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Django Reinhardt Birthday Celebration: A Night at the Royal Room

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Royal Room, Django Reinhardt Birthday Celebration

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The overwhelming response from the rather informal survey I conducted asking several friends and family members whether or not they had heard of Django Reinhardt was: no, they had not. Not surprising I suppose, given that they did not exactly fit the profile of the demographic of the crowd that populated The Royal Room in south Seattle Friday night for a birthday celebration for old Django. The crowd that night is rather mature, though despite this, most of them were likely no older than children by the time he died 61 years ago. When and how they were exposed to his music I have no idea. My first fling with Django’s music came from a song among a compilation of tunes that had been classified under the somewhat broad “French” genre of music. There was something that certainly set that song apart from all the others on that album. It’s a quality that has in general set Django apart from many other guitar players from his time. For a brief bio, he came into the world in 1910. Of Romani heritage, he was born in Belgium, but spent most of his career in France. He’s famous for his two-fingered technique on the guitar, having badly burned his other two in a fire. He invented “hot” jazz guitar, a quick-paced jazz style, personified the French Gypsy jazz culture, and influenced many other prolific guitar players since then, including The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia.
I walk into the venue at ten o’clock sharp on the evening of Django’s 104th birthday to find the show in full swing. The event is hosted by the Puget Sound-based bands Greg Ruby Quartet and Ranger and the Re-arrangers. I confess I somewhat lose track of which band member belongs to which band. True to their moniker, there is quite a bit of rearranging of musicians as they switch in and out for different configurations on their jamming. And if I knew more about the subtle differences between stringed instruments I might be able to tell you more than that I think there are at least three guitars, a mandolin, violin and congo drums being played at any given time up on stage. I’ve vowed next time to take an actual musician with me, so as to take the guesswork out of squinting inquisitively at some instrument and dubiously deciding it’s probably just a “regular” guitar.
At 11 o’clock they bring a clarinet player into the mix, a tall, thin, blonde kid in khakis and a plaid shirt. Noticeably younger than the rest, he folds seamlessly into the group and it’s easy to see the agelessness that music can bring to the soul. The genuine talent of all the musicians that night is incontrovertibly apparent and truly gratifying to watch. Passing off solos from one to the other, it’s almost enchanting to watch amongst them the genuine pleasure they take in both each other’s playing and their own.
Gypsy jazz is a type of music that to me is rather thought-provoking in its pleasant subtlety. And this show is certainly not the kind of show where you are so overcome with noise that all you can think about is the encompassing decibel level pounding into your skull. It is more the kind of show where ideas and thoughts race through your brain stirred by the bippy-boppy tempo, the gentle synchronicity of a gaggle of guys all strumming softly in time. It makes one wish they were listening to this kind of music whilst sipping coffee in Paris in the spring and laying down thick coats of paint of a pale canvas, and maybe also writing a play to be performed in the afternoon on the Seine. There is something romantically creative about the feel of the genre.
At 11:20 a couple drifts down to the dance floor and does a casual twirling waltz in front of the stage. It seems very perfect, as if they were meant to be there all along, as if the band actually packs them up in their suitcase at the end of the show and takes them with them to their next gig on the road. Indeed the whole show retains a slight shadow of perfection, although quietly so. It is a well-crafted evening of well-played music in fine company. Not a bad way to celebrate another year’s return.

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