Fifty years after Django Reinhardt’s death, his music keeps him alive in Samois-sur-Seine
· Photography by Benoit Peverelli
The galleried corridors of glass cases displaying the latest Rosenthals and Cartiers aren’t there anymore. The fabled sirènes parading the lobby in furs and haute couture are gone. So are the swimming pool, the garden, the countless dining rooms, the ballrooms, the salons, the chorus of staff, the pockets of ferns draping the balconies, and the incredible ceiling that, like Zeus, contained it all. The Claridge Hotel, 74 Av. des Champs-Elysées, in Paris, is still there, though today it is flanked by a Planet Hollywood and a Marriott, and faces the Champs like a sullen schoolgirl. Some decades ago, the stomach of the hotel was carved up into arbitrary units, something like the map of Europe after the war. Now the hotel serves as a résidence, mainly for Mideastern oil barons and their furtive-looking wives, with the price tag for a suite sailing at over $1,000 a night.
The room I was hoping to find—that, in 1934, had witnessed the historic musical encounter between Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, the makers of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, an entirely new sound in jazz—simply doesn’t exist anymore, and what’s worse, it’s as if it never did.
Legends sit somewhere between the physics of the trick and the magic produced. Somewhere between the hat and the rabbit. Though the Claridge Hotel has forever lost its magic, the annual three-day festival in Samois-sur-Seine that celebrates the life of Django Reinhardt burns like a cudgel in flame.
Samois is a commuter’s distance from Paris and was home to Django for the last few years of his life. The neck of the Seine running through it is a perfect rendering of a Monet painting: dapples of light dot the surface of the water in a cadenced composition of this gentle, sloping hillside town. Django’s house is at the bottom of the hill, near the water, his grave at the top. Both are unremarkable except for the crowds that gather each summer.
The Django festival is a kind of pilgrimage for enthusiasts of Manouche jazz guitar. They come to pay homage to the man who created the music, reconstituted guitar playing and its position in the European jazz world, and, by virtue of his fame, almost singlehandedly transformed the image of the gypsy. Jazz is an American phenomenon; Django is one of the few non-Americans in the pantheon of jazz greats, and one of even fewer to have generated a school of guitar playing.
The town of Samois inaugurated the festival in 1968 as a response to the annual gathering of gypsy and jazz musicians that had begun spontaneously after Django’s death, in 1953. Django was forty-three years old when he left two sons, a trail of women, his wife, mother and brother, and a catalogue of recordings. This year, because it is the fiftieth anniversary of his death, the festival is particularly crowded. Thousands of people snake their way through fantastic amounts of dust and cigarette smoke, lining up at the makeshift stalls for bowls of paella, calamari/frites, moules, saucisses au vin, and bottles of very, very light rosés.
The events take place on the innocent, tree-lined Ile du Berceau, a slice of land, about the size of a department store, that has drifted from the mainland and is a footbridge away from the main road.
For three days in June, on this tiny, hyphenated island, dozens of scheduled performances are presented in an amphitheatre that seats about a thousand. The concerts are the initial attraction, with some of the world’s best jazz groups appearing, but the really compelling thing about this festival is what happens at the back of the island, in the tents. Here, gypsy-guitar makers from France and across Europe exhibit their instruments in paper-thin leantos, and festival attendees sample the wares.
All of the guitars are copies of the original 1930s instruments that Reinhardt championed, which were based on the Italian luthier Mario Maccaferri’s design for the French manufacturer Selmer. They differ from folk and classical guitars in their construction and design. Maccaferri created a soundboard that is curved in two directions and produces an unusually resonant tone. Also significant is the cutaway at the top near the neck and the parallel (instead of cross) bracing of the back. The instruments run anywhere from $2,500 to $3,500(U.S.), though an original fourteen-fret, oval-holed Selmer now has currency at $25,000.
Philippe Monneret is one of the guitar makers at the festival. He has a workshop in Mirecourt, the traditional seat of French lutheries. Philippe’s tent has a few examples of his work on display. He hovers around one of the Monoprix-issue lawn chairs set up in the middle of his tent. A man wanders in, picks up a guitar, and sits down. (It is always a man. I didn’t see one female guitarist.) He is middle-aged and from either France, Germany, or Britain, though he might even be an American or Australian. He is an amateur and probably belongs to his local Manouche jazz guitar club. He has mastered at least a dozen Django hits and can almost replicate the performance on the recording. He can’t read music and has never studied it formally. He is a dentist. He can play this music because he has spent thousands of hours learning it despite years of groaning from his children and actual disgust from his wife. He has snuck his discs on family vacations and now has to lie about where he’s been when he’s late for dinner, so he admits to having an affair. His wife forgives him because she is European and probably is having an affair. The North American isn’t so lucky. The words lawyers and papers come up over his lunch.