Cat on a Hot Club Roof
New Mexico Django Fest swings with three days of gypsy jazz
In the universe of guitar mastery, Django Reinhardt is the brightest star in his own corner of the cosmos. And, as is usually the case with legends, there's plenty of fantastic lore swirling around Reinhardt's brilliant but brief life, which spanned from 1910 to 1953.
Only this time it's all true.
Reinhardt was a French gypsy who supported his family by playing guitar. At the age of 18, in the shadow of the old fortification walls of Paris, he was badly burned when his caravan caught fire. Reinhardt's right leg was crippled and his left hand—his fretting hand—was melted down to two functioning fingers and a stump.
Incredibly, Reinhardt retaught himself to play guitar with the impairment. (The injury left him bed-ridden for a year and a half—he had plenty of time to tool around.) Like they say in France, the rest is l'histoire. He was a supernova that's still revered by musicians around the world. John Sandlin, guitarist of Albuquerque's award-winning hot jazz quintet Le Chat Lunatique, is awed by Reinhardt's innovation.
"In Paris, pre-1930, it was all musette and dance music. And Django, being a gypsy, played that, but he would always go back to the caravan and play gypsy," Sandlin says, twirling his appropriately vintage pencil-thin mustache. "He heard Louis Armstrong for the first time—one of those records floated across the ocean and ended up in Paris. I mean, the guy was illiterate and musically illiterate, couldn't read or write music, but he just could hear it. So he started copying the licks of Louis. The hot jazz of America, Louis Armstrong specifically, influenced him to combining gypsy with that hot jazz."
Through his music, Reinhardt epitomized the exuberant but troubled spirit of WWII Europe. His ability to succinctly tap into that complicated climate—beaten but hopeful and, at times, escapist—made him a star.
"He made it famous off one song during Nazi occupation in Paris called 'Nuages,' meaning 'clouds.' It's a slow and emanating kind of song that people really latched onto as an anthem. You know, this cloud was covering Paris," Sandlin says.
Reinhardt wasn't the first to fuse European instrumentation with American jazz sensibilities, but, by all accounts, he was the best.
"There were a lot of those musicians that were fed up with playing waltzes all night, and then they started getting this improvisational freedom in the jazz. But [Reinhardt] was really the one who brought it to the forefront of popular music in Europe. And his handicap also provided him with this mystique. You know, how does he do this with two fingers?"
To pay tribute to his idol, Sandlin has spent the last several months co-organizing the second annual New Mexico Django Fest. What—you didn't hear about the inaugural event last year? You're not alone.
"[The first New Mexico Django Fest] was up in Santa Fe. The tickets were too expensive. It was at the La Fonda hotel. And a lot of people from Albuquerque were not willing to go up. Our fans were like, 'eh.' You pay $60 to $80 for a ticket to drive to Santa Fe just for one day. And the press was kind of late getting out. Nobody knew about it."
Sandlin says things are different this year. For one, the festival has swelled to three days and five venues. The ticket prices have been slashed in half. And of the nine acts playing the festival, Sandlin's particularly excited about the event's special headliner, Howard Alden.
“Howard Alden is a fantastic guitar player. The people in the Django circles really like him for the work he did for the movie Sweet and Lowdown, a Woody Allen film with Sean Penn playing a kind of eccentric, arrogant, pathetic American version of Django Rienhardt. The person who played the soundtrack and coached Sean Penn on how to look like he was playing the guitar was Howard Alden. He is just an all-around amazing jazz guitarist. Very uppercrust."
In addition to performances, Howard Alden will teach an intensive guitar workshop at Hotel Blue focusing on "the nuts and bolts" of Rienhardt's style. Sandlin is capping off the entire weekend with an open jam in Old Town.
"One of the cool things about Django Fest and Django music is that people who play the style just love to get together and jam. Somebody calls the tune and you play the melody and then go around and play solos and stuff. You really learn a lot. I'm excited because there are so few gypsy jazz guitar players in New Mexico, in Albuquerque especially, I feel like I'm sort of isolated. So whenever I get a chance to play with these guys and exchange ideas, it's really thrilling."