Sassy Strumming, Razor-Sharp Fingerwork At The Heart of “Jazz Gitan”

Jazz Gitan Don Price.JPG

With its characteristic jaunty, Parisian feel, the spirit of gypsy jazz as made popular by Django Reinhardt lives on thanks to contemporary artists around the globe. In California, there’s one student of the art form who has made this his passion. Student has become teacher and a fully-credentialed gypsy jazz ambassador. Don Price’s band is called “Jazz Gitan” – French for “jazz gypsy.”

Why are you drawn to this genre?

The rhythmic style of Gypsy Jazz is called “le pompe” and means to push or to pump. That’s the significant difference in style as compared with traditional jazz. In fact, the rhythm guitarist is the center of the beat, not the soloist. It is his/her job to maintain an even and forceful tempo at all times without taking too many liberties. The melodies of Django were beautiful (“Nuages” comes to mind). The challenge of improvisation in jazz – especially gypsy jazz – makes it fun. Just to give you an idea, to convincingly play the Django tune “Babik” (which was written for his son) at the Samois gypsy jam sessions (the home of the yearly Django Festival and Django’s burial place), you have to get the tempo up to at least 300 bpm. Now that’s le pompe!

Contemporary artists who inspire you?

There are so many good, up and coming players today, mostly in Europe: Paulus Schafer, Olli Soikkeli, Andreas Oberg, Stephane Wrembel (who did the Woody Allen film “’Midnight In Paris”), Stochelo Rosenberg, Angelo Debarre and Robin Nolan. That’s just a start. Then there are a few American players like John Jorgenson, Frank Vignola, Alfonso Ponticelli, Gonzalo Bergara. But the crown goes to French guitarist Bireli Lagrene, who has performed worldwide in just about every style of music, but continues to return to his gypsy jazz roots in Django.

Give a brief background of your mother’s musical career.

There was always music going on in the household.

My mother performed both on and off stage, playing multiple instruments like piano, accordion and guitar. She performed for the USO during WWII and was able to meet Les Paul, Hank Garland, Bob Wills and many of the jazz and Nashville artists of the day. She introduced me to Les Paul at a concert when I was only six.  

She recorded with others, but also wrote her own songs, one of which I did on the “Djangit” album, called “It Only Hurts For A Little While” that I rearranged to fit the gypsy jazz style. She taught me tenor guitar and I almost didn’t learn the six-string guitar because I had become so used to the four-string. We would sing and play along with recordings of Elvis or whoever and record ourselves on reel-to-reel. I plan to record more of her tunes on upcoming CD’s.

Have you played the Django Fest?

The last time I played at Django Fest was 2011 with my early trio. The festival has become so huge now – both in San Francisco and in Washington – that bands are fighting to get in. I’m not certain when I will be offered the opportunity again. With my new band we usually go on the road during the summer months and play the theater or similar venues besides playing regularly on a local basis.

This summer (2017) we will be doing the San Francisco Folk Festival which is a free festival with all kinds of music. As far as I know we are the only official gypsy jazz group who will be performing there.

Why don’t we hear more of this sub-genre on Internet radio or TV music stations?

Actually, one can hear this music on Internet radio mostly where there is an actual Django channel, or on YouTube. It’s widely played in Europe on radio channels.

Do you have a singer in the band?

I never used to have singers in my band. However, lately I’ve noticed the audience seems to enjoy vocals. The only two tunes with vocals are “Dinah” (on the “Jazz Gitan: Trio” CD featuring bassist Zack Sapunor) and the “JGQ: Live” CD where fellow guitarist Devan Kortan sings “The Sheik Of Araby.”  I recently wrote a tune called “Django Never Played No Gig In Hangtown” which has lyrics specifically geared to a share-along approach. We haven’t yet rehearsed it, so we’ll see what happens. I plan to do another of my mother’s originals that has lyrics.

Do you still teach at USC (University of Southern California)?

I’ve been on the Recommended Teacher’s listing since 1986. I was also teaching at Sacramento City College and a number of music stores, all before 2013. I still offer private lessons, and I’ll also offer online lessons in relation to my instruction books.

Is there commercial interest in the genre?

I think it’s been growing. When I first got hooked on it back in 1996 there weren’t too many people playing this style on the West Coast except for The Hot Club of San Francisco and Pearl Django. The majority of this music came from Europe. Unless a big star like Bireli Lagrene came to town, no one knew much about it.

It’s kind of like the bluegrass and blues phenomena which would attract a certain segment of pop culture but not across the board.

Now with gypsy jazz we have an influx of European players to draw on for inspiration, and you can find Django camps popping up around the country as well the yearly Django Festival in New York.

Current projects?

I’m writing instructional books for gypsy jazz and I’m planning another CD, this time featuring all original compositions. Not certain of the line-up of players yet.

Future plans?

Stay healthy, inspired, and keep swinging!

Photo: Julie Dinsdale (Hinterland Studios)

© Debbie Burke 2017

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