The improvised genre fuses American jazz with European elements.
Jazz guitarist Samuel Miltich said he has always loved acoustic string music.
“As a young person, Duke Ellington and George Gershwin were two of my favorite musicians, but the music I was surrounded by tended more toward bluegrass and acoustic folk music,” he said. When he heard Django Reinhardt, the legendary jazz guitarist from Europe credited for originating Gypsy jazz, for the first time at age 15, it changed his life.
“It was my first introduction to jazz being played on acoustic string instruments, and I immediately fell in love with this melding of musical influences, and since then I’ve dedicated myself to this music,” he said.
Miltich, a childhood prodigy and now a world-renowned jazz guitarist, plays original compositions and tunes from a variety of different genres and even different cultures — Brazilian choro music, French musette, American jazz standards — but through it all he’s maintained the style and technique of Gypsy jazz.
Miltich performs with the Clearwater Hot Club and is one of four featured musicians performing in Northfield this spring as part of a Gypsy Jazz Jam Series. Miltich plays April 17, Mark Kreitzer of the Mark Kreitzer Band on April 30, Robert Bell of the Twin Cities Hot Club on May 15, and Reynold Philipsek of the Sidewalk Cafe Trio on May 29.
The public is welcome to take part in the series at the Eagles Club, 304 Water St. S. in Northfield. The shows start at 7 p.m. Attendees can just listen, or they can bring instruments and join in the jam session.
“The atmosphere for musicians will be very open and supportive,” said Martha Larson, a cellist and the founder of the Gypsy Jazz Jam Series, who also plays with Miltich and Kreitzer on occasion. “The featured musicians are all terrific teachers as well as players; they’ll share some tips and tricks throughout the session. We’ll project music charts on the wall so everyone can follow along. Those who want to solo can test out their chops in a supportive environment. Those who want to play along with the chords can sit back and relax.”
Martha Larson was first immersed in the Gypsy jazz live music circuit in Chicago, where she and her husband lived before moving to Northfield. “It’s not only the visceral music that drew me in, but also the culture,” said Larson, who describes Gypsy jazz as an open and inviting form where virtuosic players and newcomers intermingle with ease.
Musician Robert Bell of the Twin Cities Hot Club explained how Gypsy jazz evolved.
“To satisfy the enthusiasm and excitement that many Parisians had for the American art form known as jazz, a group of the finest musicians was assembled,” he said. “Enter Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli.”
The practice of “jamming” was how the two eventually formed the Quintette du Hot Club of France. While “jamming” is an integral part of jazz, it is actually an entire cornerstone of Gypsy culture, he said — it’s is how the music of the Roma [Gypsies] is passed along.
When the Gypsy music combined with American jazz, many new compositions were introduced. But the music is still learned in the same way: by jamming.
Larson explains how the music infuses modern sounds through improv on top of the traditional French bistro jazz melodies of the 1930s and that the guitar emulates the swing drum beat — the down strokes being the beat and the up stokes as ornamentation.
“There’s something about this sound that is both sentimental and modern,” Larson said. “The use of acoustic string instruments gives it a warmth and a distinction; the swing repertoire is fun, uplifting and danceable … while the ballads are beautifully melodic.”
Why has Gypsy jazz retained its currency from when Reinhardt and Grappelli made it popular in Paris during the 1930s? Maybe because it’s a style that’s always reinventing itself — its roots are in improvisation, an approach where no two artists can express a tune in quite the same way.
“The Gypsy element adds something exotic to the music being it’s European,” said Jazz guitarist and composer Reynold Philipsek, whose music is strongly influenced by Django Reinhardt. “I traveled to Europe and spent some time in France — that got me more interest in Gyspy jazz. My grandparents also came from Eastern Europe and those roots are part of the strong connection,” Philipsek said.
Amy Acheson is a Northfield writer.