Tuesday, 21 August 2012
Django Reinhardt at the Proms...
Django Reinhardt was a Gypsy jazz genius who kept on living in his caravan long after he found fame. Guitarist and devotee Martin Taylor explains why he has written a Prom in his honour
Sunday 19 August 2012
I'm always being asked when I first heard Django Reinhardt's music, but it was probably in the womb. My father, Buck Taylor, was a Dixieland bass player and guitarist. His family was Romany like Django's, and he loved that music. When I was about three, I said to my dad: "When he plays the guitar, it's like he's talking to me." I didn't know Django was an illiterate Gypsy from Belgium, who'd kept on living in his caravan long after he'd become a star. I didn't know what it meant to have lost the use of two digits of his fingering hand after a fire and to have retaught himself to play even better – or to be famous enough to have played Carnegie Hall with Duke Ellington. But I knew he moved me, as he did almost everybody who heard him.
My dad got me a ukulele after that, and then a guitar when I was big enough – at the age of four. I used to play along with Django's records. My dad would say: "Hear that? He's improvising his own melody over the top of the tune." I didn't know anything about musical theory – I played professionally for nearly 20 years before I could read music – but I could hear it. Playing the guitar is the only thing in my life I've ever found easy.
The Spirit of Django Prom comes from an idea that was kicking around for a while but finally came to fruition in 2010. I had been asked by Dave Tracey, who runs the International Guitar festival in Liverpool, to do something special for their 25th anniversary and the centenary of Django's birth. Dave had liked Guy Barker's Amadeus Project – which was a kind of jazz and film noir angle on Mozart – and had asked him if he'd write a concerto for me. I had known Guy since we played together in the Harrow Youth Jazz Orchestra in 1972 (I was 15, he was 12). So we eventually decided on a Spirit of Django suite, using six of my own pieces reflecting Django's work, French life, American jazz and Gypsy music, and his interest in Debussy, too. Guy says he's always fascinated by how Europeans play jazz - how they play it with their own regional accents, even though that language originated in America.
We sometimes say we imagined it being a soundtrack to an old black-and-white movie about a summer in France. I hope it also catches a little of Django's mischievousness. There's a passage of music in the suite dedicated to Jacques Tati. I got the idea for that by watching a very bad unicyclist who kept falling off.
The guitar festival budget gave us 24 strings, a harp and two french horns from the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, most of Guy's Big Band, and my Spirit of Django group. But Guy expanded the piece later for full big band and symphony orchestra combined, for a conservatoire workshop – and it's just as well he did, because that's indirectly how we got to this Prom concert.
I had told Guy in a pub once that my dream was to play this music at the Royal Albert Hall for a Prom. I loved the idea of playing Gypsy jazz at that venue. Then this year, the director of the Proms, Roger Wright, called Guy to ask if he had a jazz piece suitable for the Britten Sinfonia. He says he almost said no, then remembered the suite, and what I'd said to him about my Proms dream. Wright went for it, and we were away. That day in the pub, Guy had said: "Those opportunities turn up once in a blue moon." He tells me now that, on the night of the concert, there really is going to be a blue moon, so maybe the fates are on our side.
Touring with Django's great violinist Stéphane Grappelli, which I did from 1979 until the early 90s, really deepened my understanding of Django. I also got to know Django's family – they formed strong links with Britain in the second world war. They all say how passionate he was about music, that he knew he was great but it didn't stop him being humble around other great musicians. His grandson David also says he was a very modern artist, and would have explored the possibilities of the electric guitar much more if he'd lived longer. If he were around now, he'd be mixing and looping like everybody else.
It's a bit of a cliche to say he was unreliable, although he was totally serious about music. He liked billiards and he liked to gamble. Grappelli told me that when they got offered their first recording in 1934, Grappelli showed up for the date but Django didn't. Grappelli combed the local billiard halls and eventually found him. When asked why he hadn't turned up, Django replied he didn't think recording would ever catch on, and he was happier playing billiards. He changed his mind when they played the recording back to him. He'd never heard himself before. Pretty soon after that, the whole world knew all about him.
• Interview by John Fordham. The Spirit of Django Prom is at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7, on 31 August. Details: bbc.co.uk/proms