Gypsy-jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt may have died in 1953 from a brain hemorrhage at the horribly young age of 43, but thanks to bands such as the Hot Club of Los Angeles, named after Reinhardt's own Quintette du Hot Club de France, his music remains alive and well.
There are, in fact, "Hot Clubs" all over North America, Europe and beyond, including the Hot Club of Detroit and the Hot Club of New Orleans. Our L.A. version formed in 2011, when a group of session players and side men united, naturally, out of a deep love for gypsy jazz and the music of Reinhardt.
"That brought us together initially, and then we started doing a few shows around town," says singer, pianist and accordionist Carl Byron. "Initially we had a residency at the Redwood Bar, but then we got the offer of doing the Monday nights at the Cinema Bar and we went for that. Then we started picking up various other things — corporate things [and] weddings, and last year, Jackson Browne started sitting in with us and he hired us for an event last year, which we’ll be doing again this year in March."
It should come as no surprise that the music of Reinhardt remains so beloved to this day; he's by far the most recognizable name associated with gypsy jazz, a fiery, passionate, intricate and sexy style of music.
When people who are not fans of jazz explain why, they talk, rightly or wrongly, about the genre's perceived lack of structure and melody and the cold technicality of the players. Those same people should give gypsy jazz a shot. Still, Byron discovered it through other types of jazz.
"[Reinhardt's] style is technically defined as gypsy jazz, or jazz Manouche, or gypsy swing," Byron says. "But it has also influenced a lot of other types of more mainstream, trad jazz. Most people who have played jazz, or for that matter country or western swing, or even rock and pop, have at least some awareness of him because his influence continues to be so big on all these styles of music, obviously particularly for guitarists."
Byron describes gypsy jazz as usually having an infectious, rhythmic feel, combining elements of Roma, or gypsy, music with Eastern European music and 1920s and ’30s traditional jazz.
"You'll find in the gypsy jazz songbook a lot of covers of standards, like Gershwin songs and other songs that were big during that era,” Byron says. “The instrumentation is obviously a big part of it, too. It’s very guitar-oriented, and then in Django’s most celebrated group, the Quintette du Hot Club de France, that group also featured Stephane Grappelli, the great jazz violinist. So a big part of the sound of gypsy jazz was Django’s guitar backed up by two other guitarists playing rhythm, bass, and then Stephane, who was the co-soloist on violin. But that was by no means the only configuration.”
After more than seven years of performing, usually weekly, Byron says there’s a solid audience for gypsy jazz and the music of Django Reinhardt in and around Los Angeles. He also says that, were he alive today, Reinhardt would get a kick out of the fact that he could travel to so many different cities and find a Hot Club to sit in with.
"He was such an interesting person on so many levels,” Byron says. “The way he led his own life was not typical of many musicians, and that’s already saying something. Part of it had to do with his Roma heritage and characteristics. He was not always his best promoter, and he seemed to be rather equivocal about commercial success. He transcended the idea of being a professional musician because music was his whole being. It’s not something he started doing because he wanted to be successful. It was something that he had to do. He had such a passion for it. Anybody who went through what he went through with the fire that burned so much of his body and disfigured his hand, who then goes back how to relearn how to play the instrument to the degree that he did and become one of the all-time greatest musicians, obviously has a great deal of passion for the music that goes way beyond being a star and being popular."
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The Hot Club of Los Angeles continue to play every Monday evening at the Cinema Bar in Culver City, usually performing two sets every night. To keep things as interesting as possible, Byron says they mix the sets up each week to a degree.
“We bring in newer stuff,” he says. “For instance, for the record that we’re making right now, we have also incorporated some originals that a couple of us in the band have composed. Then we will adapt some other things, which is a tradition in gypsy jazz. You might hear us play our own version of 'Goldfinger.' The gypsy jazz songbook is so vast that it’s really impossible in the space of two sets to do more than cover a small percentage of the material. We have ones that we do on a fairly consistent basis, and then ones that we bring in and might not do as frequently, plus the new ones that we bring in."
The HCOLA is currently finishing up its latest album, tentatively titled Cinema Swing, which should be out in the spring. And in March, the band will be performing with Jackson Browne at his Artists for Peace and Justice event. Reinhardt’s music isn’t going anywhere in a hurry, because Hot Clubs such as the L.A. branch work so hard.
The Hot Club of Los Angeles play at 9 p.m. every Monday at the Cinema Bar, 3967 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City; (310) 390-1328.