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Musings on the Evolution of Jazz Violin Part Three: The Hot Club of Robinson County

May 2010 2 Comments

Anthony Barnett (photo © Toraiwa)

by Anthony Barnett

SP: Any comments on the divide between the stylistic approaches of the Grappelli and Stuff Smith and their respective statuses both in the jazz world and among music fans that are not jazz aficionados? Where does the Manouche/French Gypsy violin style stand in your concept of the jazz world?

AB: Let’s talk, as we have long promised ourselves, about the Hot Club of Robinson County. It may well be the best Hot Club there is. Why? Because, as we know, it doesn’t exist. There is no Robinson County. That says a lot about what I think whenever I see the words Hot Club. I’m sighing with disillusion before I’ve even listened and rarely feel illuminated after I’ve listened. Reinhardt and Grappelli made something special, unique. No doubt about it. Though I wonder how Reinhardt and Smith would have sounded . . . wishful thinking? Well, I did dream once that I walked into some kind of restaurant somewhere in Europe and they were there . . . I guess that dream will not come true though others have. In my teens I would summon up recordings by Smith with Teddy Wilson or with Duke Ellington. There were no such recordings. Then one day there were: airchecks. Dreams come true.

Back to the Hot Clubs. It is a tiresome thing to follow, I mean for the listener to have to listen over and over to, for the most part, mediocre chugchugs or paltry efforts to appear to be updating. The technical ability of any given violinist is not the issue here, by the way. I’m going to get into trouble, I imagine. So be it. And just maybe I am expressing a feeling that is more prevalent, though hidden, than might be thought. I want to say: Stop It! Look, I don’t want to be a killjoy. I know very well it is a lovely social thing, all those gypsy jazz meetings, for example, and I know too that gigs are going to be scarce on the ground for more than a few violinists if they don’t do really very imitative Grappelli things, whether in a Hot Club or gypsy jazz or generalized swing mode. But we are talking about music here, not just social gatherings. Gypsy jazz: it is impossible meaningfully to describe Reinhardt as a purveyor of gypsy jazz. And, again, there are some truly accomplished and individualistic violinists post the era of the Quintette du Hot Club de France who masquerade under the gypsy jazz rubric but who are really quite something else. I might mention Charles Roman and Zipflo Weinrich as examples. But I don’t want to distract from my underlying thesis.  So, stop it! If you can. If you have something you believe you can move on to. It is music you want to make, isn’t it? Yet, lest I be misunderstood, it is not out of the question to deliver authentic new renditions of past genres: the Carolina Chocolate Drops a case in point, a wonderful string and jug band. Where your heart is.

In the 96-page essay “Almost Like Being in Bop”, accompanying the 2CD set I Like Be I Like Bop (see http://www.abar.net), I sought to rationalize, as much for my own understanding as anyone else’s, the perceived preeminent status of Grappelli. I think the best thing I can do is to give here the relevant passage intact: “Why of all jazz violinists was Grappelli the one who found widest and longest lasting favor with audiences both inside and outside jazz? Grappelli’s violinistic technique appealed to classical aficionados and easy-on-the-ears listeners alike while offering a palatable difference; his musicality was suffused with light nostalgia, not least for France and the Hot Club—what profusion there is of mundane imitations in movies and TV items with the merest hint of things French or jaunty. Violinist–vocalist Nicole Yarling in Strings, December 2004: ‘A lot of violinists gravitate toward Stéphane Grappelli because his style was very ornate and close to a classical player’s style.’ Memory of the Jazz Age but rarely nostalgia—well, some strains of Italian romanticism—in Venuti; nor in intricate, intellectual Asmussen. No nostalgia in violinistically unorthodox Smith, however pretty or poignant he played [notwithstanding his role as probably the only jazz violinist whose influence extends beyond his instrument]; while South’s was an altogether heavier affair.” Later in the essay: “South played on the full sound of the wood. Who else reproduces that sound of the violin’s substance?”

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about the author

Anthony Barnett has published bio-discographies of Stuff Smith, Desert Sands/Up Jumped the Devil; and Eddie South, Black Gypsy. He edits Fable Bulletin: Violin Improvisation Studies, an online update facility to printed volumes of the bulletin and books. He is a contributor to the latest editions of New Grove Dictionary of Jazz and Music and Musicians.

Since 2002 he has issued previously unreleased and other rare recordings by a wealth of historic jazz violinists on his AB Fable label.

His AB Fable website is   http://www.abar.net

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  • Michael Steinman said:

    Much of what is purveyed as “gypsy jazz” is entertaining music, expertly played. BUT. Just as the OKeh people didn’t care how many people were in Louis’s Hot Five because the name sold the records, “gypsy jazz” has long been a marketable commodity for public consumption. It is this century’s “jazz” equivalent of the “Dixieland-by-the-yard” bands once prevalent. Promoters could understand this unthreatening, “fun” music; woodshedding string players could aspire to it. I am asked to review many new CDs by these groups, and they’re almost all pleasing, but only a few of these players have transcended their own technique to construct memorable solos. And just as an aside, I admired Grappelli’s playing in the Thirties with Django but always thought of him as the non-singing Chevalier without the straw hat.

  • V-picks said:

    Still, thanks to Reinhardt and Grapelli, gypsy jazz is a genre in its own right. Though there is truth in the observation that bands or performers who play this type of music are not all making it their “own,” but hopefully, with hard work and real love for jazz manouche, the magic of the music would rub off on them.