Birdland Swings During the Django Reinhardt NY Festival

June 28, 2015 Updated: July 1, 2015

Producers Pat Philips and Ettore Stratta brought their semi-annual Django Reinhardt NY Festival back to the Birdland jazz club (315 W. 44th St.). This is the 16th year of the festival. Sponsor Air France flew most of the artists from Europe, and the band was supplemented each night by special guest artists. This is music that epitomizes swing and joie de vivre.

If this music doesn’t put a smile on your face, nothing will.
If this music doesn’t put a smile on your face, nothing will.

The Belgian Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910–1953) is considered the first great jazz artist to come out of Europe. His group, the Hot Club of France, was co-led by violinist Stéphane Grappelli (1908–1997), who emerged as a full-fledged star on the international circuit after Django’s untimely death.

Django developed his unique style after he suffered a terrible injury in a fire during 1928, as a result of which he lost the use of two fingers on his left hand.

To convey an idea of his influence, B.B. King once demonstrated in a television interview (and similarly on a YouTube posting) how his playing had changed as a result of listening to Reinhardt’s recordings. 

Reinhardt met Grappelli in 1934, and the group they formed was made up of of guitars—Django’s brother Joseph played rhythm guitar—plus bass and violin. The group had no drummer, but they created an infectious form of swing music that became popular on both sides of the Atlantic.

The group at Birdland followed the instrumentation of the Hot Club: two guitars (Samson Schmitt on lead guitar and Doudou Cuillerier on rhythm guitar and occasional vocals), violin (Pierre Blanchard), button accordion (Ludovic Beier), and bass (Brian Torff, an American who had played with Grappelli). Samson, a French Gypsy, is part of a jazz guitar dynasty; his father Dorado Schmitt has usually played lead guitar at the festival and will be back at Birdland in November.

The first guest to join the group for two numbers was Olli Soikkeli, a wonderful guitarist from Finland. He and Samson engaged in a friendly competition. The gypsy jazz created by Django is often played at lightning speed, much like American bluegrass music.

The band performed tunes that the Hot Club played, such as “I Found a New Baby,” and pieces composed by Reinhardt and Grappelli (including “Are You in the Mood,” which they co-composed).

The group was joined by Stéphane Séva, described as a washboard player. He is a master percussionist, who uses his hands rather than sticks.

One notable aspect of the performance is that many of the pieces performed were of recent vintage, composed by the musicians on stage. Schmitt soloed on his rhapsodic ballad, “Lovely Wife.” Beier played an accordina (a cross between an accordion and a harmonica) on his composition, “Fleur De Brasil.” Cuillerier showed off his scat singing with a piece by Paul Misraki.

The band and guest stars joined for a Hot Club favorite, the Russian song known here as “Dark Eyes” and in France as “Les Yeux Noirs.” Blanchard ended his galvanizing solo with a leap in the air.

The Django Reinhardt NY Festival will return to Birdland in November and Dorado Schmitt will lead the group.

Next up at Birdland, from June 30 to July 4, is the scion of a distinguished American jazz family: saxophonist Ravi Coltrane (son of John and Alice Coltrane) and his Quartet, with Adam Roger on guitar, Scott Colley on bass, and Nate Smith on drums. I caught his exciting group at Yoshi’s club in Oakland and also interviewed Ravi. He is an accomplished player and also a thoughtful, articulate fellow.

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.