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The Django Reinhardt NY Festival Makes a Triumphant Return to Birdland

Samson Schmitt

The Django Reinhardt NY Festival Makes a Triumphant Return to Birdland

                                                                  By Barry Bassis

Producer Pat Philips-Stratta brought her semi-annual Django Reinhardt NY Festival back to the Birdland jazz club (315 W. 44th St.). As she explained in her introduction to the sold-out show, this is the 20th year of the festival at the venue.

Samson Schmitt, looking jaunty in a fedora, led the group. His father, guitar legend Dorado Schmitt, played in earlier years at the festival.

The Belgian Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910–1953) is considered the first great jazz artist to come out of Europe. His group, the Hot Club of France, was co-led by violinist Stéphane Grappelli (1908–1997), who emerged as a full-fledged star on the international circuit after Django’s untimely death.

Django developed his unique style after he suffered a terrible injury in a fire during 1928, as a result of which he lost the use of two fingers on his left hand.

Reinhardt met Grappelli in 1934, and the group they formed was made up of two guitars—Django’s brother Joseph played rhythm guitar—plus bass and violin. The group had no drummer, but they created an infectious form of swing music that became popular on both sides of the Atlantic.

To convey an idea of his influence, blues guitarist B.B. King once demonstrated in a television interview (and similarly on a YouTube posting) how his playing had changed as a result of listening to Reinhardt’s recordings.

The group at Birdland followed the instrumentation of the Hot Club: two guitars (Samson Schmitt on lead guitar and Doudou Cuillerier on rhythm guitar and scatl vocal), violin (Pierre Blanchard), accordion (Ludovic Beier), and bass (Antonio Licusati). As with the Hot Club, there was no drummer.

Surprisingly, the band didn’t play any pieces penned by Django or even played by him. Instead, they played originals by the festival musicians, though they were basically in Django’s style. Most of the numbers had an infectious swing but others revealed a lyrical bent, especially Schmitt’s lovely ballad for his wife. There were also musical tributes to Dorado Schmitt and, by Beier, to the late Toots Thielemans (the Belgian jazz harmonica player). “Chez Django” by Cuillerier was a lively piece that had the audience chiming in with the title at regular intervals.

The band is so cohesive that it is worth noting that they only play together in this country. In Europe the artists go their separate ways.

One intriguing aspect of the festival is that each night has an American guest artist. On the night I attended, the guest was banjo player Cynthia Sayer. Beier quipped that Birdland must be the only jazz club with an accordionist and a banjo player on the bandstand.

In any event, Sayer’s playing fit in with the band. She sang a vocal on the comic number, “Benny’s from Heaven.” This song takes the melody of “Pennies from Heaven” and changes the words to tell the tale of a serviceman who returns to his wife after years away and discovers she has a newborn baby. He concludes at the end that “Benny’s from Heaven because he surely isn’t from me.”

The Django Reinhardt Festival will return to Birdland in November.

Also worth keeping in mind at Birdland are the Sunday night shows (at 8:30 and 11pm) by the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. This superb ensemble is led by the Grammy Award winning pianist, composer and educator Arturo O'Farrill.