Gypsy Dreamers: The Past, Present and Future of "Gypsy Jazz" according to Boulou and Elios Ferre with guest Christophe Astolfi

Posted by Tommy Davy on Aug 9th 2018

Written by: Tommy Davy

Translated by: Luanne Homzy

A few months ago, I had the great pleasure of speaking with three of the most significant musicians in the French jazz scene. Through their family's history of direct association and collaboration with Django Reinhardt they are linked to a rare form of artistry and particular musicianship. As Django Reinhardt often has a certain mystique which surrounds his name, the perception of musical history and its development commonly is much different than how it actually transpired. The fantasy of "Gypsy Jazz" has taken a life of its own, often abandoning the truth for a more glamorous fabrication that we see through film, internet sites, discussion forums etc. The brothers Ferre are the few carrying the original spirit. I heard exciting rumors of a new project with Boulou and Elios through my friend Christophe Astolfi and decided to sit down with them at one of the most infamous cafes of Django's era in Paris, "La Coupole", to learn more of their album, history and their art.

Tommy: I am quite curious in regards to the project, maybe about the repertoire concept, and also how Boulou and Elios came to know Christophe Astolfi and of his passion for this music?

Elios: So, if I can start, and then I will let my brother speak… Why Christophe? Because Christophe plays the exact school of the Ferre family, but with his own personality. It’s important to have 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 focal points, you communicate much faster than 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 falls apart. And when working with other people, music is always like walking on eggshells - I’m talking about real music, or else if it’s to be 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.

However in regards to repertoire, first of all it’s a surprise. It’s like a magician who can’t divulge his magic tricks! But it will be pretty colored, but without being folkloric. Because at the present time, we “denature” a little, I believe, we “denature” for whatever reason, like notably what happened at a certain era, the “New Orleans” music was totally “denaturalized”, and it’s a shame. And with the “gypsy” school, the two biggest families were the Reinhardt family and the Ferre family. As you know, there have been many. 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, as it happens, in “Valses d’hier et d’aujourd’hui”, he would say: “to inspire oneself, yes, to be a copycat, no.” To be attacked for forgery and the use of forgery, normally that would be 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 normal. Because before being father, you have to be son. At a certain age, you have to be the father. Because after a while, you have to make an analysis.

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

Luanne: Yes, as you wish!

Boulou: The mission of the trio is a fragile project. It’s fragile because I myself had formed a trio 30 years ago, and we know very well that the model for ourselves was "Le Quintette du Hotclub de France". Why? When Django created this project with Stéphane Grapelli, this project of the “jazz of France” quintet, it was jazz without drums or trumpet, contrary to the big bands of Duke Ellington, 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: 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 differences. Or else it would all be the same.

The idea behind this album project isn’t to play like Django, because Django is unique. It’s like Matisse, Picasso, Aragon, or Bach. It isn’t necessary; 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 over 30 albums in the whole world.

Last night, a friend of mine phoned me at 5 AM, Hervé, he is in Montreal. He said: “Boulou, I love you! I discussed 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, it’s 5 AM over there, here it’s nighttime!” That’s right! That’s why the phone rang at 5 AM. So, our music is known throughout the world.

Now, there is the new recruit. I will make it short: he is 20 years younger than us, but value is not the number of years. It’s the new generation of guitar. 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: Can you 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 – a theme is a conversation subject. If we are really true improvisors – which we are – we would have written themes, on paper on our music stands, and after 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 cadences. And if we’re truly talking about classical music, you know Bach, at the end of sheet of music it’s written “improvisation”! Because the theme suggests to us (the theme, what we call a conversation subject) to improvise in the spirit of this theme. So of course we will improvise. Of course we won’t come and play all 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. A great organ player like Pierre Cochereau, which 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 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, 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 placing. 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 is 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 things.

Elios: I’d like to put in as a parenthesis: comparatively to what we call the rhythm section, we will be playing what we call harmonic progressions, we divide the chords. It’s not “D D D D G G G G D D D D”…, we divide the chords, there are progression. As Fats Navarro, the great trumpet player, once said: “we will make great jazz when we will be making good harmonic progressions.” And we ourselves, we know that system. My brother had the chance to play with some people, notably: Dizzie Gillespie. I had the chance to play with Chet Baker, 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 very well, not the folk gypsy culture, because Django’s music, it’s “Djangology”, the Ferre music is “Ferre music”, and Parker’s music is “Parker Music”. And that is the difference.

Boulou: wouldn’t it be the time now to ask some questions to Christophe?

Tommy: Yes absolutely, tell me of your history, what drew him to this kind of music?

Christophe: So, when I decided to start 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 lift from albums and to get my ears 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 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 accompany like Django Reinhardt.

Let’s say that in regards to this music, that’s how it started. Later on, at about 17 years old, I started to be really interested in Django’s music, his followers, and the different ways to play in Django's tradition. 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 importance to me. And after, I think that I’ve always followed this way, that is the way of eclecticism. That is, I love tradition, but what I search for before anything is “openness” in music, and I think that we are all three associated by this “openness”, as with modern jazz, American jazz, classical music, contemporary music.

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

Elios: I’d like to open a parenthesis. Long live tradition, but with a static tradition, we will end up in a museum. An evolutionary tradition, as in for painting and for music, like Igor Stravinsky, like Bela Bartok, like Benny Goodman who was capable of playing concertos, people like from 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 100 years ago. Do we keep it that way? The standard was one thing 100 years ago, but Medicine 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’s with an evolving past. If you stay in the past, you don’t evolve, that means that you are 4 years old, and at 40 years old, you are still 4 years old… It’s in the head, 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, honor to our elders, and us, with our means, we try to leave our footprint ("our little grain of rice").

Tommy: What is “this” music which we speak of? I don’t want to say “gypsy swing”, or “gypsy jazz”, these aren’t exactly the correct terms…?

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", it’s 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 Reinhadt, 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 Beiderbach, or James P. Johnson. No! It’s jazz, first of all with now drums or trumpet, it’s a Parisian jazz. Djangos’ jazz, Matelo’s jazz, or Sarane, of Baro, it’s a jazz that was born here, in the capital, Paris, with George Bracques, or Edith 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 ’42. 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 Gange. As I’ve been told “you are Manouche?” I say “no”. “You are gypsy?” I say “my brother and I are, like in Prosper's libretto “Mérimée” [from Bizet’s Carmen Opera] Bohemian children/children of Gypsies” (enfants de bohème), “we are the Arlésienne”. [starts singing Carmen’s Habanera]. We are Bohemian children, because the roulotte (trailer caravan), I have it here, in the 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 the lines of the hand, our origins are the 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, Max Stewart. Later, thanks to my dad he played at Edith Piaf, his friend was Marcel Cerdan, Colette, etc, etc. Because to say “manouche”, it’s the thing that happened in the 80s, because the journalists didn’t know how to categorize us. So, they had to tag us. I will tell you something, you too have a great example in the U.S. It’s a great saxophonist, who, unfortunately is dead, a creator, it’s one of the Brazilian music’s greatests, but he’s not Brazilian! It is 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”; it’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 would say.

Christophe: I’d just like to add something about the term “manouche” . I’d like to bring to thought 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 could say of Django Reinhardt in the 30s, it’s Mr. Stéphane Grappelli. With this trend of the guitar “hero”, we often forget the people who were around Django, who permitted the creation of this quintet, and also Django’s artistic stimulation. I believe that, yes, Django was a genius, that he sufficed to 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. 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 Ferre 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”, but if I’m a fan of Charles Mingus, of the “café au lait” jazz, it makes no sense, really… They are sort of deformations maybe a little commercialized, pushed to an extreme that has no consideration for what 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: As is, notably, a great example – without being political – the United States of America! It’s a melting pot. Canada… it’s a melting pot, you [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” (gypsy guitar), I would say it’s false. Why? Because of the creator of this guitar was Italian, it’s Mr. Mario Macaferri. The second, who somewhat perfected it, was Henri Selmer from Lorraine. It’s true that the Reinhardt family and the Ferre family were practically the first to play on those guitars. Thanks to who? Well, it’s Louis Vola! He was the double bassist of Django Reinhardt. And there’s a guitar at the Paris National Conservatory which is a prototype of 1934 where we see 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 that all the luthiers until the trend of the “jazz manouche” that took off at the end of the 90s, all the luthiers who carried on this tradition, it wasn’t to be communitarian, because one 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 the development of this music.

Elios: Ah! So the relation, it is simple, very simple. Because in the Russian cabarets, they were pretty much as big as this [La Coupole]. Back in the day you had the Sheherazade, 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, there was the Quintet 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.