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‘A genuine wave of love, joy and compassion’: Stephane Wrembel explores Django Reinhardt's legacy

Stephane Wrembel
Rob Davidson
Stephane Wrembel

On his new recording, Django New Orleans, guitarist Sephane Wrembel blends the worlds of guitarist Django Reinhardt and New Orleans, which our history books tell us is a natural fit. Wrembel, a master of the Django repertoire, has proven his worth with six recorded volumes of “Django Experiments,” and had his compositions and playing featured in films, including Midnight in Paris, Vicky Christina Barcelona and Rifkin's Festival. For 20 years Stephane has also created Django A Gogo, with a Django guitar camp and performances featuring some of the world's finest Djangoists, this year on May 5 at The Woodland in Maplewood, New Jersey, and May 6 at The Town Hall in NYC.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Gary Walker: You've done a number of Django experiments with full bands. You've done solo recordings too. Talk about the relationship between the French and New Orleans as it relates to music.

And food and drink. The first thing to understand is I love the past. I love the future. I love to look ahead and compose and play my own music. I love to dig into the foundation, the roots. I love to dig into Bach and Palestrina and all the older guys, like the older compositions we have. And I love jazz.

Django was born in 1910 and started to record in 1934. Jazz was already going on in New Orleans. I think of language as explaining reality. I love the language. I try to find meaning in words. With the word jazz, we can find any definition we want and complicate it. The way I understand that word is to describe a knockety pole frame that was born in New Orleans in the late 19th century at some point. The right people were there at the right time, at the right place, with the right instruments and they gave birth to that frame. They were the right people at that moment. I don't see jazz as being created. I see it as being born. What I mean when I say the word jazz is this original frame of improvisation which led to other things being created. Drums were invented and from the drums suddenly you have the upright bass instead of brass. You have a sousaphone. You have an upright bass or a bass guitar, also electric based guitar. Suddenly you have rock and roll that's going be born of that. Everything that we know now in reality has been born from that frame. That was the new frame that came up and created that new technology.

The drums were a very big piece of technology so that all modern music revolves around the drums. When I say the word jazz, I always refer to the original archetype, the DNA of everything. It's like when you say a human, it's a human’s DNA. We are the same species so that we go back to that fundamental thing.

I think the same way of jazz. When I listen to Miles Davis, I hear jazz, meaning I hear in the background that he knows that archetype. It comes from there. But I hear a lot of Miles Davis. It's himself. No one sounds like him. When I listen to John Coltrane, I hear jazz in the background. I know it comes from that, but I also hear John Coltrane specifically. It's almost like John Coltrane or Miles Davis or Django Reinhardt are not jazz, they're themselves, but the frame that helped them build their character and foundation, the tool of expression is that original frame called jazz.

I love Django Reinhart because I consider him to be to the guitar what Bach is to the keyboard. If you want to be a better guitarist, just study Django Reinhardt. Everything is in there. Whatever you play. Django was a genius. It's a very rare type of human being. They happen once in a blue moon. The function of a genius is to give birth to a new archetype. That's what Django represents to me.

That DNA that you referred to is shared many times, especially in this music.  Take Django Reinhardt. When he started playing, he was playing folk music, and he made that transition to the world of jazz after he heard a Louis Armstrong tune called “Dallas Blues.” It's a worldwide thing that influences the music and this is where the unity comes from the United States of jazz, if you will.

If you accept that the world is made of two things, things that are similar and things that are different. There is the similarity and there is the singularity. The part that is explainable, rational, structured is something we can explain, teach, and learn. Part of life is a great mystery. Part of life is very poetic and cannot be explained. It is just in the domain of the mystery. If we accept both things, that something is universal, such as human DNA and something is singular, meaning every single human is different. We are all the same and all different so that we have a part which we can explain and a part that is different, which is wild and chaotic. In the frame of jazz you express yourself by giving a very specific angle.

When we take the world of Django Reinhardt and the music of New Orleans and we put them together, you have this release which came out on May 5, Django New Orleans. How do you and your band make that different?

In my journey back into history, I go both ways. Digging into the past, I really found the music of New Orleans to be a miracle, especially when I went there and I heard the guys play for the first time. I was like, “Oh my God. That contrapoint between the instruments, there is something in there that is miraculous.” It's really sophisticated. You can tell it's a product of the 19th century, which is an extremely sophisticated century. You can tell that that's what Django knew. He knew jazz, that's what he was listening to.

The Original Dixieland Jass Band - Tiger Rag (1917)

While you're probably right about Louis Armstrong, remember that jazz arrived in Europe in 1917 during the First World War with American soldiers. When the soldiers arrived, they started playing jazz during time in 1917 when there was no radio, no record player, and jazz had not yet been recorded so people had not heard it. They have no idea, not a clue. Imagine these guys coming from New Orleans and starting to play jazz. They blew everyone's mind. They entered the culture like that in 1917. Then there's the first jazz record, the Original Dixieland Jass Band with an s. It’s “Tiger Rag,” which Django recorded in his first album also, and we recorded it in Django New Orleans. The thing that Django did with this contribution to jazz is back then, at that moment in time, jazz was played by brass bands, with perhaps a piano, a banjo, and the drums but the string was not very prominent.

What Django did was to show us how to make the string quartet, the string quintet, like three guitars, upright bass and violin swing like percussion and horns but just with string instruments. He also showed all the mechanics of the guitar. Not only how jazz works on the guitar, but also the whole gypsy folk culture is included, as well as all the techniques for modern playing for rock and roll. Everything is contained in there. It's crazy.

Django Reinhardt - Les yeux noirs - Official

And the interchange too, because you look at the Hot Club of France, those records that he made with the great Stephane Grappelli and it would turn the tables as Django was inspired and attracted to the world of jazz. Later on, so were jazz players attracted to the genius of Django Reinhardt, from Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter and Rex Stewart and Barney Bigard, who all went to Europe. Even Louis Armstrong had a chance to jam with him. They never recorded, but he had his chance to jam with him. Django would come to the United States and do a small tour as a sideman with Duke Ellington. But aside from that, he really didn't stand out in this country.

He came once. He was supposed to come with the Hot Club of France, but he never told anyone. He never told Grappelli or the others because he wanted to be the one. Grapelli was really pissed off because he wanted to play with Duke Ellington as well. Django took a plane and came to America and he played with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra and went on tour with them. He stayed a little bit for a few dates in clubs in Harlem back then. Then he went back to France and I heard that he was supposed to go back on a tour organized by Norman Granz. They really wanted to push him in the American market, but he died just before that could happen.

He was all set to be part of the Jazz at the Philharmonic tour that Norman Granz put together. Your camp takes place at the Woodland in Maplewood, New Jersey May 3-7. Let me ask you, with young people gravitating toward this, what kind of kids come to the jazz camp?

The youngest are teenagers who are 16, 18 years old, but it's mostly adults who come to the camp. It is open to everyone. The principle of Django A Gogo is to bring some of the greatest players in the world who are masters such as Simba Baumgartner, who's Django Reinhardt's grandson. He is a legend in France and he’s an amazing, incredible player.

You produced one of his records I believe.

Yes, I did his first record. He didn't have a record so we recorded him. We also have Paulus Schafer who is a living legend in Holland. You have never seen guitar played like that. We have Samy Daussat from France, who's been on the scene for forty years, teaching everyone. He is the author of so many books while playing all the time. He's one of the most in demand players in France. He played rhythm for everyone and backed all these guys. He's a legend there.

Stephane Wrembel and friends
Jason Elon Goodman
Stephane Wrembel and friends

We have Debbie Botos who comes from Canada, but she's a Hungarian Gypsy. She not only plays the Hungarian Gypsy folk songs, she's a specialist of Django Reinhardt. As a matter of fact, I think she has the greatest rhythm I've ever heard in my life. She's only 26, but she’s a virtuoso. We also have Sam Farthing who just turned 20 years old. He's American. He lives in the Baltimore area. He is a super genius. That kid is amazing.

How do these people, many at an early age, gravitate toward the world of New Orleans and the world of Django Reinhardt?

In France with the Gypsies, the music that they've been playing is the music of Django. This is their root foundation. I went one step further with Django New Orleans, where I removed the upright bass and I replaced it with the sousaphone which gives a completely different groove. We have a trumpet, clarinet and we have a singer. We still have the two guitars and the violin, so we lock those two things together. The Gypsies, they kept the tradition of the string quintet playing, mainly guitars and violin, which they do since birth.

We should mention that you were born in Fountainbleu, France, which is where Django Reinhardt was centered for a lot of his life. You probably had it in your DNA earlier on.

Almost, because I was born in Paris and we moved there when I was one year old. I grew up there even though technically I was born in Paris. Since I spent my whole life there, I learned directly from the Gypsies and from the masters. It's very difficult to bring them to the U.S. because I have to deal with the immigration procedures which are difficult and very expensive. It's a lot of paperwork, bios and letters and other stuff that needs to be gathered. They need to do interviews. So I organize the immigration paperwork, the transportation, the classes, and pairing the artists since I know which ones play well together. When I start to book one, I know exactly who else should be booked around and how the shows should be crafted because they are different every time.

Stephane Wrembel's "Django New Orleans" perform "Sweet Georgia Brown" at Dizzy's Club in NYC

Let's talk about how this record was crafted. As I listen to it, I hear tunes that many people are familiar with such as, “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” which features not only the voice of Sarah King, but it almost has a Congo Square riff to it. That was intentional I suspect.

Yes. We took that second line beat. For example, our percussionist is David Langlois, who plays the washboard but because he also spent quite a lot of time in Senegal so he plays the djembe very well. He plays a little bit of that in the back which adds a certain color. It’s the same thing with Scott Kettner, the drummer, also based in Maplewood, who is also special because he not only knows the music of New Orleans perfectly, but he spent a lot of time in Brazil learning Brazilian music. He actually released a book about how to play the pandeiro. He has that whole Brazilian influence in his playing.

All of us are not trained to copy 1930 or 1920 or 1910 because we are part of our time. We heard a lot of music since then, but we're not going to, for instance, just put a bit of Brazilian stuff here and there. It shows up in this way of playing. It's not exactly a hundred percent like a real second line. It's a second line where he is like in France from somewhere else. That way the music stays natural. You can still hear it's New Orleans and Django, but it also has that flavor of the modern world. It's also the way it's recorded which is live in studio, like we are playing a concert. There is a modern feel to it. It’s hard to explain, but you were talking about being both universal and singular. Since Django and New Orleans, we've heard Jimi Hendrix, we've heard John Coltrane. We've heard other things.

For you, it started out with David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. Then gravitating toward the world of Django Reinhardt. You know the relationship between the French and New Orleans, as you mentioned, food, drink and music as well. It was also the French that opened the doors to the opera houses to the people who were indigenous to New Orleans, so they could come in and experience that music. Louis Armstrong said some of his early influences of music came from the opera. You could go to the opera, and sitting in the back checking it out might be Jelly Roll Morton. The French influence made New Orleans the epicenter in this country for the opera. Before it even came to New York it was in New Orleans. It was opened to all of the people. Many of the instruments, especially the brass instruments, came from companies that were in France.

Just as we were influenced and attracted to the music of Django Reinhardt and other great players across Europe, they were attracted to what was going on in New Orleans at the time too. You have this symbiotic relationship and, as I mentioned at the front of the interview, it's a unification that is sorely missed in so many other areas of our world these days. If there was that kind of synergy that we find in music and that we find in the release of Django New Orleans with Stephane Wrembel and his bandmates in other areas of our life, I think the world would be a little better place. Don't you?

Agreed. As Nietzsche would say, “Humans, also human.”

On May 5 at the Woodland in Maplewood and also on Saturday at Town Hall, we're going to feature some of this music from the new recording. There are tunes that go all the way back to the Original Dixieland Jass Band’s “Tiger Rag.” Also, there will be one of Django’s early recordings of his own at Nympheas also featured.

That's extraordinary because you really can hear the influence of Debussy and Django in that piece. It's an amazing piece of music.

I look at your performance and arrangement of “Bourbon Street Parade” which has got that worldly Congo Square kind of introduction. Then it takes off with the voice of Sarah King and also the violin work of Adrien Chevalier.  I think the last time we got together, Daisy Castro was on the violin. Where do you find all these fabulous musicians?

They're in New York so we know each other. I would like to say a little something about the guitar and violin camp. Everyone is welcome to join. I have Aurore Voilqué who is the number one violinist in France right now. She's an incredible virtuoso. Adrien Chevalier. Jason Anick is going to be there, who is a Berklee teacher and who just released a book on violin fingering. We also have Luanne Homzy who is an international competition winner and classical violinist. She won stuff for Ravel. So between all those gypsy masters from Europe and the amazing lineup of violinists, it is an opportunity. While I'm not a festival promoter, once a year I try to bring these extraordinary world-class musicians to the camp. Anyone who wants to study with them at the camp or listen to the music has a real opportunity to do so. If anyone is hesitating, they should not, because even if you're a beginner, or you don't really know the music of Django, we have different levels. We group ten people together and we rotate everyone so gets to learn with everyone. But when a guy like Paulus Schaefer shows you something, like a chord or something like that, it has power. He knows what he's talking about and he knows what you need, even if you are a beginner. If you are advanced, these guys are the greatest players in the world, so anyone can really learn from these guys.

Django A Gogo Animated Video

It's a unique opportunity. We never know if it's going to happen again. I dedicate myself in creating amazing shows because I want these shows to be meaningful. I'm not just putting people together to just play together and I do something else. I put my band in the center. We work the songs with everyone. We decide the repertoire, this guy with that guy and this and that. I know how to build the shows, how to produce the shows so they are amazing. The Saturday night show at The Town Hall on May 6 is perhaps the greatest Django show in America every year because only at a place like The Town Hall can I have the means to give me an opportunity to build a show with 20 musicians. I’m able to gradually craft a show with different sections and with a grand finale with everyone. There will be Django New Orleans because we’re going to close the festival with the album’s release.

For example, the first part of the show is going to feature Aurore Voilqué , Paulus Schafer, Simba Baumgartner, Samy Daussat, Debi Botos and Sam Farthing. And ,ore like the Gypsy side with my band in the background to keep that groove. On the second set we're going to have Luanne Homzy and Tommy Davy. They're releasing their new album Trio Dinicu. It's like Eastern Europe gypsy folk songs and perhaps Debi might join them on one or two songs. We have to see how we can craft it. Then we have the new Django New Orleans concert, and then everyone comes back on stage and we have this grand, crazy finale on “Dark Eyes.” it's going to be crazy. It's a really a unique show that must not be missed. It's so difficult to bring all these pieces together, like all these players from Europe, from America. It's a one-time window and should not be missed.

Thanks for the spirits, the energy and the passion of Django New Orleans, Stephane. You mentioned “Dark Eyes.” It's a great vehicle for the voice of Sarah King and also the trumpet work of Joe Boga is featured on that tune. It's a fantastic recording and I'll tell you if you ever get up and you're just feeling more gray than you want it to be, put on Django New Orleans. I'm telling you, the world will right itself by the third or fourth tune.

You know Gary, that's what we do. The first thing about this album which anyone can check out is “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” which we released on social media, on iTunes music and Spotify and other streaming services. That way anyone can have a taste of it. This is a mission we have, at least it's my mission, which is to bring joy to people. The only thing I can do is have a positive action in the world. While I cannot bring world peace, I can have a positive action in the world. I think like all us musicians, at least when we’re playing, we all have that genuine wave of love, joy and compassion.

We play to bring joy to the world and to be a bringer of light, not negativity. It's just joy and good times and some sort of like enlightenment of the soul through music for us and for the crowd. We want everyone to leave the show and have that light headedness that you have after a concert when you feel good. That's all we can do. That’s all we can offer.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

In jazz radio, great announcers are distinguished by their ability to convey the spontaneity and passion of the music. Gary Walker is such an announcer, and his enthusiasm for this music greets WBGO listeners every morning. This winner of the 1996 Gavin Magazine Jazz Radio Personality of the Year award has hosts the morning show each weekday from 6:00am -12:00pm. And, by his own admission, he's truly having a great time.