The Hot Club
On a night in 1934 Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli found themselves playing for Louis Vola in a pedestrian dance band at the Hotel Claridge. During a performance Grappelli broke a string on his violin. At the next break Django was backstage practicing while Grappelli changed the string. As he tuned he began playing jazz musings on some popular songs and Django joined in. What followed was a surprise attack on the world of jazz.
Jazz at the time was dominated by horns, guitar playing a rhythm role and violins playing Beethoven. Both Reinhardt and Grappelli were not just enamored with jazz, but consumed with playing it. They just were stuck with, and loved, the instruments they played. So in adapting the instrumentation they had, Stéphane and Django, each of whom were uniquely talented, ransacked the medium and started over. The fact that these two discovered each other is a testament to faith and a happy coincidence you tend to find at many transitional phases in art. Balzac and Flaubert in Romantic literature, Van Gogh and Gauguin in post-impressionist painting, Muddy Waters and Little Walter in blues, Lennon and McCartney in pop, Armstrong and Oliver in jazz, Jon Lord and Ritchie Blackmore in rock, Mickey Dolenz and Davey Jones in..wait, strike that last one.
Django and Stéphane continued these jam sessions back stage joined by Vola on bass and brother Joseph ‘Nin-Nin’ Reinhardt on guitar. These sessions got the attention of a local student and jazz lover Pierre Nourry who dragged his jazz mentor to hear these guys. So enters Hugues Panassié.
In 1930 Panassié and Jacques Bureau, a young jazz enthusiast who would later make his fortune designing men’s dressers, started a jazz radio show in Paris. A group of students who were fans of the show approached Panassié and Bureau about starting a jazz club. Not a nightclub, but like a fan club. Gallic sensibility was drawn to unions and societies to meet with fellow passione of all kinds. Clubs at that time had to be registered with the government in order to charge admission to meetings and membership and promote concerts. Panassie named this the Hot Club de France. It was formed at first to meet jazz aficionados to share records and promote jazz in Paris. Soon Panassié and Bureau, spurred on by Django devotees Robert Delauney and Pierre Nourry were promoting these guys who had no intention of starting a band.
From a later period, the only video I could find of Grappelli and Reinhardt as youth. This is 1939 albeit after the fame of the Hot Club de France, but still worth the watch. “J’attendrai Swing”.
In 1934 Django’s playing was really developing into the jazz milieu but wasn’t recognized because he wasn’t playing flippin’ sax. The combination of Django and Stéphane and the collaboration between the two in that back room was quickly becoming astonishing. However neither Panassié nor Bureau were impressed enough to turn their attention from horns and drums and considered this gypsy music and not true jazz. There was even a note of racism in that Panassié stated that because these guys were white they couldn’t be playing REAL jazz. [HUH??—Ed.] Life is weird on so many levels.
But Nourry had vision and he invited Django to one of the club’s formal concerts. Reinhardt showed up atypically, in a crumpled gray suit that looked like he had slept in for months, his guitar wrapped in newspaper. He shyly setup in a corner. Soon he had everyone’s attention. The band played jazz standards like “I’ve Got Rhythm” and Django killed. His style was so unique, with strange phrasings and solos of power combined with the delicacy of jazz manouche that he had been working on with Grappelli in the back of the Hotel Claridge. The musicians got it. Panassié was not a musician but a self-styled promoter of sorts. So he didn’t get it but he knew audience reaction. Django became the darling of the Hot Club and their magazine raved on his playing.
Nourry decided they needed to record what was currently a loosely formed quartet with no name. So in August 1934 into the studio they went with Nourry having to put up his own money. After the sessions Nourry sent acetates to a few promoters including Panassié and John Hammond in America. Panassié and Hammond were un-impressed. Maroons.
Panassié had promoted a concert with the Spanish classical guitarist Andres Segovia so he arranged for Segovia to meet Django and have him play for the famous Spaniard. But Segovia was not a jazz fan and was loathe praising other guitarists anyway, and halfway into Django’s performance Segovia turned his chair around and sat with his back to Reinhardt. Ouch.
In the autumn of 1934 the great Louis Armstrong came to Paris, partially to play and record but mostly to hide out from the gangsters back in Chicago who were controlling his career. The Hot Club de France went crazy and got Armstrong to play at every opportunity they could. Louis was flattered by the attention so when Nourry asked if he could bring Django and Stéphane to meet him he agreed. At Armstrong’s hotel room the door was answered by the Great One himself, but he was in the middle of getting ready for dinner and left the two musicians standing with their instruments as he zipped around the suite putting his suit together. Nourry finally convinced Django and Stéphane to play something but Armstrong never acknowledged them. Nourry later said that walk back down the stairs from the room was one of the longest of his life.
So the boys were still not working, relegated to late night after hours jam sessions.
In October ’34 Nourry tried the studio again, and again with his own money booked a session with Odeon. The band was now a quintette adding Django’s brother Joseph on rhythm and Bert Marshall was brought on for vocals. This is “I Saw Stars” from that Odeon session in 1934 and you can hear Grappelli beginning to use his trademark harmonics.
Odeon was not interested. Nourry and the Hot Club arranged a concert on December 2, 1934 at the Sorbonne’s Centre Malesherbes. Django was so paralyzed by stage fright he hid in his caravan and had to be dragged to the performance hall.
The concert was a success and Panassié finally admitted the performance was great and so arranged another concert at Ecole Normale de Musique. Now the band had to have a name and the Hot Club named them: Django Reinhardt et la Quintette du Hot Club de France. On the strength of these two concerts Nourry arranged for another recording session, this time at Ultraphone on December 27, 1934.
This session had some remarkable sides including a rendition of “Dinah”. This recording is remarkable because the band’s power is really starting to show but also because at the very end you hear Django inadvertently bang his guitar on the back of his chair. The recording engineers wanted to restart but the musicians refused and the recording survived.
I did not include this side of “Dinah” because my Copper colleague Anne Johnson is coincidentally doing a piece in this same issue on Stéphane Grappelli and she’s using a recording of “Dinah”. I urge you to hear Anne’s version of the recording and to read her article.
Again, Ultraphone passed on releasing the material. Even the Hot Club’s own magazine in a review said that despite the obvious talent of Django, “don’t forget that the guitar from all points of view is a completely disagreeable instrument exclusively reserved for rhythmic accompaniment in jazz bands.” Glad nobody listened to DAT guy!
1935 and 1936 would continue to be spotty for the Quintette. They would disband for months as they were forced to take sideman gigs as much as Django hated that. Without any real experience to back up his attitude Reinhardt had developed a staunch ego that often was trouble for all bandmates, but especially Grappelli.
Django was a strange dichotomy of inflated ego with stage fright, a gifted jazz creator who often would rather go fishing than perform and would send his brother Nin-Nin in his stead to gigs, which drove Stéphane, the consummate pro, stark mad. Grappelli would say later in life that even after Django had passed on, he dreaded the first songbird of spring because when Django was alive Reinhardt would begin to disappear and that antipathy for spring stayed with Grappelli for life. As sophisticated and intelligent a player as Django was, he could not read or write and had no formal education. Stories abound of people like Bureau explaining to this man-child the world and geography or showing Django books of dinosaurs and Django’s childlike wonder at the possibility of an animal over 25 meters long. He was supremely superstitious, believing so absolutely in spirits rising from graves at night that if the only way to a performance was past a cemetery it was impossible to get him to go. While in Nice a friend repeated a story about a bicycle seen in the daylight going down the street without a rider, and Django refused to leave his room for three days.
The main problems to the band were the mood swings and disappearances. This would later become a serious problem when he went to the US to play with luminaries like Ellington and Goodman. In Paris people would hunt for Django to bring him to a performance. In America no one looked for you; you just got canned. As Django’s fame spread, he increasingly treated Nin-Nin like a valet, forcing him to carry his guitar and be responsible for spare strings and picks. When he went to America to work with Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, he believed the guitar companies would shower him with free guitars so he showed up without an instrument. When no one came through Reinhardt had to borrow money from a bandleader to buy a guitar so he could make a performance. He was a complex man who loved his wife supremely but was distracted easily by random meetings with a girl in a café and again would disappear for days.
But as 1936 turned into 1937 success was coming, if in slow spurts. The Quintette was recording and the records were beginning to circulate outside Paris, then outside France into England, Japan and even in the jazz heartland, the U.S. The band was playing larger venues and gaining in popularity. In 1937 Gramophone spun off a record label solely devoted to jazz, the first label of its kind, and was named Swing. Swing then mainly focused on the Quintette and Django.
Before one of the first Swing sessions the record company told the band the sides they needed recorded. Django wanted to do some originals and in negotiation they got in a couple of Reinhardt’s compositions. From April 1937 this is Django’s train song, “Mystery Pacific”. Keep in mind through 1937, despite gathering success, the band was constantly in danger of collapse from Django’s excesses and disappearances. But the music was always paramount, and a panacea.
Unbeknownst to them the Quintette was wildly popular in England. The Brits had been buying up the records and the fame of the Quintette spread quickly. They first hit England’s shores in January 1938 and were amazed at the response from audiences well versed in their style and songs. They recorded at London’s Decca studio and a resulting wax was this, “Daphne”.
1938 was the year everything took off. The Quintette not only toured England but Belgium, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany. 33 sides were recorded in studios in London and Paris during 1938 and 1939. Despite the band’s troubles they were at the height of their popularity. But in July 1939 as the Quintette arrived in England for a tour, the country’s thirst for the life giving waters of jazz had a shark lurking in it.
On a Sunday in August the Nazi blitzkrieg took out Poland and the best and worst reason to break up a band happened. Reinhardt in fear fled back to France, believing in the invincibility of Paris and France itself. Oops. Grappelli, ever the pragmatist, stayed in England and essentially gave notice to the band. La Quintette du Hot Club de France was no more.
We will finish the war years and the remainder of Django’s career in Acte Quatre. But I’ll leave you for now with a parting salvo from the ground-breaking and breath-taking Django Reinhardt et la Quintette du Hot Club de France.
From that failed but sweet Ultraphone session in December 1934, “Tiger Rag”. Dig.
And “China Boy”. Someone should have thrown these clowns in the back of a van and saved them from themselves.