David A. Taylor
Scott Gould, party of one, frowns as he follows the Birdland hostess to a table nestled behind the glossy black piano, but it is momentary. Gould has flown in from San Francisco just for this event, a cult rite known as the Django Festival. Arriving before 8 p.m. on a Thursday, the open-faced Gould thought he had an hour before things filled up but instead he faces the backsides of the main attractions: a line of chairs onstage, soon to hold gypsy guitarists. The politically correct term may be ‘Romani’ but for Gould and everyone else in Birdland tonight, it’s called gypsy jazz.
There are several Django festivals – one in the Pacific Northwest, one in the Southwest somewhere, another in Reykjavik – but Gould says this one in Manhattan is the one to catch. He has come for the third night in a row and plans to make all six nights despite a waning seating karma. Imagine the view from the stage as the top half of a clock: his position fell from an excellent seat at high noon on opening night to two o’clock the next, to tonight’s nearly four o’clock seat. Friday, he says, he’ll get here early.
“I thought a couple of times that I might go see something else,” he says, “but I don’t know when the next time will be that I can get to Paris to see gypsy jazz this great.”
In the gathering crowd Gould recognizes another gypsy-guitar fan from San Diego. He tells me all this within minutes of my sitting at his table. Last night he stayed late to buttonhole Boulou Ferre, one of the headliners. Neither spoke the other’s language. But using the glyphs of guitar brands, song titles and chords, they managed a kind of conversation.
He asks if I’ve heard the latest from Romane (who had just released a double CD) or the Ferre brothers. Sadly, no.
Gould, however, is not easily daunted by ignorance. He suggests several CDs that would bring me up to speed. He booked the flight for this trip despite being out of work for nine months. Like all his friends, he was laid off from a telecom job. But it actually freed him up for his guitar obsession. Before moving to San Francisco ten years ago he was one of the few gypsy guitaristas in the valley.
“I was gigging my ass off,” he says, smiling into the distance. He built himself a guitar like Django Reinhardt’s archtop. He has a collection of several others. He’s even written a book about improvising in the gypsy style. Django is his god.
Duke Ellington toured with Django briefly in 1946 and called the unlettered guitarist the most sophisticated musician in jazz. Django’s intro to “In a Sentimental Mood” remains the most dazzling on record. He grew up in a gypsy camp just outside Paris, and as a teenager was badly burned when his family’s trailer caught fire. He spent the months of recovery molding two maimed fingers of his left hand around a guitar neck. From that, he created a new and unique style, with new chordal power. Reinhardt used striking octaves long before Wes Montgomery.
He was always late (he missed the first set when he and Ellington played Carnegie Hall) and would disappear for weeks without a word. But it’s hard to resist a person who has the wit and presence of mind to tell the doctor, who arrived just before Django died of a cerebral hemorrhage, “You’re late.”
Since his death in 1953, Django’s recordings have continued to inspire a kind of fervor with their combination of swing, speed and melodic flair, and his stature keeps growing. Two decades ago you were hard-pressed to find a Django album in the record racks. Today CD-NOW offers nearly 150 Django titles, most of them new releases, plus many more by disciples like Angelo deBarre and Tony Green, a New Orleans painter who, Gould tells me, spends half his time in Paris. Among the Django faithful in Birdland this night, the emcee points out film producer Ismail Merchant. Merchant nods and returns to his glass of beer and companions (a primo twelve o’clock table).
Gould can’t contain himself. After eyeing my vegetarian sampler, he orders the catfish. He gushes to the waitress, apologizes, then moons over the hostess. “I’m sorry,” he says, “she’s beautiful.”
He suggests several more CDs by Romane and Tchavalo Schmitt, and a series of Django’s complete recordings that will keep an Italian record company busy for three more years. Suddenly he interrupts himself with a cry: “There’s Boulou!”
Across the room, looking lost before the backdrop of the hip bar crowd, stands a bald man in a shapeless trenchcoat. Boulou Ferre, in Django hagiography, is one of two Manouche brothers whose father played with Django on several recording gigs. Music writers have called Boulou’s playing “awesome” and charged with “frightening power.” He was transcribing Charlie Parker solos at age seven, and made his first record at ten years old. The festival’s organizers flew Boulou and his brother Elios from Paris, where there they are said to “upset the polite and pleasant mood of many a posh restaurant with the power and inventiveness of their playing.”
He doesn’t look like that tonight. Boulou settles at a small table situated at 9:30 or 10 o’clock. This is his last night on the billing. He looks tired, and doesn’t seem to notice Gould waving across the club.
The evening gets underway with a solo performance by Angelo deBarre, moving uncomfortably in a dazzling white suit. He’s soon joined by New York club veteran Frank Vignola and bassist Jon Burr, who recorded with violinist Stephane Grappelli, Reinhardt’s partner in the “Quintette of the Hot Club of France.” Norwegian youngster Ola Kvernberg steps into the Grappelli role for several tunes, looking like a disheveled prodigy.
But the night really swings when the Ferre brothers takes the stage. Boulou sweeps up and down the fretboard, tossing riffs from Gerschwin and Copland into “Autumn Song,” while Elios beats out rhythm. Then came his own elegant “Intersection sur une Prelude de Bach.” Their constant invention is exhausting. For an encore, all the night’s musicians crowd onstage to reprise Django’s signature “Nuages,” which evokes Ravel and Debussy as much as Benny Goodman. So many guitars! So many notes! The passion! The Ferre brothers stand at the center of a long line and take a bow.
Despite the bad sightlines, Gould decides to stick with his table for the night. I have to leave before the last set to catch a train. As a result, I miss my own chance to meet the man whose father played with the man who was the god that was Django. The following year will see Gould’s stock option money drain away, his gigs dry up as jazz clubs close, and his book manuscript gather dust. But this night, the world shines.
“I did get to talk to Boulou again,” he told me in an email a few days later. “He came over to the table just after you left. It was great to meet him. What a character!”
©2003 by David A. Taylor