A joyful gathering of Djangologists Northampton’s gypsy jazz festival keeps on rolling

Last modified: Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Django Reinhardt likely didn’t set out to create a style all his own. But when the legendary French guitarist looked for a way to play the American jazz he was hearing on records back in the 1930s, the sound he came up with was unique indeed, an amalgamation that filtered the new music from the United States through his virtuosity on guitar and his cultural background; Reinhardt was born in Belgium in 1910 to Gypsy, or Romani, parents. The musical results became known as jazz manouche, or gypsy jazz.

Over the past decade, that sound has become a regular backdrop in Northampton at this time of year, when the “Django in June” festival brings star players and student musicians alike to the city for a week of jamming and concerts. And if gypsy jazz is still something of a niche style in the U.S., its base of enthusiasts is growing, says festival organizer Andrew Lawrence, and the Northampton event, known as “Django Camp,” seems stronger than ever: Student attendance, which includes many professional guitarists, has more than doubled in recent years.

“From about 2007 to 2010, we had somewhere between 75 and 90 [students] attend each year,” Lawrence said in a recent interview. “Then in 2011 we went up about 50 percent, and now we’re at 200.”

Those numbers are music to Lawrence’s ears, as he has long considered “Django in June” primarily a vehicle for students to learn gypsy jazz from the (mostly) European and French-Canadian players who lead the classes. It’s a great opportunity, he notes, for U.S. students who normally rely on instructional videos, recordings and sheet music in gypsy jazz “to get a chance to see firsthand how it’s played by the people who live and breathe it.” And, Lawrence says, many of the students have been coming to the festival for years, in part to watch and play with other musicians who they don’t get to see regularly: “For a lot of them, it’s like a reunion.”

On Tuesday afternoon, multiple jam sessions had sprung up outside Northrop and Gillett dormitories at Smith College, where “Django Camp” is held. Groups of guitarists, with a fiddle player here and there, took turns playing leads while the others provided rhythm. Charles Williams, a guitarist from Atlanta, joked that he had a hard time sleeping when he came to the camp last year because jam sessions near his room would sometimes go on well past midnight.

“There’s just a great atmosphere here, so many opportunities to learn and play,” he said. “It keeps things hopping.”

The Northampton festival, as always, has key public components. On Friday, June 20, and Saturday, June 21, “Django in June” will feature concerts at the Academy of Music with leading gypsy jazz players. Friday night it’s Latcho Drom, a French quartet built around guitarist Christophe Lartilleux and his daughter, Deborah, followed by guitarist Samson Schmitt and supporting players. Saturday brings the French group Les Doigts de l’Homme, one of the biggest names in European circles in gypsy jazz, Lawrence says.

“They’re an incredibly fun and versatile group,” he said. Their name, which means “The Fingers of Man,” is a pun on the French phrase for “The Rights of Man” (Les Droits de l’Homme). They first played at “Django in June” in 2011 and proved to be one the festival’s most popular acts ever, Lawrence notes, and he says the group also played in the coveted closing spot in last year’s “Festival Django Reinhardt” in Samois-sur-Seine, France, the biggest annual event in gypsy jazz.

Also, some of the top students attending “Django in June” are scheduled, weather permitting, to perform for free in six locations in downtown Northampton Thursday, June 19, between 4 and 5:30 p.m., including outside La Veracruzana, Pizza Paradiso and McLadden’s Irish Publick House.


Lawrence, who leads the Florence-based community guitar program, got the gypsy jazz bug in a big way in 2003 when he traveled to Samois-sur-Seine to check out the Reinhardt festival. It not only featured many virtuoso players, he noted, it also hosted a huge number of other musicians and visitors, including people camping at the site, for whom gypsy jazz was very much a family tradition.

“It’s a culture that really celebrates music-making,” he said. “It was a very different scene than I was used to ... you could walk around and see people jamming everywhere.”

At Samois, where Reinhardt retired (and died) in the early 1950s, Lawrence was also struck by the guitar sounds he heard. An experienced flatpicker in American styles like bluegrass and blues, he marveled at the quick leads and “odd, angular arpeggios” played by soloists, and what he calls the fast, percussive “voom-chick-voom-chick” of the rhythm guitarists.

“It was not something you hear much in this country,” he said. “Sure, we have swing music, we have Western swing, but it’s a very different sound ... and the technique was just amazing, very different.”

Wanting to bring some of that flavor to the Valley, Lawrence started on a small scale, producing a single concert and a day of workshops in Northampton in 2004. But over the years he’s steadily expanded the offerings, which now feature four full days of classes, Wednesday though Saturday, and additional jamming sessions. This year, the teaching staff has expanded to some 20 musicians — including several of the key performers from the Friday and Saturday concerts — who offer classes in guitar, violin, accordion, mandolin and bass.

Charles Williams, the guitarist from Atlanta, said he’s been playing with a gypsy jazz band there for several years and studying the music for over a decade. Taking lessons with some of the genre’s top players at last year’s festival, he notes, took his interest to an even greater level: “I got a little sidetracked, just watching them play, so I forgot to work on my own technique as much as I should.”

But he also developed a connection with one of the teachers, Gonzalo Bergara of Argentina, who leads a gypsy jazz quartet, and helped arrange a sold-out concert for the group in Atlanta, as well as hosting Bergara in his home. “I think that kind of networking is the best way we can help bring this music to more places” in the U.S., Williams said.

Transforming the art form

What everyone has in common is a love of the music of Reinhardt. He became a legend in France and other parts of Europe in the 1930s when he reimagined American jazz on his guitar, and his technique was all the more astonishing because he could play leads using only the first two fingers of his left hand, the one he used on the fretboard; the other fingers had become partly paralyzed from a fire when he was 18.

The musicians who play at “Django in June” honor that legacy in different ways. Christophe Lartilleux, for instance, sometimes plays his solos using just two fingers on his fretboard, the better to understand how Reinhardt performed. And Les Doights de l’Homme released an album in 2010 with several Reinhardt covers to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the guitarist’s birth.

But those groups also offer their own compositions and flavor, reinterpreting Reinhardt’s music with more modern jazz styles and other influences. That’s brought the occasional complaint from some “Django in June” concert attendees who were expecting more “pure Django,” says Lawrence, who adds that he tries to have the shows strike a balance between the Reinhardt canon and more contemporary gypsy jazz sounds.

“I don’t tell the musicians what to play,” he said. “You can’t expect them to just stay in a box.”

That said, Lawrence notes, this weekend’s performances will showcase the way in which many gypsy jazz players pass down the music from generation to generation. Lartilleux, par exemple, grew up as part of a traveling circus — his father was a guitarist, his mother a Gypsy — and his daughter now accompanies him on bass and guitar. Samson Schmitt (and his two brothers) in turn learned guitar from his father, Dorado, also a professional player, who had learned it from his father.

“It’s a great tradition to pass down,” Lawrence said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Django in June” offers two concerts at Northampton’s Academy of Music on June 20 and 21, both starting at 7:30 p.m. Visit academyofmusictheatre.com to order tickets online. You can also visit djangoinjune.com for more information, including links to video performances of the participating artists.