Django and I
Violin par exellence
Talking in 1970
After playing classical music, I decided to play jazz when I was fifteen years old—a few moments ago. In my youth, I heard this novelty music and liked it. I thought: instead of being a second-rate classical musician, I preferred to try and be a first-rate jazz musician. And as my instrument was a little difficult to play jazz on, I didn’t expect a lot of competition. But really, you can play jazz with any instrument. I was a violinist; so I played jazz music on a violin.
Things were not easy for me at the beginning in Paris, because at the time only the saxophone had the privilege to play jazz—or piano, drums, banjo, trumpet, trombone—but no violinist. But we had a chance when the guitar started.
Jazz technique is absolutely unlike classical playing. Because jazz is an improvisation all the time. To be a jazzman you need to be a good musician: to improvise, it means you must not only like music, you must produce some of your own. Ordinary musicians who work, say, in the opera—they play very well, of course, but everything is written down. There are, naturally, very bad jazz musicians, but the good ones are those who can improvise. It is their own work on a theme of somebody else.
A lot of classical people, from Bach to Paganini, composed a theme and did what they call variations on it. And variations in jazz means improvisation; it’s exactly the same.
We originally formed the quintet with Django Reinhardt when we were very young but, again, we did not have the opportunity to continue then, because nobody believed in that music. Much later on we were able to present our music, as the Hot Club Of France Quintet, when the people realised we could play jazz on the guitar and the violin—not only the saxophone, clarinet and so on.
Django was exactly like me. And he not only improvised with melody, he tried and he succeeded in reproducing on a guitar the effect of a large orchestra.
Yes, he was the first. I think everybody playing the guitar today, all those rock groups with the three guitars, were inspired by Django Reinhardt. Because we were the first to start a group with three guitars—at a time when there was no electricity behind us. We had to play without electric noise, which, in my opinion, is a bit more difficult.
At the beginning of the war, I had come over to Britain to go into a clinic. And I was very lucky to be ill on that day when it became too late to go back to France. When I was better, my life continued and I had no alternative but to work here. I met a lot of friends; some great artists.
I was obliged to form an orchestra, to go and play in places like Hatchett’s, the Berkeley Hotel, the Milroy, everywhere in London. On tour with the theatre I visited all parts of England, Scotland and Wales. I think I know England better than some Englishmen, maybe.
With me were some very good musicians who, like me, were unable to be in the army. One of them was a blind pianist who is very well known now—George Shearing. George, myself and three or four others formed up, and we had a lot of success. We played for the troops very often; we used to go very close to the battlefront sometimes, when bombs were dropping while we were playing. It was a matter of doing all we could to keep up the men’s morale; and I always had two or three lovely girls with me, to please them by bringing some glamour into my programme, I was very happy living here, and I hope God lets me live some more years, because I like to come back here as much as I can. Recently I came over and played with Teddy Wilson, with Laurie Holloway—and with a marvellous player, Alan Clare, the man they call the musicians’ pianist, Last year I went to the States to play at the Newport Festival. I didn’t go this year; I’m not very keen to spend all night in the plane. Travelling ten hours to play ten minutes—it’s too much for me. Also my old friend Joe Venuti didn’t turn up; he was in hospital.
So all that made me reluctant to go. Maybe next year I’ll go again, but under different conditions.
Jean-Luc Ponty was to have been with me if I’d gone this year. He’s marvellous—he plays the violin like Coltrane. Me, I play like myself, you see. I played in Berlin with him; I look like his grandfather, but we did very well together.
There are a lot of good violinists as well, and I’ve made some records with them. Of course, the first was with Eddie South, then Stuff Smith; last November I recorded with Joe Venuti—for 72 years old, still fantastic. Another very good one is Svend Asmussen; I did a record with him, too, two or three years ago.
One night in Paris about five years ago I played all night on a recording session with Duke Ellington. Ray Nance and I did a duet together; Duke was very pleased about that. It was all on-the-spot Ellington compositions. He gave us the sequence and we improvised on it. With some cups of whisky, we did the job! As for my present situation: for three years now I’ve been at the Paris Hilton Hotel. I have my own group there.
People say they don’t like jazz in France now, but I have had evidence to the contrary. They like it in a certain way: if we don’t disturb them when they’re eating their dinner, then afterwards we can do what we want. It’s a very young modernistic group, because I don’t want to play with old-fashioned people. I want to be spurred by a progressive rhythm section. That’s the secret!
I’ve certainly had a very good time on this visit, working at the Palladium again. And I must say that Sacha Distel plays very well—he loves jazz, too. I enjoy playing with him very much, because he’s a real jazzman. Before he was a singer/comedian, I knew him when he was really playing a lot of fine guitar. He plays modernistic, too—the way I like it. I don’t like that old style any more: it’s finished. Yes, he sounds as good as ever today. Exactement.
My advice to any aspiring jazz violinist is: go on, baby, do like me—I’m not starving, you know! It’s a good job when you can do it. There are plenty of violinists around, yet still few stars on it—1 don’t know why. I suppose it’s an instrument that it’s hard to make an impact with. I don’t understand why it is that everybody who plays it looks so sad! But, I tell you again—you can play jazz on any instrument.
On Django Rheinhardt, Stephane comments: "I don't mind him being a gypsy, you know, but sometimes he don't wash too often. For instance, his feet. That is something to hear!" When Stephane and Django first came to England, they were topping the bill at the Palladium., and on their way to the theatre Django suddenly pointed up to the sky: "It's just like the moon we have in Paris." Stephane had a very difficult time persuading him that it was the same moon.
Something else that Django couldn't understand was the working of the beautiful car he had just bought. About twenty minutes outside of Paris, the car ran out of petrol: so Django simply got out, closed the door and caught the next bus. When he arrived at the gig, Stephane enquired as to where his new car was. Django explained that it would no longer go, and he had left it twenty miles away. As far as he was concerned, the fact that it had run out of petrol meant that the car was finished, and he never went back to the spot to recover it.
Extract from an Alan Clare article by Peter and David Lund