Posted by: gdevi | January 17, 2012

Book Review: Gypsy Jazz (2008)

Michael Dregni. Gypsy Jazz: In Search of Django Reinhardt and the Soul of Gypsy Swing. London: Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 333. $27. 95 (Hardcover)

Michael Dregni’s Gypsy Jazz is the type of book that those of us who consider research a true labor of love would want to write. Meticulously researched and documented, this book tells the story of the origins of jazz manouche, jazz gitan, jazz tsigane — the many names by which the genre is known — or “gypsy jazz,” as it is known among the English-speaking public, as it originated in Paris in the 1930s and 1940s with the great manouche guitarist Django Reinhardt, and his accompanists in Le Quintette du Hot Club de France. Since nothing comes from nothing, what this means is that Dregni has, down to the last detail, traced the evolution of this “French jazz” — a novel concept since jazz is essentially the most American of all musical forms — all other forms appear elsewhere in the world, except jazz — through its own identifiably French traditions as well as its considerable debts, borrowings, and influences from across the ocean,  from American jazz: the novelty numbers of the 20s big bands, American horn men, Louis Armstrong’s coronet solos, and the bop of Charlie Parker all played on guitar–not a jazz instrument at the time–jazz was for piano or horns in the 30s and 40s–and violin, the gypsy’s own instrument, ironically played in Django’s quintette by the gadjo –Romani for non-gypsy– Stephane Grappelli. String jazz was a novel concept, if there ever was one, and it took a long time and the efforts of many people–both gypsy and gadjo alike–to give this beautiful music its own unique niche in the world of popular music. Dregni’s book is an encyclopedic tribute to these men. I could not put the book down once I started reading it, and my life has been enriched because of it. I would put the book down only to search on YouTube for some of the musicians that the book references: Tchan Tchou Vidal, Moreno Winterstein, Dallas Baumgartner, “Baro” Ferret, Patotte Bousquet, John Adomono et al. Amazingly enough, YouTube has many of these musicians and their recordings. What a treat.

When I first heard Django Reinhardt’s music–it was Swing 42–a simple throwaway tune that Django and Grappelli composed at the end of one of their sessions in 1942–it reminded me of Hindustani classical music. The cascading run of arpeggios from Django’s fretting and picking fingers with their up and down lines sounded exactly like the string-equivalent of the articulated taans of a Hindustani classical composition in drut teen taal to my ears. Of course, not all of Django’s compositions feature such towering and cascading gyres of notes–compare Nuages or Artillerie Lourde with Minor Swing — and Dregni walks us through the evolution of the many structures of Django’s own gypsy jazz–he changed his style greatly over the years– as well as that of gypsy jazz in general from its fast-tempo bals musette beginnings.

Dregni’s book is divided broadly into two topical sections with the first eight chapters dealing primarily with Django’s story, and the remaining eight chapters focusing on other gypsy contemporaries of Django such as the Ferret and Malha clans, Django’s son by his first wife and the Baumgartner-Reinhardt clan, the resurgence of Django’s music in Paris with Bireli Lagrene, the Rosenbergs, Schmitt and Debarre, gypsy jazz coming to America with Danny Fender et al, the group Syntax and gypsy jazz rap, and finishes with a gorgeous chapter on learning to play Minor Swing with David Reinhardt, Django’s grandson. What is beautiful about these chapters is that Dregni has traveled to every out-of -the-way gypsy campine and dingy boites du nuit–boxes of night–French slang for dingy bars–and met all these gypsy musicians. If they are alive, Dregni has met them and talked with them; this book is a priceless repository of gypsy memory of the last one hundred years or perhaps more. There is something incredibly tender about an American vintage guitar writer from Minneapolis traveling to France and Belgium to document the words of gypsies, almost the same kind of tenderness that made Django burst into tears upon hearing Louis Armstrong for the first time. Dregni recounts the story. Django had burned his hand badly in a fire in 1928 when the artificial flowers that his first wife had made caught on fire burning his caravan down and deforming his left hand into a claw.  Django was in the hospital for nearly two years during which time his first wife left him and though no one believed Django would ever play guitar again, his brother Nin-Nin had brought him his guitar. Regni writes:

In Django’s hospital bed lay the guitar Nin-Nin brought him. Now, within the ward, he tried to play again. His left hand was but a claw; the hand’s back, a scarred knot. The tendons and nerves of his two little fingers were damaged, leaving the digits paralyzed. He could still move his index and middle fingers though, and so during the eighteen long months of his convalescence, he forced them into motion, limbering the muscles, retraining them to his command. Limited in the number of fingers he could use to fret the guitar, he now had to rethink his approach to the fretboard. Instead of playing scales horizontally across the fretboard as was the norm, he sought fingerings running vertically down the frets as they were simpler to play with just two fingers. He fashioned new chord forms with a bare minimum of notes–often just triads made with his two fingers and his thumb reaching around the neck to the bass string. He then slid his hand up and down the neck, employing these chord forms to speak a fluent vocabulary. (50)

Two good things happened to Django when he left the hospital in 1930. One, Naguine, the woman he had left to marry his first wife, and who would soon become his second wife was waiting for him outside the hospital with a bouquet of tulips, saying simply “Tiens! These ones are real. They won’t start a fire.” And two, Django was invited to the apartment of a bohemian artist Emile Savitry in Toulon where he listened to new 78s from America–Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club orchestra, string jazz of Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, and Louis Armstrong.

Now, listening to Armstrong’s joyous trumpet, Django was transformed. He put his head in his hands, unashamedly starting to cry. “Ach moune! Ach moune!” he repeated over and over again–a Romanes expression of stupefaction and admiration, meaning, coincidentally, “My brother! My brother!” (51)

Dregni’s style, as evidenced above is impressively and unselfconsciously erudite and informal at the same time, which makes this book the perfect example of useful and enduring scholarship. In the first three chapters, Dregni introduces us to two critical geographical times and places– le marche aux puces, the flea markets, at the Porte de Clingancourt in Saint-Ouen, where the Romani people or the “gypsies” set up their encampments in turn of the century Paris, and Pigalle, the red-light district of Paris, which catered to tourists, gangsters, addicts, prostitutes, pimps, dancers, and musicians, where Django made his living as a guitarist in his early days before the quintette and the recordings. (Sort of like Louis Armstrong’s life, isn’t it?). The first gypsies arrived in Paris in the 15th century, though their presence in Europe can be traced as far back as the 2 AD when these first “gypsies” were forcibly conscripted from India to fight in battles against invading Muslim forces. These early gypsy ancestors continued westward through Byzantium, Egypt, North Africa, Russia, Eastern Europe, and western Europe forging their own language, culture, and identity through the course of their travels. One thing remained consistent though wherever their journey took them: every continent and every country treated them as social outcasts, relegating them to the wastelands and outlands of their cities and villages, shunning them as a vile and hated group of people. The gypsy holocaust known as “porajmos” in Romani during the second world war killed nearly 1. 5 million gypsies in Europe but this goes mostly unremarked in any discussion of the Nazi holocaust, for instance. Dregni quotes Flaubert’s astute observations about the gypsies in France: “They excite the hatred of the bourgeois even though inoffensive as sheep . . .that hatred is linked to something deep and complex; it is found in all orderly people. It is the hatred that they feel for the bedouin, the heretic, the philosopher, the solitary, the poet, and there is fear in that hatred” (24).  Django — his name in Romani means “I awake” ( a cognate of the Sanskrit “jaag” meaning “to wake”; “manouche” is a cognate of the Sanskrit “manushya,” which means “human-man”) was born on January 23rd, 1910  in one such gypsy caravan parked alongside a frozen pond outside the village of Liberchies in Belgium (Happy Birthday, Django!). Tony Gatlif’s very interesting film Latcho Drom (1993) is a good documentary about the migration of the gypsies from India westwards, if you are interested in this early history.

In these early chapters, Dregni lays a thorough foundation for not only the cultural evolution of the gypsy clans in France, such as the Reinhardts, Ferrets, and Malhas, but also the foundation of gypsy music in the bals musette–the working-class dance halls for the Parisian poor and the immigrants, the prostitutes and their clients in the shambles of the city of light–who were entertained by gypsy musicians who played the three signature instruments the bals needed: bagpipes, accordion and the banjo, all precursors to the feeling and texture of what was soon to become jazz manouche. These are entrancing chapters to read. We hear of the opportune meeting of time, place, people, and instruments. Among these early tributaries of what will eventually come together as gypsy jazz we learn of Gusti Malha’s valses manouche, and Poulette Castro’s multi-instrumental string valses featuring guitars, banjos, and mandolins interplaying the melody chords in ascending and descending lines; Dregni traces the prototype of Django’s own string jazz to a 1931 release of valse Poulette. We read of Django’s early banjo and violin apprenticeships in the underworld bals, and Dregni blends anecdotes personally recounted to him by some of these old gypsy master musicians now living in renown amongst those who know gypsy jazz, and in obscurity to the rest of the world, along with excerpts from other published works on Django, most notably by the Parisian jazz afficionado Charles Delaunay, one of the founders of the Hot Club of France in the 1930s along with Pierre Noury, Jacques Bureau, and Hugues Panassie. Here is Dregni describing Django’s discovery of African-American jazz in a Pigalle nightclub through the recordings of the Billy Arnold Novelty Jazz Band:

From listening to Arnold and hearing recordings of early jazz, Django was absorbing and assimilating American jazz, striving to master the harmonies they played, their scales and arpeggios, their phrasing, the bent notes and smears, and most of all, that sense of rhythmic movement inspired from black dance that infused the music, the swagger known as swing. He no longer wanted to sound like a Gypsy or play Gypsy music; throughout the rest of his life, he rarely ever recorded Romani tunes. From the far side of the Atlantic Ocean, through the fleeting sound of jazz bands on a Pigalle stage and the more enduring magic of records played in his caravan in Paris’s La Zone, he sought now to play his guitar like an African American hornman. (47)

I absolutely loved the chapters describing and detailing Django’s work with Delaunay and the quintette, his partnership with Stephane Grappelli, and the host of musicians who played with Django over the years in the quintette, Django’s fear of dinosaurs (ha!), his attempts to learn how to read and write, and always returning to the inexhaustible fountain of music that sprang from his mind in breathtaking melodies and improvisation after improvisation. Dregni’s account of Django’s music and gypsy swing after the Nazi occupation of France is engrossing and reads like a novel in places. Condemned as “American” and “enemy” music, the SS officials had forbidden the public performance of jazz and especially gypsy swing, whereas this was the music that the common German soldiers wanted to hear in the bars and the dance-halls in the after-hours after the shelling and the bombings and the shuttling of Jews and Gypsies to the concentration-camps. Django’s music survived tenuously just outside of the gas chambers because the Nazis wanted entertainment. Dregni recounts real or apocryphal anecdotes of other beleaguered gypsy musicians who claimed to be “Django” to Nazi officials just  to escape the concentration camps. These are priceless stories.

Dregni’s considerable research acumen shines forth in the chapter detailing the Gypsy pilgrimage site of Les Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer in Camargue by the sea, and the shrine of the Romani patron saint, Sarah-la-Kali. It was delightful to read Dregni’s wonderful discussion of the historic connections between Sarah-la-Kali (literally Sarah-the-dark) and the Hindu goddess Kali or Durga, and the similarities between the Catholic Romani ritual of the washing of the idol of Sarah-la-Kali in the waters of the Mediterranean, and the Hindu ritual of the washing and floating of the idol of goddess Kali in the river Ganga at the end of our own Durga puja in India. “In the stories of the many Hindu vedas, Kali could transform herself into numerous emanations of her personalities and powers. It should thus come as little surprise that over the centuries and the many miles of the Romani’s travel, she may also have become Sainte Sarah” (137).  A perfect example of a syncretic Catholic-Hindu religious faith, which was once again reflected in Dregni’s description of Django’s death and funeral on May 16, 1953 in Samois-sur-Seine where Django had bought a small cottage for his family to retire. When Delaunay found him there and attempted to lure Django to play in a concert, Django lazily waved him off, lifting up his mattress to display the bed of banknotes upon which he slept, saying, “There’s money here. I don’t need any more” (105). (I know people like this in India.)  It was here in Samois that Django composed one of his last pieces, the brief and brilliant “Anouman.” Dregni quotes Naguine’s observations about Django in Samois:

In Samois, he was no longer the Django of old. He was un autre homme–another man, a new man. He was now a poet. He had the time to look at the beauty of the world around him. In the evening, he might remain at the edge of the river until three in the morning. He watched the river, the movement of the trees, the concert made by the water, and he told me that there he saw the true music, he heard it all, he was crazy for it. He said to me, “Here is the true music!” (106).

In the old days, Dregni tells us, the manouche used to bury their dead by placing them inside their caravan and setting it ablaze with all their worldly goods, a throwback to the Hindu tradition of cremation by fire in a funeral pyre. We still cremate our dead the same way in India, in a funeral pyre. So too with Django, but with this modern update: Naguine and Negros, Django’s mother, buried Django in the Samois cemetery, and then “amassed Django’s last possessions–his meager wardrobe of clothes, his proud collection of fishing rods and tackle, his tape recorder and a batch of last tapes of compositions and new music recorded in Samois. Naguine piled Django’s things in a pyre, placed his guitar on top, struck a match, and set it on fire” (107).  Dregni’s description of Django’s Nuages played in hymn form at the church of Les Saintes -Marie-de-la-Mer is both wacky and profound at the same time. This chapter describing the pilgrimage and gypsy music festival at Les Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer that takes place every year from May 24-25 is a real highpoint of this book. I hope to make it to this annual Gypsy pilgrimage-cum-music festival someday.

Ultimately, like Gatlif’s documentary, Dregni’s book is really a book about the Romani people. The sheer human-character density of this book is staggering, and for that alone, Dregni’s book deserves to be on the top shelf of any ethnomusicography collection. The persistence, curiosity, patience, discipline, thoroughness and genuine warmth that envelops this book speak to Dregni’s deep understanding of a people, without “othering” them, their history, their present, and their invaluable merit as full human beings and as artists.  Django’s music, gypsy jazz, cannot help but be the sweet and joyful music that it is–the music you would dance to with your child or your partner–probably because it comes from a people who have fortunately or consciously chosen to remain uncontaminated by power throughout history. Dregni describes how while Paris has an estimated one hundred streets named for public figures from mathematicians to writers, artists, generals, politicians, and even clowns, there is not a single landmark in Paris today to commemorate Django, except one small relic. In a locked glass case in the music museum Musee de la Musique sits one of Django’s last Selmer Modele jazz guitars that Naguine donated to the Conservatory. Apparently it is pretty scratched up; Django carried his guitars covered in newspaper. When a British journalist sanctimoniously chastised Django for his “dirty and disheveled” guitar with “its pretty varnish long gone, a makeshift pile of matchbox covers under the bridge to keep the strings from buzzing on the frets,”  Django apparently replied: “C’est la guerre” – “it is the war” (128).  I will stop by to see this guitar on my way to Les-Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer.



  1. Gayatri, did you know that Michael Dregni is a colleague of mine? He also published a book by Jeff Falla, a genuinely brilliant technical book on modifying Fender amplifiers. Michael is a great guy. He’s taking a leave of absence from work to curate an exhibit on Rheinhart at the Smithsonian in Paris beginning tomorrow. We will miss him in the office but we’re happy he’s going to do something he loves. [Please disregard any typos–I am typing this on my cell phone without my glasses and before my first cup of coffee.]

  2. No kidding, Darwin! Well, should you happen to speak with him sometime, please transmit my deep appreciation of his book to him. Boy, curating a Django Reinhardt exhibition for the Smithsonian! What a treat! And where is Jeff these days? Say hello should you happen to see him as well. Thanks, Darwin. Gayatri.

  3. Here another
    Django Reinhardt and the vagabond sound

    Getting joyously lost in the dark alleys, flea markets and guitar workshops of Gypsy jazz

    John Mole

    book cover of Gypsy JazzThe great jazz pianist Earl Hines used to say, when he was exploring new musical territory, that if you saw him smiling you knew he was lost.
    Turn the phrase on its head and the same could be said of Michael Dregni, Django Reinhardt’s biographer and now the sleuthing author of Gypsy Jazz: whenever he gets lost you know that he’s smiling, and when he finds what he’s looking for, he’s in seventh heaven.
    “In search of Django Reinhardt and the soul of Gypsy swing”, as the subtitle has it, Dregni journeys across Europe, following a trail which leads him down enticingly dark alleys into Romany caravan sites, backstreet bars, flea markets and out-of-the-way guitar workshops to meet and interview Reinhardt’s musical heirs.
    In the closing chapter, he jams with the maestro’s nineteen-year-old grandson (“I muddle through the tune and receive a satisfied bien”), then falls asleep on the train back to Paris “exhausted by this most dangerous of all guitar lessons”.
    For Dregni, the “dapper swing, incandescent improvisation and deep emotion” of Reinhardt’s playing is “joy made song”.
    And if he tells you once he’ll tell you again: when he puts a record on the turntable it’s “as if the grooves cannot contain all the joy in this song”.
    Likewise, the headlong progress of his narrative has difficulty containing all the enthusiasm with which he travels, but it is impossible not to get caught up in his adventures.
    Gypsy jazz is a vagabond music made by musicians who live “portable lives” as fugitive members of a conservatoire des caravanes, and in tracking them down Dregni is as resourceful as they are elusive.
    One of his searches – for the history of Baro Ferret and his Romany guitar dynasty – is “like venturing down a dark alley at midnight”; on another occasion he returns to the Cirque Tsigane in a Parisian encampment where he had stood six months previously “as if in an enchantment” but now, like Le Grand Meaulnes, “can’t seem to find the alleyway . . . .
    Maybe I was dreaming it all”.
    Dregni clearly relishes the romantic confluence of magic and danger which informs the soul of Gypsy swing.
    The image and spirit of Reinhardt preside over the book, and its opening chapters tell his story with an emphasis on the miraculous.
    From the start he was not merely born but “came into the world”, the locked glass case in the Cité de la Musique which contains one of his Selmer guitars “could and should be a shrine”, while the soundboard of the guitar itself is “polished smooth like an effigy’s shined nose, the frets worn down like a cathedral’s steps by penitents on their knees”.
    Dregni stands in La Java, a crumbling old bal musette, and imagines the twelve-year-old Reinhardt strumming out his first rhythm lines; later, he attends the Romany pilgrimage at Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and is surprised to hear the Gypsy congregation singing religious lyrics to the tune of Reinhardt’s most famous composition, “Nuages”.
    The tone is one of continual awe and wonder, but Dregni manages to pack in a lot of information.
    He is excellent on the musical crosscurrents within the tradition, both in Europe and the US – on how it has absorbed developments in jazz from the bop revolution onwards, and even embraced rap.
    A guitarist himself, he knows the difference between a Selmer and a Gibson and the techniques required to get the best out of each.
    He describes in detail how, among Romany guitarists, the devotion to a good plectrum is “near mystical”.
    Some readers may feel that he tends to fall to his knees rather too often, but anyone at all familiar with his subject will recognize that he knows his music.
    Gypsy Jazz is also illuminating as a study, historical and sociological, of Romany culture, not least in its account of life under Nazi occupation.
    Reinhardt himself seems to have managed to tread the fine line between resistance and survival.
    His recording of “Nuages” sold more than 100,000 copies in Paris, becoming, as Dregni puts it, “both a war-lorn orison and an ersatz national anthem”.
    When he was requested to bring his quintet to perform in Berlin for the High Command, he countered by requiring an exorbitant fee, having vowed never to enter Germany, and when he was told that he had no choice he simply engineered his disappearance with that characteristic Romany flair for which, throughout this book, Dregni displays such admiration.

    Michael Dregni
    In search of Django Reinhardt and the soul of Gypsy swing 333pp. Oxford University Press.

    • Thanks for this review; yes, it is quite a book, isn’t it? Very visceral, in many respects. Thanks again. GD.

  4. Gayatri: Darwin shot me a link to your review—many thanks for your exceedingly kind words! I’m happy you were happy with the book. That project was indeed a joy to research and write—and was the kind of book that doesn’t sell at all. Alas! But it’s a great reward to find other enthusiasts for the music around the globe. I am indeed now at work with Cite de la Musique in Paris, France’s “version” of the Smithsonian but devoted purely to music; they’re launching an exhibit on Django’s life and music to open in October 2012. With their prestige, funding, and the labor-of-love by the project’s chief curator, they are able to uncover many new items concerning Django and his family. I’m currently writing the accompanying book for the exhibit, also due out in October. Thanks again! Best, M

    • You are welcome, Michael. Yes, you have written a beautiful book on a beautiful topic–good karma, you know. Good luck with the exhibit in France–I hope you get lots of viewers and coverage– and I look forward to reading your new book as well. Thanks again for your wonderful work on behalf of this beautiful man and his beautiful music. Gayatri.

      ps. Here is an old Kali bhajan from the film Rani Rashmoni (1955). This is probably the one Kali bhajan closely associated with the mystic Sri Ramakrishna and the Kalighat in Calcutta, West Bengal. My uncle used to sing me to sleep when I was a child with this song. And this one as well; another famous Kali bhajan by the mystic poet Kazi Nasrul Islam.

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