About “Gypsy Jazz”

In recent years there has been a backlash against the word “gypsy”, as many people look on it as a slur akin the the N-word. Therefore we’ve come to prefer the term “hot club music”. However, the people from whom this music originates, the Sinti/Manouche (those who’ve kept it alive), do not feel this way and proudly refer to themselves as “gypsies” so in this context I will use the term. This matter of identity and representation is a complex topic that the Canadian guitarist and ethnomusicologist Denis Chang writes about here.

The Roma (Gypsies) are an ethnic group originating from India roughly 800 years ago, and sharing a language (Romani) but divided amongst tribes and spread throughout the world, and until the mid/late 20th century very migratory. Many of them are known by their stunning musical skills; amongst these would be Spain’s flamenco guitarists Paco De Lucia and Tomatito, brass bands from the Balkans like Boban Markovic, the Romanian string band Taraf De Haidouks, and France’s Bireli Lagrene.

The gypsies of western Europe (Sinti/Manouche) tend to play jazz; this is due to the enormous musical contributions made by Jean “Django” Reinhardt, a gypsy living in Paris in the 30’s who was turned on to American jazz records and began to play the music, filtered through his own experience and identity. Reinhardt’s early jazz, and the tradition that has become known as gypsy jazz, is characterized by the prevalence of acoustic string instruments and the lack of drums. In this style the role of the drums is held down by the rhythm guitar’s pulsing chords, commonly known as “le pompe” (the pump). Whereas American jazz tended to feature horns and the piano, in gypsy jazz you’ll find mainly guitars, violins, and contra-bass. Horns, accordions, drums and other instruments make their appearances but are less common; piano is rare.

Many things distinguished Django’s career but it’s remarkable that he played guitar at all. At the age of 18 he was badly burned in a fire which permanently damaged tendons in his fretting hand, leaving him with little use of his third and fourth fingers. It’s been written that the doctors wanted to amputate his leg when his mother took him from the hospital. After a year and a half recovery he began to reconstruct a technique using mainly his thumb, index and middle fingers, to eventually become one of the greatest guitarists EVER.

You can see one of the rare film clips of Django playing here.

I encourage you to read more about Django Reinhardt, an absolute musical genius and fascinating individual.