Presto Django!

Gypsy jazz fest in Laguna

There'snotmuchyoucandowith two fingers. You can poke Curly in the eyes, or you can play the most thrilling jazz guitar in the world. French Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt did the latter, becoming an inspiration not just to generations of jazz players, but also to disparate string-slingers from Willie Nelson to Richard Thompson. It's no surprise that 52 years after Reinhardt's death, entire Djangofests are devoted to the style he created.

"There was such a spontaneous vitality and joy in Django's playing, while it was also rhapsodic and romantic, a combination that makes it irresistible to me," says John Jorgenson, one of the featured players at the three-day Djangofest LA commencing Friday at Laguna's Festival of Arts' Forum Theatre. "It's challenging, physically difficult music to play, but unlike the 'cool' jazz many guitarists play, Django's was hotter and energetic, more like Louis Armstrong's sort of playing. It's jazz a kid can love."

Reinhardt himself was barely out of his teens when his ears were first pleasured by a Louis Armstrong 78, causing him to weep and cry out, "My brother!" He was the prototypical passionate Gypsy, fabulously larger than life. In the Gypsy tongue, Django's name meant "I awake." Reinhardt was born and lived most of his life in a Gypsy caravan. At 18, he was horribly burned in a caravan fire that left two of his fretting fingers charred and useless. (Even this had a cinematic quality: his young wife had made celluloid flowers for a Gypsy child's funeral, which became a colorful inferno when a candle tipped.) Reinhardt was illiterate, feasted on hedgehogs and, even after he was world-famous, exercised a talent for stealing chickens. He lived on Gypsy time, ignoring gigs or showing up hours late, as he famously did for a Carnegie Hall show.

The guitarists who emulate him today even copy his choice of guitars—a Selmer Maccaferri. The perfect Django-style guitarist, perhaps, would be one who taped two fingers together and didn't show up for the gig.

That turns out to be only half-ludicrous, as Jorgenson and several other players do indeed play Reinhardt's solos using only two fingers.

"There is a reason for that, you know," he said. "I do it because I want to see how he played those licks. It puts you in different places on the fingerboard, and that's part of the sound, too."

Jorgenson uses the two-digit approach when he's copying Reinhardt's original solos, as he did on the soundtrack to the film HeadintheClouds,in which he also plays Reinhardt onscreen. He employs his full compliment of fingers when adding to the Gypsy jazz legacy, as he does with the fanciful compositions on his current album, Franco-AmericanSwing.He's at work on an even more far-ranging follow-up that will mix the music with flamenco and funk influences.

"That's the most exciting thing for me. I love the tradition of this music and want to be true to that, but I also like to see what new things I can bring to it."

The Redlands-raised onetime Anaheim resident first started playing Django-style guitar in the late '70s when he was a musician at Disneyland, where he also played Dixieland on clarinet and bluegrass on mandolin. In 1985, he and Chris Hillman formed the country-chart-topping Desert Rose Band (The Academy of Country Music named Jorgenson the genre's top guitarist for three years running). He subsequently was one-third of the Telecaster-taunting Hellcasters, and then spent six years touring with Elton John. Now living in Nashville, he does the occasional studio session but has spent most of the past year touring with his Django-styled music.

He's played previous U.S. Djangofests and is invited this year to play a memorial festival in Django's ultimate resting place of Samois, France. Jorgenson maintains that you can never hear too much of the music.

The three days in Laguna will also feature Paris-based Gypsy Angelo DeBarre, Amsterdam's adventurous Robin Nolan Trio, Seattle's Pearl Django, LA's Trio Gonzalo and Rhythm Brothers (featuring Jorgenson's old playing partner Raul Reynoso), the Hot Club of San Diego, Phoenix's Marcelo Damon and Nomad Jazz, and Club Django. Joining Jorgenson's quintet on Sunday's set will be Beryl Davis, who as a 14-year-old sang with Reinhardt in the 1930s. The three-day fest will also feature workshops and a lecture and book signing by Michael Dregni, whose 2004 biography, Django:theLifeandMusicofaGypsyLegend,is such a thorough evocation of Reinhardt's life that it even includes instructions on cooking a hedgehog.


Djangofest LA 2005 at the Festival of Arts Forum Theatre, 650 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 499-5088; www.djangofestla.com; www.ticketleap.com. Concerts Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 8 p.m. $30; Lecture with Michael Dregni Fri., 6 p.m. $12.

 
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