For hot jazz, leave the cold tap running

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Yesterday I was talking about the plethora of gypsy jazz events coming up in the next few weeks, and how alive and well is the tradition of making music in the style of Django Reinhardt is, the great gypsy guitarist.

Yesterday I was talking about the plethora of gypsy jazz events coming up in the next few weeks, and how alive and well is the tradition of making music in the style of Django Reinhardt is, the great gypsy guitarist.

(It is commonplace to refer to Django Reinhardt as "the great gypsy guitarist", but it wasn't until I read his life by Charles Delaunay that I realised just how much of a gypsy he was - the restlessness, the sudden absences, the indifference to money, the huge network of relations...

Delaunay relates that some time in the 1930s Django invited one of his cousins to stay with him in a hotel in the south of France. The cousin had never been in a hotel before. He had never slept in a house before, only a caravan. And he could not get to sleep in the hotel bedroom - not, that is, until he left the cold tap running in the basin. What he was missing was the sound of running water, like the stream he normally parked beside.)

The violinist Stephane Grappelli, Django's playing partner, was a quite a different creature, much more the dandy, the man about town. No gypsy in his soul, I think. But both with enough pride not to let the other have top billing. Who could possibly have come second in the band name? So they settled on the clumsy but endearingly odd "Quintette du Hot Club de France", which became famous for their brand of unique, strings-only, French/gypsy jazz.

As Django was the genius of the group, I always found it ironic that, after his early death in 1953, it should be Stephane Grappelli who went on to find fame and fortune. There must be millions of people who have bought records by Grappelli without any idea who Reinhardt was. Grappelli blossomed, but despite worldwide fame, he was never the great man Reinhardt had been. And yet now that Grappelli has passed on, you can see that it is Reinhardt, after all, who has left the greater legacy. Grappelli was just Grappelli, a wonderful talent, who left no school, no tradition, no festival. But in the hinterland behind Django there is still the whole world of gypsy jazz, symbolised by the festival which takes place every year at Samois-sur-Seine, Django's last abode.

There are amazing young guitarists emerging all the time to carry on the tradition, and there are people far more expert than I am who can tell you whether they come from Alsace or elsewhere, just from their style.

But they appear everywhere. There used to be a group in Bath called Le Jazz who played Hot Club style jazz. Damned good they were, too, especially solo guitarist Peter Finch and rhythm guitarist Dave Kelbie (now a mainstay of the gypsy jazz scene in the UK).

Once, because their bass player was absent on business, I was asked to play with them for an evening, and a scary, wonderful experience it was too, to be inside this sound for a moment, not just looking in from the outside. I can remember playing tunes I had heard on record but never tried to reproduce on the bass. I can remember Dave dictating chords at me a split second before the next tune ("Basically it's E minor and B seven, and sort of G in the middle eight") and also asking at one point: "Do you know 'Si Tu M'aimais'?" I didn't. He looked at me pityingly. "Well, Django recorded it in the late 1940s, so you should do..."

Behind that question there is a whole tradition of a music that is alive and kicking. It isn't a train-spotting world. I don't think it's a heritage world either. Gypsy jazz is one of those curious kinds of music which don't change much as the years pass, but don't wither either. Music like flamenco, and the tango, and Scottish and Irish music and Breton and Galician music. All of them should have become fossilised or died of inanition years ago. And they haven't.

Don't ask why. Just be glad they're there.

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