Some like it hot

By Assistant Arts & Culture Editor

I am ze greatest guitarist in ze world,” said a jovial Joshua Zirko, owner of Caravan Guitars, 4754 N. Rockwell St., in a phony French accent. His modestly sized audience laughed, as if the joke had been told before and would be told again many times. The name of a jazz standard was called out and met with the loud sound of flipping pages. The musicians began to play enchanting tunes like no other. 

Sitting in Caravan on a Tuesday night is like stepping into the 1930s. Black and white photographs of a peculiar man with a tiny moustache peers downward, looking as though he is proud that people are still playing his music. A gramophone sits near the storefront window, on which heavy scarlet curtains are hung. Shut, they only let a tiny sliver of light escape, the only light illuminating the street late at night.  

Across the U.S., a small but very passionate group of musicians maintains a fading foreign musical tradition that champions technique and virtuosity. Chicago is one of the nation’s liveliest hubs for these musicians and plays a large role in hosting festivals, workshops and jam sessions to keep this small corner of European jazz history alive. 

It’s called Gypsy jazz, and it evolved from folk music into a style reserved only for elite players it remains unrecognized by many, although it is prominently featured in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” Now, it’s re-emerging in the Windy City as a highly technical but friendly throwback for a small group of Chicagoans. 

Also called jazz manouche or hot jazz, Gypsy jazz differs from early American jazz in origin. While the ideas of swing and heavy syncopation were born here, the Roma shared the same tradition of improvisation, but their folk tunes reflect the dark flavor of Eastern Europe.  

The “la pompe” is Gypsy jazz’s signature comping rhythm and can be played fast for intensity and slower for beautiful ballads. Minor-sounding even in major keys, the intense melodic improvisation is key—blisteringly quick, exotic, mysterious, exuberant and eloquent. 

This intimate group flocks to Caravan, a little relic of 1930s Paris nestled in Ravenswood, for weekly jam sessions, during which a cacophony of guitars, mandolins, violins and accordions come together to swing to jazz standards—Gypsy style.

“Everyone who comes to the shop or sits in at the jams are really nice people and don’t mind helping out the guy who doesn’t really know how to play the song, or [doesn’t] know that chord,” Zirko said.

The legend and history of Gypsy jazz can be traced back to Gypsy jazz founder and guitar legend Jean “Django” Reinhardt, who was born in Liberchies, Pont-à-Celles Belgium, and grew up in a nomadic Romani culture.

According to “Django Reinhardt, the Life and Music  of a Gypsy Legend” by Michael Dregni, Reinhardt primarily grew up on the outskirts of Paris, living in a tight-knit Romani enclave. His mother was a dancer and his father left the family when Reinhardt was very young when he began to excel at playing 6-string banjo and the violin. 

But at age 18, Reinhardt almost ruined his chances at musical stardom. Returning home late from playing music in Saint-Ouen, Seine-Saint-Denis, France, Reinhardt accidentally tripped in the darkness and dropped a lit candle onto the celluloid flowers his young wife Bella sold to supplement their meager income. The caravan was instantly engulfed in a raging inferno. 

The Reinhardts escaped with their lives, but Django was badly burned on the left side of his body. Within two years, he regained his ability to walk, but what he never regained was the full use of his fretting hand. The injury should have kept him from playing, but Reinhardt refused to give up his music. 

Despite his injuries, Reinhardt was incredibly dexterous. His combination of the American jazz tradition and Romani musical heritage continues to capture players’ imaginations, and his raw talent remains unmatched to this day.

Caravan, one of the few stores in the U.S. dedicated to selling the guitars played by Reinhardt, carries on the sound of Gypsy jazz through practice and merchandise. In part, Reinhardt’s sound is indebted to the guitars he used.

Designed by Mario Maccaferri and produced by Selmer, a now defunct Parisian manufacturer, the guitars are instantly recognizable by their signature sound hole designs and the low growl preferred by players worldwide. 

Maccaferri’s designs are colloquially known as “la grand bouche,” big mouth, and “la petite bouche,” small mouth, for the sizes of their respective sound holes. The guitars were designed for greater amplitude and projection in an age when the guitar wasn’t loud enough to play in ensembles, Zirko said.

Local player and enthusiast Michael Bauer, claims to have one of the largest collections of Gypsy jazz guitars in the area. Beginning his fascination with guitar collecting in 2005, Bauer has accumulated 14 ostensibly rare and valuable vintage guitars, including a 1932 Selmer, of the first such made. Original Selmers are known to fetch up to $40,000 at auctions. Bauer is a self-described Gypsy jazz fanatic. 

“It’s like a religious movement,” Bauer said. 

While Caravan serves a worldwide audience, one epicenter of the Gypsy jazz revival is in Chicago.

By 1940, the quintette format most closely associated with Gypsy jazz, which featured one violin and one guitar exchanging leads with two rhythm guitars and a bass, was gone. Reinhardt’s partner, virtuoso violinist Stephane Grappelli, had been in England at the time Paris was occupied by the Nazis, splitting up the Quintet of the Hot Club of France—Reinhardt’s group—until after the war. 

By the late 1940s jazz was changing. Musicians grew bored by the typical conventions of swing music and invented bebop, a speedier and complex form.

While Reinhardt’s influence on guitarists never waned, his music fell out of style and he abandoned what he had helped to create, never fully returning to it. 

Yet, for enthusiasts  like Bauer, the Gypsy jazz revival began decades ago.

In the sixties, “I was out and I saw this record, “The Quintet of the Hot Club of France, First Recordings.” I bought it and went totally nuts; I played it until no one else could stand it that was anywhere near me,” he added.

In Chicago, the caravan rolls on with a locally crowned Midwest “King of Swing,” the guitarist Alfonso Ponticelli and his band Swing Gitan, who invaded the scene in the mid-1990s, bringing the craze with them. 

Crowned best Jazz Band of 2013 in a Chicago Reader poll, Swing Gitan has played at the Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway, every Wednesday night for the past 10 years. Rami Gabriel, jazz guitarist and associate professor of psychology at Columbia, regularly plays with Ponticelli and said he thinks Swing Gitan’s performances at the Green Mill are the core of the movement because of their presence and ability to regularly draw large crowds.

Gabriel met Ponticelli and the other members of the scene after moving from Santa Barbara, Calif., where he was involved in the local Gypsy jazz scene. He said the music is well-received across the U.S.

“I play all kinds of music, but the one that I used to get the most gigs for was Gypsy jazz,” Gabriel said. “It swings; it’s not like later jazz where the rhythm gets harder. This one’s like duc-duc-duc-duc-duc, like a metronome. It’s really easy for people to follow.”

For 11 years, the Chicago Gypsy jazz festival has been one of the main envoys of Gypsy jazz in the Midwest, keeping things swingin’ every October at the Green Mill, headlined and organized by Ponticelli himself. 

A great tradition that has made its way across the world, as great art does, Gypsy jazz is a living, breathing art form, not a memorial to the musical accomplishments of one enigmatic man. 

While the scene continues to thrive in Chicago, Reinhardt’s fans are looking to expand Gypsy jazz beyond what he accomplished in his short life.

“When I was in Chicago and heard some of the musicians who were working with it, it was creative and was trying to engage it in a sort of vital fashion, and that, I think, is an applaudable effort,” said Boston College ethnomusicologist Donald James, an expert on contemporary French jazz. James is a jazz guitarist and graduate of the University of Chicago.

Bauer believes the scene is healthy simply because it has enough players to support it.

“When you’ve got multiple bands playing something as obscure as this music, that’s a good thing,” Bauer said.

Gypsy jazz isn’t experiencing the same rebirth abroad as it is here in the states, James said. While players grow and expand on the Gypsy jazz sound, the resurgence is lost on the French, who are distancing themselves from  it.

“I think stylistically, jazz musicians in France no longer identify with it, even guitarists,” James said.   “They’re making references to John Scofield, to Joe Pass and more contemporary players, whereas the Reinhardt style seems a bit outdated. Discursively it remains very, very important.”

The original quintette was both the first jazz club to originate outside of the U.S. and remains a source of pride for French Jazz musicians, James said.

The only European player to gain worldwide influence, Reinhardt’s towering presence casts a shadow over European jazz,  keeping foreign players, French musicians in particular, on edge.

“That anxiety is driven through a lot of performance of jazz in France,” James said. “Even in France, contemporary jazz musicians worry about their place within jazz history because [for them] jazz [is] old and American, and [they] know that [they’re] not carving that entity outside of the French scene.