The 1920s in Europe were alive with influences from all over the world. The Great War had ended and a sense of calm and prosperity could be felt throughout central Europe. One by-product of war is the cross-pollination of cultures and ideas. Young soldiers experience foreign places: apart from the experience of the worst of human nature and tragedy, they also experience new traditions, art, architecture and music. Upon returning to their home countries, they brought new ideas with them. Politics and art were no longer local; they had become global. The urban areas were the centers for intellectual activity and Paris had become an artistic oasis for painters, poets and philosophers. The mode of communication and interaction was the street: cafes and night spots. Music was everywhere. It was exciting and new, uplifting and danceable.
The music of the dance halls and the street at that time had been ‘Bal-Musette.’ It was a style of popular music beginning in Paris in the 1880s, especially in the 5th, 11th and 12th districts. In these districts, Auvergnats settled in large numbers in the 1800s. They opened cafés and bars for dancing the bourrée to musette accompaniment (a bellows-powered bagpipe) and grelottière. The night spots had an air of intrigue and excitement and drew many Parisians and Italians. The Italians had settled in the 19th district of Paris and already played the diatonic accordion which was also used in the Auvergnat bars.
As Italian musicians appeared more frequently with new dances like the waltz and polka and a new hybrid accordion, disagreements began, and the Italian and Auvergnat musicians stopped working together. Performers of this era include Antoine Bouscatel, Émile Vacher, Martin Cayla, Charles Péguri and Gus Viseur.
By the end of the Great War there were three kinds of bals-musette:
- bal des familles – Auvergnat
- bal musette populaire’ – Italian
- guinche – seedy hangout for questionable characters
The French upper-class, of course, began frequenting these establishments, looking for excitement among immigrant communities. Some night spots actually staged mock police raids to help maintain the illusion of intrigue.
Following the War, new musical forms were arriving in Paris like American jazz and the Argentine tango. These sexy new influences left their mark on bal-musette with dances like the waltz, tango, mazurka, pasodoble, beguine, foxtrot and java. Later, new instruments were added including the banjo, clarinet, trumpet, saxophone, mandolin and bandoneon.
Oscar Marcelo Aleman 1909-1980
The tango also brought an awareness of other forms of Argentine dance music and musicians. Oscar Marcelo Aleman was born in Northern Argentina on February 20th, 1909. At the age of six, he was dancing and singing with his family’s folk ensemble, the Moreria Sextet. At the age of 10, following his mother’s death, his father committed suicide. Oscar was suddenly alone and worked sporadically as a dancer and musician on the streets of Santos.
In 1924 Oscar began working with Brazilian guitarist Gaston Bueno Lobo. The duo was signed to the Argentine Victor label and performed under the name ‘Los Lobos’. They would occasionally add violinist Eleven Verdure and record under the name ‘Trio Victor’.
During the late 1920s, Oscar discovered American Jazz by hearing recordings of Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti. He was hooked. He had already been exposed to Louis Armstrong and the beginning of ‘Swing’ but hearing the music on guitar was new. Oscar developed his own style of swing jazz and caught on with the Argentine public. Oscar saw an opportunity to broaden his appeal and moved to Paris where he was immediately hired by Josephine Baker to lead her band: ‘the Baker Boys’ at the Cafe de Paris. This provided him the opportunity to play with American Jazz musicians who would come to see Josephine and sit in with her band.
Oscar later formed his own nine-piece band and played nightly at the Le Chantilly, across town from where Django Reinhardt and his partner violinist Stephane Grapelli would soon be performing at The Hot Club of France with their Quintet. Although these two geniuses of the guitar never recorded together, they became friends.
Oscar relocated to Buenos Aires in the early 1940s and continued to record and perform with both a swing quintet and a nine-piece orchestra. He continued to teach and perform until his death in 1980 at age 71.
In Paris during the 1920s many of the dance hall musicians were gypsies. They traveled most of central Europe without allegiance to any particular country. Some remained nomadic and some settled in and around where they could find work. They brought many musical influences with them and infused the regional popular music with their own styles. String and wind style playing included influences from Russia, Italy, Belgium, Spain, and the Middle East as well as the Balkans.
Jean Baptiste “Django” Reinhardt 1910–1953
Jazz Manouche (Gypsy Jazz) is said to have begun with the nomadic Gypsy guitarists between Belgium and France in the late 1920s. Many of them were employed by Auverge-style bal musette ensembles that supplied music for public dances.
Django Reinhardt was born on January 24th, 1910 at Liberchies Belgium in an open Gypsy camp. At the age of 8, his mother’s Manouche tribe settled near the belt of fortifications that surrounded the old Paris near the Choisy gate. He never wore a suit or lived in a real house until he was 20 years old. The Manouches were a world unto themselves, medieval in their beliefs and distrustful of modern science. Django grew up in this world of contradictions; one foot in the urban world of Paris and the other in the medieval life of the nomadic gypsy.
Music surrounded the Gypsy community; it was part of everyday life. At age 12 Django received a banjo-guitar from a neighbor who noticed his interest in music. He quickly learned to play. Before he turned 13 he had begun a musical career by playing with popular accordionist Guerino at a dance hall on the Rue Monge. He went on to play with numerous other bands and musicians and made his first recordings with accordionist Jean Vaissade for the Ideal Company. Since Django could not read or write, his name was spelled “Jiango Renard” on these records.
The Caravan Fire
Django married young, as was the custom, to Naguine, another Manouche tribe member. On November 2nd, 1928 at one o’clock in the morning, the 18-year-old Django returned to his caravan from a night of playing music at a new club “La Java”. Naguine was pregnant with their 1st child and asleep inside. The caravan was filled with celluloid flowers his wife had made to sell at the market. The highly flammable celluloid flowers caught fire in a candle accident. Django wrapped himself in a blanket to shield himself from the flames. Somehow he and his wife made it across the blazing room to safety outside, but his left hand and his right side from knee to waist were badly burned. His fret hand was so badly burned that he only retained the use of his forefinger and middle finger. The rest were useless.
Django was bedridden for 18 months. With great determination, Django recreated a way to use the two functioning fingers on his left hand. The affected fingers were permanently curled towards the palm due to the tendons shrinking from the heat of the fire. He could use them on the first two strings of the guitar for chords and octaves but full extension was impossible.
Django, like Oscar Aleman, was exposed to recordings of Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. By reinterpreting American jazz and combining it with the wealth of Gypsy tradition and current dance hall influences, Django elevated Jazz Manouche to a wildly popular new dance music form.
In 1934 Django met a classically trained violin player who was equally enamored with the work of Eddie Lange and Joe Venuti: Stephane Grapelli. This was what Django had been looking for and together they assembled The Quintet of the Hot Club of France. The original lineup was Django (lead guitar), Stéphane (violin), Roger Chaput (rhythm guitar), Louis Vola (bass) and Django’s brother Joseph (rhythm guitar). Ultraphone was the first to record the group including: ‘Dinah’, ‘Tiger Rag’, ‘Oh Lady be Good’, and ‘I Saw Stars’. The records were a hit. The Quintet went on to record many more and found success on both sides of the ocean.
Jazz Manouche groups generally consisted of a lead guitar, violin, two rhythm guitars and bass. The rhythm guitars supply the percussive rhythm called la pompe, which, in conjunction with strongly syncopated bass lines makes a percussion section redundant. The two rhythm guitars were necessary in the early 1930s as there was no amplification available and dance halls were large and noisy. The use of Selmer guitars designed with Mario Maccaferri made it possible to generate the raw power needed to fill the hall with rhythmic drive. The solo guitar was also a Maccaferri design and had the loud cutting power to be heard over the rest of the band. Extended improvised solos on guitar and/or violin (and occasionally clarinet and accordion) were the norm. Reinhardt’s dusky, chromatic sound, with its melancholy undertones and swing articulation gave even lightweight songs weight and drive. His improvisations included ornamented arpeggios that were firmly anchored in rhythmic structures.
The second World War broke out in 1939 while the Quintet toured in England. Django returned to Paris while Stéphane remained in England. Django played and recorded throughout the war years substituting Hubert Rostaing’s clarinet for Stephen’s violin. His talent and willingness to remain outside the politics of war somehow allowed him to continue in Paris during the occupation. After the war he rejoined Stéphane and again played and recorded. He toured briefly with Duke Ellington in America and returned to Paris where he continued his career until 1951 when he retired to the small village of Samois Sur Seine. On May 16th, 1953 Django suffered a massive stroke while chatting with friends at a local café. He died leaving behind his wife Sophie (Naguine) and son Babik.
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