Django Reinhardt, the man whose nimble fingers (all eight of them) created a style of jazz still played today, never really went away. His heyday was in the ‘30s and ‘40s, but he left such an indelible mark on the guitar that disciples are still trying to figure out how he did it. Some of those disciples, Djangoholics Anonymous, will be kicking off the Berks Jazz Fest on April 1 at the Crowne Plaza in Reading. I spoke with Djangoholic Josh Taylor about the festival, gypsies and the continuing mystique of Django Reinhardt.
Kevin Stairiker: So how did the Djangoholics come to be?
Josh Taylor: I’ve been playing jazz in the Reading area for a while and got into the music of Django Reinhart, sometimes called “gypsy jazz,” at a place called “Django in June.” It’s in Northampton, Massachusetts and it’s basically an international guitar camp. So I go up there for the first time five years ago and I met a ton of players. There’s master classes all day and informal jamming all night-like, literally 3 or 4 in the morning [laughs]. There’s people from Australia, Florida, France, everywhere. One night I ended up in a jam with a guy from New Jersey, so he seemed to be the most local guy I could find. The music really needs two guitars, so I was really happy to find Mike Nikolidakis. We exchanged information and when I came back to the Reading area, we started to bring in guys from the Philly-area and do monthly jams at people’s houses. So there I got to meet Bill Nixon, who is our current violin player. So Michael came up with the name and we started playing some local places around Reading and then down into Philadelphia and New Jersey. Last year was the first time we were a headliner at Berk’s Jazz Fest.
KS: And you’ll be opening the festival this year, right?
JT: Yeah. Half of the audience will be friends and family but half are people who just really like this style of music. It’s cool to see people catch onto it. I think it’s more accessible for people who don’t like jazz, I guess if I can say that.
KS: I get that. Why do you think that is?
JT: I think the rhythms are straightforward and it’s not as heady. It’s toe-tapping jazz, it’s kind of danceable jazz. I don’t know how to put it.
KS: I mean, there are solos and looser things, but it’s generally more concise.
KS: Obviously, I like all kinds of jazz, but I think jazz on the meandering-side can get grating for people.
KS: Have you been a lifelong fan of Django?
JT: I have, but before I go there, I should mention the other guys in the band. Trey LaRue on the bass, who I’ve played with for years. The other guy is Chris Heslop. At the same time, Chris and I have a band called Hesse’s Hot 3, which is a New Orleans-style band. He kind of got into this, and Django was originally influenced by Louis Armstrong and was trying to do a string band version of what Louis was doing back in the day. So there’s a lot of crossover with that style of music. I first heard Django when I was a teenager. I was into Hendrix and Van Halen at the time, but it was so exotic that at the time, I didn’t know where to begin. It really struck me as very unique, and over the years I got into it, but it didn’t really click until I went to “Django in June.” There was actually some gypsies from Europe who came over and taught some of the camp classes. There was a guy from Argentina named Gonzolo Bergara who I absolutely love and taught me a lot. Everyone’s real approachable during the day and then they jam all night. It’s a blast. The whole festival ends with two concerts at a local music hall and it’s a lot of fun.
KS: When you’re playing, you stick to one era of Django? I think an interesting thing about him is that it’s more the style of his playing that was influential, as opposed to any specific songs like “Minor Swing.”
JT: Well, Django, like a lot of innovators, he just kept pushing things until the end. I think when he died in the ‘50s, he was pushing towards a bebop thing and hearing some of those influences. When we play, we don’t try to stick to anything. We try to do tunes in the string jazz tradition and we do have a horn player, Chris plays the clarinet. Chris is also heavily influenced by Sydney Bechet, who was a contemporary of Django and an interesting character. He was, in his own way, an innovator on the soprano sax and a great composer. So we do some of his compositions.
KS: So you play primarily Django but jump around within the style?
JT: Yes, yeah. We’ve recently started adding Thelonious Monk into the set and into our instrumentation.
KS: Is there anyone at Jazz Fest that you’e eager to see?
JT: Well, the Chick Corea and Bela Fleck show looks interesting. It’s tough, because we’re usually playing at the same time as everyone else [laughs]. Keb’ Mo’ is coming, he’s another one I like, personally. I’ll probably see some friends of ours as well. The Jazz Fest tends to be fun because we might have buddies playing somewhere, so we can pop in and jam whenever.
KS: Maybe hit up Gerald Veasley at midnight?
JT: Yeah, sometimes Chris plays with him. I don’t usually play with Gerald, but I have done clinics with him. I do youth outreach for Reading Musical Foundation, we’re actually doing a clinic for them on April 2nd. All the local Berks County bands come and it’s basically an all-day clinic for them. I have some of my students playing in that. It’s under the name of “Get JazzED.”
KS: Do you have any specific songs or collections of songs that you would point someone to if they only have a tertiary idea of his music?
JT: The problem with the Django stuff you can buy is that the mixing and mastering is terrible [laughs]. If you can find it, there’s a collection on the Integral Label, I think it’s a French label, but they have a box set of everything he recorded and the mastering seems to be best on there. I know Blue Note released a “Best Of” that’s pretty good, but sometimes the sound quality is pretty bad. That always fascinated me too, they basically had the limits of the pressing of an album then, which was like three minutes. So there’s not much Django in extended form of being able to spread out and really play a song. It’s like, maybe a chorus or two in and out and done. There’s got to be recordings of him live, there’s very few of them.
KS: I thought about that. They’d be incredibly poor recordings but if there was any film or anything from a later period…
JT: It’s very odd. You’d think there would be a lot more. There’s a great resource called DjangoBooks.com. There’s a forum on there, and a lot of guys I go to camp with contribute constantly. So someone find a picture of Django and post it up there. So there’s always things coming out. I know when he toured with Duke Ellington in the states, there was some of that, but not a lot of recordings. I’d love to hear some of the great, late night sessions him and Duke did after concerts.
KS: Hopefully some of that will start to trickle out over the years, but you also would think that they would have in the seventy or eighty years since his heyday.
JT: Well, the gypsy culture is kind of funny, too. I think near the end of his life, I think he spent a lot of money. Les Paul ended up paying for his funeral. But there’s stories of his distant relatives who are in the gypsy culture who do have some live recordings and haven’t released them. Now whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but I read something about it [laughs].
KS: I guess a lot of that stuff can easily get lost to the wind when roving gypsies are the ones keeping up his legacy.
JT: There’s still a lot of mystique surrounding him, for sure.
Djangoholics Anonymous will also be playing after Jazz Fest on April 14 at the Neag planetarium in Reading.