The Hot Club of San Francisco Performs Jazz Like You've Never Heard Before.
By Dave Irwin
MAY 10, 1999: THE LEGEND STARTS with a terrible fire, disfiguring an 18-year-old gypsy boy and destroying his promising career as a violin prodigy. It ends with people around the world enjoying, even religiously recreating, Django Reinhardt's hot jazz and complex guitar playing, a style he developed using only two fingers on his scarred right hand. When the Belgian born musician died in 1953 at the relatively young age of 43, he was a mythic and seminal figure who'd rewritten the book on jazz guitar.
Peter Mehling is one of Django's devotees. A former member of Dan Hick's Acoustic Warriors, Mehling is the founder and lead guitarist of the Hot Club of San Francisco. Like Hot Club bands in Tokyo, Milan, Oslo and elsewhere, it's an homage to the quintessential Quintet of the Hot Club of France in the 1930s, which featured Django and violin virtuoso Stéphane Grappelli (who died recently at age 90) playing the wildest jazz in Europe.
"I was real little and my mom would play his LP's, and as a 5-year-old, I thought that was pretty far-out stuff," Mehling reminisces. Thus inspired, he began playing guitar at age 7, and was gigging professionally by the time he was a teenager. In high school, he preferred a jazzy acoustic arch-top to his friends' Stratocaster electrics. He explored Django's music and then made a comprehensive study of its roots, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and guitar pioneer Eddie Lang.
According to Mehling, hot jazz or gypsy jazz comes from a unique amalgamation of styles. Although gypsies themselves were still social outcasts, their music gained respectability in Europe through classical composers such as Brahms, Dvorak and Bártok, who used traditional gypsy melodies in their works. With their exotic caravans, gypsies had a strong presence as migrant laborers crossing the continent's borders; pre-WWII, they often worked as traveling musicians.
"Django was in the right place at the right time to forge a bunch of styles into one," Mehling explains. "Jazz was just getting over to Europe. There were also the cabarets, and around the turn of the century there was a huge increase in the blue-collar tradition of dancing--the musette tradition of accordion and violin, banjo or whistle. That's how he trained as a little boy, because that's where the money was. They paraded this little prodigy around and he would throw in something from Spain or Egypt."
After the wagon fire, Django switched full-time to guitar and never looked back. In Paris during the pre-war years, his quintet was the hottest ticket around. When banned by the Nazis after the occupation of France, hot jazz became a symbol of resistance.
Using acoustic stringed instruments, this improvisational style features sophisticated, complex melody lines. The tempos vary from sentimental to breakneck.
"The concept of gypsy jazz is to take what's around you and play it," Mehling says. "It's a staccato way of playing fast, but it's also very fluid and lyrical. It's almost like singing, yet you can boil it down to lots of arpeggios and glissando. It's easy to play gypsy music on the violin because that instrument is so expressive, but the notes decay quickly on a guitar and there's a certain dryness. All ornamentation is welcome in gypsy jazz, the more ornamentation the better. In that regard, it's like Indian sitar music; but like that style, it's more than just ornamentation. In Indian music it's how you approach the note. Like speaking, if someone modulates the tone of their voice, it's much more interesting to listen to. How many different ways can you approach just one note or pitch, and how much meaning can you give that? That's going on with every note in gypsy jazz."
The style also presaged the later inventions of bop. "The blue notes--augmented fifth, flatted fifth, the altered chords that Charlie Parker later put into the vocabulary--Django was messing around with those things very early on," Mehling says. "He was foreshadowing a lot of progressive jazz."
Although some adherents of Django follow a more doctrinaire approach, some even limiting their playing to the use of two fingers, Mehling and the Hot Club of San Francisco take a more liberal view, seeking to update the style. Mehling writes originals, and they also put songs like the Beatles' "And I Love Her" or the bop standard "Round Midnight" through what Mehling calls their "gypsy jazz filter."
"We never know what we're going to play until we get a feel for the audience," Mehling says. "Just when people think they've figured us out, we like to twist and change the kaleidoscope and show them another side of this genre."
Hot Club alumnus Evan Dain, a highly versatile and sought-after upright bass player, was with the band for several years and appears on early CDs, before he moved to Tucson three years ago to continue his career with less road work. He appeared at the recent Tucson Folk Festival, playing bluegrass and country as a member of both Frog Mountain and Dede Wyland & Southwest Special.
"There's nothing in Tucson like the Hot Club," Dain says. "It's not the same as hearing Django's records, because the Hot Club is a lot of originals and original ideas...Live, it's going to pique people's imagination."
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