Gypsy Jazz in North America

MichaelHorowitzMichaelHorowitz SeattleAdministrator
edited June 2014 in Welcome Posts: 6,155
Hi everyone,

I was just reflecting back to the days when I was first planning my dissertation research (around 2000). Back then Gypsy jazz was a niche of a small a genre it barely made a blip on the radar. There were only a handful of bands: Pearl Django and HCSF and the very first DjangoFest NW was in the works. Any recordings other than your run of the mill Django collections were near impossible to find. I had to fly to England to buy The Rosenberg Trio's Live at the North Sea Jazz Fest! Many other CDs, such as Boulou Ferre's Pour Django and Gypsy Dreams had to be specialy imported...taking 6 months or more. Often they never arrived. There were only a few lutheirs active then...Michael Dunn (who has been building since the 60s!) and Shelley D. Park. Gypsy jazz literature was also hard to find and usually of poor quality. Unfortunately many of those early instruction books were written by musicians who wouldn't know a rest stroke if they saw one!

It's amazing what can happen in five years! Now there are Hot Club style bands in every region of the country, Djangofests springing up everywhere (thanks Nick!), and more CDs, Videos, and instruction books to keep you holed up for a decade!

I'm wondering where everyone thinks this is going? Relatively speaking, Gypsy jazz is still a small niche. By comparison, Bluegrass, straight ahead jazz, and New Orleans music are much more popular. But there's something exciting about Django and the contemporary scene that might give it the potential to become very high profile at some point. There's something about this music that makes feature film makers, TV commercial producers, and documentary film makers eager to promote it. I suppose it's possible that a successful feature film about Django could cause a temporary Gypsy jazz fad. Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown certainly brought a lot of attention to Django's music.

However, I think there are limitations. It will be amazing if Gypsy jazz even gets a big as bluegrass in N. America. If it does get bigger, my guess is that it will only be temporary. But I think that in twenty years there will still be a dedicated core of people playing this genre. And most of the ground work for that happened over the last five years!

Curious what others have to say.....



  • drollingdrolling New
    Posts: 153
    I, for one, am just thrilled about the growing interest in gypsy jazz. I'm not sure when I first heard of Django, but it might have been in an interview with Jimi Hendrix in Guitar Player magazine. In any case, I've been listening to him for a long, long time. In 1987, or thereabouts, I heard Boulou Ferre's ' De Moscou a Odessa' on the radio and began my search for contemporary players in the genre. Like you say, it was very frustrating tracking down rare vinyl, ordering records that never arrived, etc. Around then I found a book, the 'Django Reinhardt Anthology' by Mike Peters. The standard notation wasn't very helpful (didn't and still can't read music) and the fingering wasn't shown for the chords, so, of course, I got the voicings all wrong. The book makes mention of 'The Django Reinhardt Society' in NY, but I never bothered to write them. Does it still exist?

    One year the annual guitar and bass buyer's guide featured a line of Saga Selmacs. I took that magazine to every music store in town and was met with blank, uncomprehending stares. In the following edition the listing was gone so I just let it go.

    If it wasn't for the internet, I may never have heard about the instructional material I'm now using. If it wasn't for on-line shopping, I wouldn't have my Gitane (or picks & strings for that matter). Because I live in a francophone environment (Quebec, Canada) I've been able to purchase lots of Manouche music locally and the JazzFest has brought many of the european players in to perform (often for free!).

    The scene here still appears to be thriving, with great musicians like Dennis and Francois playing out every week. On the other hand, I was just talking to the manager of the jazz section at Archambault Musique, and he tells me that he's selling less gypsy CDs these days. This doesn't surprise me as most buyers are listeners, not players. The big band swing dance fad that swept north america is stone cold dead here now. I can only hope that the same thing doesn't happen to GJ.
  • KcoxKcox Montreal, QCNew
    Posts: 110
    Hey Drolling,

    Are you a player? I have open jams every week at my place if you want to drop by...they are on saturday afternoons (for the next month or so at least, this may change).

    As for the topic, I too think we need to be cautious about expecting the "boom" to go much further than it has...Cuban jazz was hot just a few years ago but we don't hear much about it anymore. I think "pop jazz" lovers have just gotten a bit tired of Norah Jones and Diana Krall and are looking for something fresh...when the listeners move on to something else it will up to the players to carry the torch until the next revival.

  • JackJack western Massachusetts✭✭✭✭
    Posts: 1,752
    Although used often, I think the comparison to bluegrass is a good one, mainly in that a great percentage of the people who listen to it seem to play it, at least to some degree. That, I think and hope, is what will keep gypsy jazz alive in North America, as opposed to something like the swing craze mentioned above. One other thing that won't hurt is the bent toward the obsessive so many of us seem to have-always hunting for one more rare recording, or any new scrap of information, not to mention that new guitar that you've absolutely got to have.

    As far as the last five years of growth go, it's simply the internet. That's not to say it's the first and last reason for it, but it's definitely the first. Like Drolling says, I'd probably not have found a Selmac without it, much less all the music, tunes, and like-minded people I have. Once you've got the guitar and some tunes, all it seems to take is to introduce the music to another musician; every single one I've brought this stuff too-I'm not exaggerating-has ended up playing it (I'm up to three bands, now). It's infectious, it's challenging, and it's fun.

    Now, whether the non-player public will still come to the festivals and gigs a few years down the road, I don't know, but I think we'll be here still. Just don't quit your day job. You especially, Michael! What'd we do without you?

  • mmaslanmmaslan Santa Barbara, CANew
    Posts: 87
    I think the isolation of gypsy jazz from the jazz mainstream can only be detrimental to the music in the long term. Bireli Lagrene's concert her last week was not part of the university's jazz series, but part of a separate one for world music. That's simply a mistake, but it's a significant one. As American jazz has become more interested in its own history, including the swing era, it has created an opening for contemporary descendents of Django, but they still seem to exist in a different musical world. Why? I'd like to see Jazz at Lincoln Center do for Django what they've done for Armstrong and Ellington. There are plenty of different types of jazz, to be certain, but to my mind, it's all jazz in the end.
  • JackJack western Massachusetts✭✭✭✭
    Posts: 1,752
    mmaslan wrote:
    As American jazz has become more interested in its own history, including the swing era, it has created an opening for contemporary descendents of Django, but they still seem to exist in a different musical world. Why? I'd like to see Jazz at Lincoln Center do for Django what they've done for Armstrong and Ellington. There are plenty of different types of jazz, to be certain, but to my mind, it's all jazz in the end.

    While I agree about it all being jazz, I think the first part of your post is where the problem lies: people here who are interested in their 'own history' focus on all the American greats, not Django (just like you imply). For most of those folks, Django is just an anomaly-someone who was influenced by American jazz without really being a part of it. At the same time, I'm not sure I want to see all the gypsy jazz players folded into the Lincoln Center ideology-to me, there's enough about this that's different to warrant some other designation. It's jazz, no doubt, but it's not Wynton's jazz.

  • scotscot Virtuoso
    Posts: 658
    Django’s records have always sold well here, and I think that there were always guitarists who dabbled in his style. Favino guitars were being sold here back in the 70s. North America is truly the land of the guitar, so it’s no surprise that this music is popular on our continent right now. There are a LOT of real good guitar players in North America, and we like new things here.

    The comparison to bluegrass really isn’t that appropriate. Bluegrass and old-timey music developed in a regional culture, which is still alive and well. Much of the audience for bluegrass is rural people in the southeast who don’t consider it to be some kind of trendy music – it’s their local music. There isn’t that much interest in gypsy jazz among the flatpickers, I know from experience. I do agree that “gypsy jazz” might find an audience with those people who find Appalachian music to be a kind of appealing novelty – the Americana crowd. “Gypsy Jazz” doesn’t have any local cultural roots, so it can never have that resource to fall back on. It’ll have to rely on guitarists and other hepcats for sustenance.

    Now a person might say that “gypsy” is only half the story, that the “jazz” is indigenous and there ought to be a ready made audience then. But for every bona fide jazz player like Django, or Escoude, Birili or Patrick Saussois, there are a score of more folklorish guitarists where the main emphasis is on speed and guitar technique, a fixed repertoire and all of that. This kind of thing doesn’t have much appeal for the modern jazz musician – or audience. It’s a stretch to call some of this music jazz at all.

    Now that we have a growing pool of musicians of mature and growing capabilities in North America, we should start looking to the future, to see what kinds of contributions we can make. We shouldn’t be thinking about copying the Euros. Just as the Dutch, the Germans and the French did, we also have something to offer this style. What that might be is anyone’s guess right now. If the strong interest continues, it’ll happen, because that’s just how things work.

    Since none of us or very few of us started playing this style “cold”, if we knew where guitar players now playing this style started from, or what other styles of music they play, we might be able to interpolate possible futures. I will be willing to compile the data, if this sounds interesting to people. Or maybe there is a way to conduct a poll on this subject within the forum architecture?

  • mmaslanmmaslan Santa Barbara, CANew
    Posts: 87
    I didn't intend to endorse the Wynton Marsalis agenda, which I find too conservative. My point was rather that categorizing gypsy jazz as non-jazz music is bad for it. It isolates audiences and musicians from one another who might otherwise be put in fruitful contact. I don't actually expect Wynton Marsalis to take up the gypsy jazz cause--he's clearly interested in American music, and that's fine. But I don't see why musicians like Lagrene or Debarre shouldn't be sharing stages with other jazz players interested in reclaiming and revitalizing elements of jazz history--as most players now are. To me, they are different braches of the same musical tree.

    Of course, I come to this music as a long-time jazz listener as well as a sometime guitar player. While I respect non-jazz guitarists, I don't listen to them much.
  • scotscot Virtuoso
    Posts: 658
    By keeping “gypsy jazz” out of the jazz world, it might wind up in a place where it’ll thrive in a way that it’s never going to in the jazz world as that world is today. You’re right - that jazz world is very conservative, it’s mostly either the academic post-bebop world led by Wynton Marsalis (they find this music to be some kind of quaint curiosity), or else the pop-jazz Diana Krall set, which is about glamour and show-business. Neither of these is going to be especially welcoming to this music. It’s not what they are about.

    That’s why I think that if this music is going to grow in the USA, outside it’s current narrow confines, we need to put our own stamp on it. There’s no cultural base to sustain gypsy jazz here, at least as it is today. It can happen – Pearl Django, one of the most original and thoughtful of the N American bands, gets played a lot on the local jazz radio station, who cover everything from Jelly Roll Morton to Sun Ra to Spyrogyra.

    I certainly agree that Birili and Angelo Debarre could make the crossover to N American jazz. Birili has already been doing it for many years. Debarre tried it with his CD “Caprice”, which was not especially well-accepted. But those guys are exceptional guitarists by any standard. And in places where jazz still has an international flavor, like Montreal, you will find gypsy jazz acts on the same bill with the mainstream.

    All this assumes that it’s possible and desirable that this music should become more “popular”. I mean, look what happened when people took bluegrass mainstream. You could wind up with bands who are to gypsy jazz what Alison Krause is to bluegrass – which would be bad, very bad.
  • MichaelHorowitzMichaelHorowitz SeattleAdministrator
    Posts: 6,155
    Thanks to everyone for their responses!

    I chose the Bluegrass analogy because in a general sense it's a similar niche genre. I'll have to disagree with Scot, I think Gypsy jazz has the same ethnic connections that Bluegrass does. In a general sense Gypsy jazz is an identity music for Gypsies in the same way the Bluegrass is an identity music for Southerners. Also, Bluegrass is widely played by non-Southerners. Scot, since you live in the South you probably don't see it as much, but there are Bluegrass fanatics all around the world. Seattle has a HUGE bluegrass and old timey scene. They're all college educated professionals and hippies from non-Southern origins. Marc O'Conner is from here!

    Bluegrass has a world wide appeal beyond it's proletariat Southern roots. Gypsy jazz is experiencing the same sort of world wide exposure. But it's nowhere near the level that Bluegrass is.

    It's hard to say what will become of Gypsy jazz. I don't think it necessarily needs mainstream jazz acceptance. In some ways, I'd rather that it develop it's own audience separate from the straight ahead scene. The idea of Gypsy jazz getting caught up in the struggle between Wynton Marsalis and the rest of the jazz world scares me. But I think we all know that the jazz elite just don't give enough credit to Django and the contemporary Gypsy jazz genre. It's be nice to see some of the big name jazz writer give a little more respect to this genre.

    It doesn't surprise me that Archambault Musique told David that Gypsy jazz sales are slowing. I think there was a little fad about 2 years ago in the US, about 5 years in Europe. I think it has been slowing down since then. I think a lot of players and listeners have moved on to the next thing. Only the die hards are left! From running this web site I get somewhat of a sense of how many people are out's probably only about 500 dedicated people. about 100 REALLY dedicated people.

  • pallopennapallopenna Rhode IslandNew
    Posts: 245
    I think Michael's probably right about the number of dedicated people listening and buying Gypsy Jazz. Archambault's sales are no doubt down because Michael and **** have begun to carry Gypsy Jazz CDs making them more readily available in the U.S. than they have been previously. Of course, I could be wrong (happens frequently!).

    Reject the null hypothesis.
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