Pair of Festivals Display Django Reinhardt’s Continued Influence

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In the span of five days in May, two major Django Reinhardt tributes took place in Manhattan, drawing hordes of Djangophiles from across the tri-state area and beyond.

Pat Philips-Stratta (in association with Leonardo and George DiCaprio) held her Forever Django bash on May 1 at Carnegie Hall. That celebration of the legendary gypsy-jazz guitarist evolved out of her longstanding Django Reinhardt Festival at Birdland, which kicked off in 2000. Billed as “Passing the Family Torch,” the Carnegie concert marked the official ascendancy of 38-year-old guitarist Samson Schmitt, who is taking the reigns from Django disciple and family patriarch Dorado Schmitt, 61, in the lead guitar role with the Django Festival All-Stars, whose new album, Attitude Manouche, drops June 15 on Resilience Music Alliance.

“It is important for me to take this gift that my father has given me and, while respecting the tradition, create something of my own and take the music farther,” said Samson while warming up in his dressing room ahead of the performance on a manouche guitar. With Dorado’s youngest son, 22-year-old Amati, flashing his own dazzling fretboard facility alongside the elder Schmitt and his older brother, and Samson’s two children—17-year-old rhythm guitarist Stan and 13-year-old singer Stephanie—also performing at the show, this Carnegie Hall Djangofest was strictly a family affair.

“I was driven to learn how to play this music,” said the elder Schmitt through an interpreter. “It was a huge challenge, because Django was not just about technique, he was also about melody and he played with heart. You can hear all of his deepest emotions and feelings in his music.”

And Schmitt, the very personification of savoir faire in his Djangoesque pencil-thin mustache, shock of white hair and matching white suit, squeezed every drop of emotion out of every note on his “Nuages” solo at the Carnegie show, as guest vocalist Melody Gardot looked on adoringly.

Schmitt’s father, a guitarist and violinist, introduced him to Reinhardt’s music, though he admits that Django was not his first guitar hero. “I started with rock ’n’ roll,” he confessed. “I even tried to play a few Jimi Hendrix songs. Later, I discovered George Benson and Wes Montgomery. It was much later that my father said to me one day, ‘Listen to Django and you will understand.’ And ever since then, Django has been my inspiration. I consider him to be the Mozart of guitar music. In my opinion, Django is still the greatest jazzman today.”

On May 5, Stephane Wrembel held his 12th Django A GoGo at Town Hall. A native of France and a New Yorker since 2003, Wrembel is best known for his “Bistro Fada,” the theme song from Woody Allen’s 2011 Midnight In Paris. His annual concert always has culminated in a week-long gypsy-jazz guitar camp in Maplewood, New Jersey, where he instructs all levels of guitarists on the finer aspects of Reinhardt’s techniques. This year’s Django A GoGo featured such accomplished Djangophiles as Holland’s Stochelo Rosenberg and Paulus Schafer, Finland’s Olli Soikkeli and France’s Pierre “Kamlo” Barré and Simba Baumgartner, the great-grandson of Django Reinhardt.

“I grew up in Fontainebleau hearing Django’s music everywhere,” said Wrembel, who plays a hand-made Bob Holo manouche-style guitar. “We used to go have drinks in bars and Django’s music would always be in the background. The presence of Django has always been there, but I never really paid attention to it for some weird reason. My big guitar guys growing up were Mark Knopfler, David Gilmour, Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa. I also loved Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, and in fact, I learned Satriani’s whole Surfing With The Alien album note for note. But when I finally paid closer attention to Django’s music as a player, it struck me like lightning how incredible it was.”

Judging by the enthusiastic crowds at both sold-out events, it’s clear that the spirit of the Belgian-born Romani still is alive and well 84 years after Django and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France began its groundbreaking run in Paris.

Meanwhile, Étienne Comar’s biopic Django, set in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1943, has been making the rounds of art-house theaters across the country, eliciting acclaim for the French-Algerian actor Reda Kateb’s portrayal of the legendary guitarist.

Suddenly, everything’s coming up Django. DB




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May 2019
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