gordon had taken his mother along to Ibrox that July night. “On the way through from Edinburgh I began to have severe apprehensions about taking her because she kept saying, ‘He was at his best in the 1950s’. I thought: ‘Oh God, she thinks he’s past it.’

“However, within about two numbers my mum, along with most of the rest of the stadium, was up on her feet between songs. There was something quite magical about the night.” Sinatra himself was visibly moved by the warmth of the audience. So much so that he not only treated Glasgow to a rare encore; he also promised he’d be back.

From the wings, Kidd and Newton watched most of the show, tears streaming down their faces as Sinatra gingerly stepped down from the stage to shake hands with the disabled concert-goers stationed at the front of the audience. The Herald’s Jack Webster wrote: “The sight of Frank Sinatra strolling along the Ibrox track with a radio-mike in his hands and singing Strangers In The Night will remain one of my richest and most abiding memories.”

Then came what David Newton calls “The Moment” – when Sinatra, back up on stage, poured himself a cup of tea and sat on the stool next to a table. Newton recalls: “The spotlight came down, the place went dark and all you could see was a man in a tux. He lit a cigarette – the whole place applauded – sipped his tea and began to sing Angel Eyes. And he turned a football stadium into a small nightclub. I don’t know if anyone else on the planet could have done that. It was remarkable.”

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Vive le jazz hot!

I’ve been writing about the enduring appeal of gypsy jazz legend Django Reinhardt for a newspaper this week, and during my research stumbled across this film clip which apparently only turned up a couple of years ago. It’s believed to be the only full-length clip of Django playing that exists. Happy Bastille Day!

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