“Gypsy Dreamers”: A Conversation on the Past, Present and Future of Gypsy Jazz

BOULOU INTERVIEWA few months ago, I had the great pleasure of speaking with three of the most significant musicians in the French jazz scene. Their family’s history of close association and collaboration with the great Django Reinhardt indelibly links them to a rare form of artistry and particular musicianship. A certain “mystique” has always accompanied the name of Django Reinhardt. The public’s common misconception of Django’s musical
history and the evolution of his genre is much different than what actually transpired.

These days a pop-culture fantasy of “Gypsy Jazz” has taken on a life of its own, often abandoning the truth. What is found today on video, internet sites, discussion forums, etc., presents an oversimplified and homogenized version of Django’s music. That’s why the Ferrés are so important and relevant. The Ferré brothers are two of the very few individuals actually preserving authentic artistry. I recently heard exciting news via our mutual friend Christophe Astolfi, of a new project instigated by Boulou and Elios Ferré. We agreed to rendevous with them in Paris at one of the most notorious cafes of Django’s era, “La Coupole,” to learn more about their latest album, their life’s work and their art.


Tommy: I am quite curious about your project and its repertoire. And how did you (Boulou and Elios) come to know guitarist Christophe Astolfi?

Elios: So, if I may begin and then I will let my brother speak. Why Christophe? Because Christophe plays the exact school of the Ferré family, but with his own personality. It’s important to work with guitarists who have their own personality, which makes it not a monologue, but a dialogue. It’s a music where we exchange a lot. It’s like a conversation. And when you have the same point of view, you communicate much faster, when, for example, you have a fantastic drummer – and I’ve experienced this too – and the bassist is superb. But if there is no communication, it doesn’t work. And although they are great, it can fall apart. And when working with other people, music is always like walking on eggshells. I’m talking about real music. If you are like a ‘copycat,’ it serves nothing. And I think with Christophe here, it’s a mini-orchestra made up of three, it’s a trio. It’s an exchange.

In regards to the repertoire, first of all, it’s a surprise. It’s like a magician who mustn’t divulge his magic tricks! It will be pretty-colored, but without being folkloric. Because at the present time, we “corrupt” it a little, I believe. We change it for whatever reason. Notably, what occurred during a certain era- for example, the “New Orleans” jazz music was totally “de-naturalized” and it’s a shame. And in the “gypsy” genre, the two most important families were the Reinhardt family and the Ferré family. As you know, there have been many others. We were fortunate to have played with Stéphane Grapelli; Louis Vola, one of Django’s pianists; Maurice Vander, Django’s drummer; Roger Paraboschi, who was also drummer for my uncle Baro. Baro, as it happens, in his Valses d’hier et d’aujourd’hui, would say: “to inspire oneself, yes, to be a copycat (mimic), no.” To be accused of forgery and the practice of forgery, normally that would mean prison. It’s a form of rape. I think when I say bebop, world music, swing, New Orleans, of course we are inspired! That’s natural. Because before being a father, you have to be son. At a certain age, you have to be the father. Because after a while, you have to make your own analysis.

Boulou: Would you perhaps like me to tell you a story?

Tommy: Yes, of course, as you wish!

Boulou: The mission of the trio’s project is fragile one. It’s fragile because I myself had formed a trio thirty years ago, and we know very well that the model for us was “Le Quintette du Hotclub de France.” Why? When Django created this ensemble with Stéphane Grapelli, this project of the “Jazz of France” quintette, it was jazz without drums or trumpet, contrary to the big bands of Duke Ellington or Count Basie. This jazz was a typically “French” jazz, “French connection jazz”, without drums or trumpet. The notion of a trio is the same: no drums, no brass, and no big band: “The Trio.” So, it’s a fragile project. It’s like chamber music, like a trio: violin, piano, cello. It’s not one guitar with two accompanists, there are three soloists, three personalities, three guitars, three identities. We two are brothers, Elios and I, we are a bit similar to Stéphane Grappelli and Django, that is, we are very different from one another and at the same time very complimentary. And that’s it, music is made but of contrasts. Or else it would all be the same.

The idea behind this album isn’t to play like Django, because Django is unique. It’s like Matisse, Picasso, Aragon, or Bach. It isn’t needed. To recreate the original is not possible. There is one, but not two. But to play for Django, with our music. Elios and I are like two old travel companions. We have created over thirty albums in this world!

Last night, a friend of mine phoned me at 5 A.M.! Hervé, (he is in Montreal.)

He said, “Boulou, I love you! I have talked with all the American guitarists who live in Montreal, and they all have you and your brother’s albums, and all have Gypsy Dreams! I’m sorry to wake you up, but here it’s night-time!”

That’s right! That’s why the phone rang at 5 A.M. So, our music is known throughout the world.

Now, here is the new recruit. (gesturing to Alstolfi) I will make it short. He is twenty years younger than us, but his value is not in the number of his years. He represents the new generation of guitarists. It’s true that he brings something new to the trio. What is our trio? There are no standards. We’ve played the standards. We know them. Now, we play our originals, our music. Elios’s music, my music, adding Christophe’s playing, and we make a beautiful cocktail of music. …a trio.

Tommy: Would you please talk about your approach to improvisation?

Elios: A theme, in terms of jazz standards, (as Charlie Parker and Django did, as well as Dizzie Gillespie) is a conversational subject. If we are really true improvisors, which we are, we would have written themes on paper on our music stands and after that we would have as Stéphane Grappelli said, “Cook up something in the kitchen.” Of course there are themes, of course there are many things but we will be improvising. Because in that case if it weren’t for improvisation, it would be better to play classical music. Although, the great master Rostropovich would create cadenzas. And if we’re truly talking about classical music-you know Bach. At the end of the sheet of music it’s written “improvisation!” Because the theme suggests to us (the theme, is what we call a conversational subject) to improvise in the spirit of this theme. So of course we will improvise. Of course we won’t play all the written notes with music stands, what we’ve been working on for 6 months… no! That’s the goal of an improviser, or a Church Master. For example, a great organ player like Pierre Cochereau, whom we have known, or Jean Guillou from St-Eustache, I sing him a little song and he will improvise for hours and hours. Because we improvise on what we feel, which is what we call a “language” and language means conversation. So, absolutely we will improvise.

Tommy: I noticed that Boulou recently released an album of solo improvisations. Will all the tracks on the upcoming trio album be trio or will there be solo tracks as well?


Boulou: This trio is a communion of three artists. The solos, the pieces are, in reality, written with a structure. There is a structure because we cannot improvise with the wind, not at all, or else it would be chaos. It’s necessary to have a point of departure so that we always improvise. You for example, you are a musician, so you understand. There are harmonic progressions. We respect them and we play through those changes. So, to improvise spontaneously, the structures are already imposed. There is effectively, some writing. There is writing and there is what we call spontaneous improvising. Elios improvises on the structures, Christophe the same and myself as well. And of course, we improvise on originals, on compositions by my brother as well as some of mine. We play some lines together, which are already written because it’s like “arranged” music. It’s not like we will arrive at the studio and say “so what should we do and what should we improvise on?” No, we already know that when we arrive to the studio. We have already strategically planned out how we will find our physical and musical placement. And on top of that, the things we will be playing are difficult things. They demand a very serious preparation in terms of psychic and physical levels and also erotic. What we play is very erotic. It’s very sensual. It demands a strength, an energy, to be thrown into the flux.

Also, I did forget to say one thing. In this album as well, there is a second important thing. This album represents the taking of a risk. It’s the taking of a risk, because in this album I sing and I make an homage to George Brassens. There we go. So there are many components.

Elios: I’d like to add a parenthetical comment. Complementary to what we call the rhythm section, we will be playing harmonic progressions. We will divide the chords. It’s not D D D D G G G G D D D D. We divide the chords, there are progressions. As Fats Navarro the great trumpet player once said, “We will make great jazz when we are making good harmonic progressions.” And we ourselves, we know that system. My brother had the chance to play with some people, most notably, Dizzie Gillespie and I had the chance to play with Chet Baker and Jaco Pastorius. Well, your school (the American school) we know it very well. But, we also know our own patrimony. There is a difference between different musicians. I had the chance to play with some musicians like Billy Hart. We have played with these people, so we know the American culture very well, same as we know the gypsy culture and I don’t mean the folk-gypsy culture, because Django’s music, is “Djangology” and the Ferré music is “Ferré music” and Parker’s music is “Parker Music.” And that is the difference.

Boulou: Wouldn’t now be the time to ask some questions of Christophe?

Tommy: Yes, absolutely. Please tell me of your history and what drew you to this kind of music?

Christophe: So, when I decided to learn music at the age of 12, I actually wanted to play like Jimmy Hendrix. Since I didn’t have any guitar teacher or music teacher, it was the people of my village who showed me the chords, who taught me how to be autonomous in regards to music. That is, how to learn from albums and to get my ears to work. So I wanted to play like Jimi Hendrix and this person who showed me how to play my first chords said, “You know, it’s great to play like Jimi Hendrix, but there are two people you need to listen to if you are a guitarist. They are Joe Pass, who like you is of Sicilian origin, and Django Reinhardt.” So I kept this in mind and I was fortunate later on to be taken under the wing of someone who trained me to be an accompanist in the dance orchestras and this person wanted me to accompany like Django. At the time, we didn’t say “la pompe,” we said “la loco” to mark all the beats. So he really had me learn how to play rhythm like Django Reinhardt.

Let’s say that in regards to this music, that’s how it started. Later on at about 17 years of age, I started to be really interested in Django’s music, his followers and the different ways to play in Django’s style. And that’s how I discovered Boulou and Elios’s albums, parallel to albums from different people, especially Mr. Baro Ferret and Mr. Matelo Ferret. They really had a lot of impact on me. And after that I think I’ve always followed this path, that is, the way of eclecticism. I love tradition but what I search for before anything is an “open-ness” in music and I think that we are all three united by this “open-ness” as with modern jazz, American jazz, classical music and contemporary music.

So for me, the adventure started very early via dance music, Django Reinhardt and then during my teens the Ferré Family, the American school, up until today with our meeting and our album project.

Elios: I’d like to propose another parenthetical comment: “Long live tradition”- but with a static tradition we will end up in a museum. An evolving tradition, as in painting and music, like Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, like Benny Goodman who was capable of playing concertos, like the Wynton Marsalis family… I would say this music is not eclectic, it is diverse. It’s different. It’s a little bit like medicine, the way we healed and practiced medicine one hundred years ago. Do we keep it that way? The standard was one thing a hundred years ago, but medicine and science has evolved. You see, candles are pretty, they’re romantic, they’re very beautiful. When we press a button, you see…(turning on a light) So I think: past, present and future. And the future, what is it? It is an evolving past. If you stay in the past, you don’t evolve, that means that you are 4 years old and then at 40 years old, you are still only 4 years old in your head… It’s in the mind because in each human being there is a child. One has to evolve because with music, for us, it’s an urgent state. Repeating what was done by our elders, not only jazz, but contemporary, classical, because when we look at Bach’s harmonic treatise, we can already see there was an evolution. So, we honor our elders, and we with our means, we try to leave our own footprint -our little grain of rice.

Tommy: How exactly do we classify this music? I don’t want to say “gypsy swing”, or “gypsy jazz.” These aren’t the correct terms are they?

Boulou: No, they are not. Our father, who was on the road with Django R., did not define himself at all as such. To say we play “jazz Manouche” is not pejorative, but saying that, for my brother and I who are already of a certain age, who have grown up in the tradition of this music, who have known Django Reinhardt’s brother, myself who has worked with Django R.’s son in trio, Babik Reinhardt, no, we’ve never thought “jazz Manouche.” Not at all. Django’s music as Elios said is a music like the music of Louis Armstrong or of Bix Beiderbecke or James P. Johnson. No! It’s jazz, first of all with drums or trumpet. It’s a Parisian jazz. Djangos’ jazz, Matelo’s jazz, or Sarane, or Baro. It’s a jazz that was born here in the capital, Paris, with George Bracques or Édith Piaf. And it’s a music that started off in Montmartre, in Pigalle and later here in Montparnasse. My father played with Django during the war, right here at La Coupole in 1942. It’s a jazz that seduced the Americans because it admired north American culture, but at the same time the Americas would tell themselves “this is a music that sounds a little different from ours” and what I mean by that is that the notion of “jazz Manouche” is simply French jazz music. But at the same time, with a Tzigane side to it, “gypsy.” Because “gypsy” is not Manouche, it’s more than that, it’s thousands of years. The gypsies come from India, from the Ganges. As I’ve been asked, “You are Manouche?” I say, “No!” or “You are gypsy?” I say, “My brother and I are, like in Prosper’s libretto “Mérimée” (from Bizet’s Opera Carmen) Bohemian children or children of Gypsies. We are the Arlésienne.” (Boulou starts singing Carmen’s Habanera) We are Bohemian children, because of the roulotte (trailer caravan). I have it here, in my head. It’s the “dreams.” Like Jim Morrisson, like Hendrix, like Charlie Chaplin, like Modigliani! So, like yourselves, we are makers of dreams, because our roots are in the lines of the hand, our origins are the very lines of our hands. So we are truly real gypsies. It’s more than Manouche. To say “Me, Tzigane. Me, Manouche. Me, this. Me, that.” That is dreadful. No! Our music is universal, it’s music of the world.

Elios: Just as Django Reinhardt did it. You have a great example. I won’t be the one to talk about it, rather, Django Reinhardt’s discography will. Well, he’s played with Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Bill Coleman and Max Stewart. Later, thanks to my dad he played with Édith Piaf. His friends were Marcel Cerdan and Colette, etc., etc. Because to say “Manouche” is the what happened in the 80’s, because the journalists didn’t know how to categorize us. So, they had to label us. I will tell you something. You too have a great example in the U.S. He’s a great saxophonist who, unfortunately is dead, a creator. He’s one of Brazilian music’s greatest, but he is not Brazilian! It’s Stan Getz. When you see Stan Getz’ album sessions with Red Mitchell, well, at the end of the day they were playing… Brazilian music! He was known throughout the world and his music is still being played…Le Roi du Tango. He’s a Frenchman! It’s Charles Romuald, whose stage name was Carlos Gardel. He was from Toulouse. Music is like love, you don’t need a passport. Either we play the right notes… as Miles (Davis) would say.

Christophe: I’d just like to add something about the term “Manouche.” I’d like to bring to mind someone who was not gypsy at all, but who greatly contributed to the creation of this music, being maybe one of the rare people who actually knew Django Reinhardt in the 30’s. It’s Mr. Stéphane Grappelli. With this cult of the guitar “hero” we often forget the people who were around Django, who permitted the creation of this quintette and also Django’s artistic stimulation. I believe that yes, Django was a genius, that he succeeded by himself, but having had someone like Stéphane at the beginning of his career, as well as someone like Hubert Rostaing to be able to write down his music (since it was structure-less.) We can’t forget that these people were not at all Gypsy. So I think the people we cited earlier, may it be the Reinhardt family or the Ferré family, had the intelligence to know exactly what the world was because the world is an exchange, it’s sharing. If tomorrow I go to New York to listen to some bebop, I’m not going to ask someone on the street to bring me to a club where I can listen to “black jazz,” and if I’m a fan of Charles Mingus of the “café au lait” jazz, it makes no sense, really… They are sort of distortions, maybe a little commercialized, pushed to an extreme that has no consideration for what the music is. We say it’s a universal form of expression. I think music has enough value to be able to pass above these limitations.

Elios: Notably, a great example – without being political – is the United States of America! It’s a melting pot. Canada… it’s a melting pot, you (gesturing to Luanne) are our cousins of the West. And music is the same.

One last thing I’d like to establish: when one says, “Manouche guitar” (or gypsy guitar) I would say it’s false. Why? Because of the creator of this guitar was Italian, Mr. Mario Macaferri. The second, who almost perfected it was Henri Selmer from Lorraine. It’s true that the Reinhardt family and the Ferré family were practically the first to play on those guitars. Thanks to who? Well, it’s Louis Vola! He was the double bassist for Django Reinhardt. And there’s a guitar at the Paris National Conservatory which is a prototype of the 1934 model where we see a photo of Django playing it in a big band, with Louis Vola, but this guitar is neither Macaferri or Selmer, it’s a Ramirez, by a Spanish luthier who lived on Rue Rodier. So, I will repeat myself, the instrument must be in harmony with your thoughts. If it isn’t in harmony, it’s like a car that has no fuel.

Christophe: It’s true, to repeat what Elios was saying, you have to take note of all the luthiers (until the international popularity of “jazz Manouche” took off at the end of the 90’s) all the luthiers who carried on this tradition. Not to be provincial, because if one really knows the traditions, they’re either Italian or Sicilian…

Elios: Busato, Favino, Gino, Di Mauro, Carbonell…

Christophe: So Manouche guitar. I only know of one gypsy who builds these guitars…

Tommy: One more question. I want to ask about the relationship between your family and the Russian music, the cabarets and this branch of the genre.

Elios: Ah! So the relationship- it is simple, very simple. Because in the Russian cabarets, they were pretty much no bigger than this club. (La Coupole) Back in the day you had the Scheherazade, which was one of the biggest cabarets where American actors like George Edward would come. In these Russian Cabarets there was the “Gypsy Orchestra” and in gypsy music, there is a lot of improvisation. Like jazz, with harmonic progressions and all. After that was the Russian Orchestra. After was what we called “the Attractions,” such as singers. Afterwards there was what we call the “Typical Orchestra” (l’Orchestre Typique). And after that there was the Quintette of the Hot Club of France! Or, also the Quintet of Paris which was directed by my uncle Sarane, with the violinist Georges Effrose, who unfortunately had a sad ending.

Tommy: Well, Christophe, Elios and Boulou. I am sad we have come to the conclusion of our interview today. It has been a great pleasure and honor to talk with you about subjects which are near and dear to my heart. Perhaps we shall talk again in the future? For now, abiento. Merci, merci a tous.

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