Frank Vignola 

100 Years of Django: Guitarist Frank Vignola pays tribute to a gypsy-jazz legend.

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There are plenty of tales out there about musicians starting young. We all know Mozart was 4 when he began playing the keys. It’s also common to hear stories about musicians overcoming severe adversity. The drummer from Def Leppard, in case you haven’t heard, only has one arm. But Django Reinhardt, the gypsy jazz guitarist from France, followed a trajectory that beats both.

Born in Belgium in 1910, Reinhardt learned to play in Romani (gypsy) camps on the outskirts of Paris. He quickly moved from violin to banjo, and then guitar—all before turning 18, when he was severely burned by a caravan fire, so much so that he suffered paralysis in several limbs, including a couple of fingers. Still, without any formal training whatsoever, Reinhardt re-learned to pick and strum, becoming the most influential European jazz musician to date.

For his part, Frank Vignola—one of modern jazz’s most celebrated guitarists—first picked up the guitar at the ripe old age of 5. He recalls being introduced within a year to the dark and dissonant undertones of manouche jazz (gypsy jazz) that would forever change his course, not to mention inspire his latest album and current tour, 100 Years of Django.

“I first heard Django when I was 6 years old,” explains Vignola. “It was he, Les Paul and Bucky Pizzarelli who inspired me to play guitar.”

Following in the giant footsteps of the greats who came before is an intrinsic part of the trade. When, at the age of 23, Vignola mimicked Reinhardt’s infamous 1930s jazz collective Quintette du Hot Club de France, taking his version of the group on the road, it improbably became the time and place he developed his own distinctive style. For Reinhardt, playing on the streets taught him all he needed to know. In fact, the learn-through-experience path of musicianship is often referred to as the “gypsy method.”

“I feel one is born either a musician or not,” says Vignola. “Formal study obviously helps, and lots of practice, too. But Django had no idea about theory, similar to many other great artists. Students of the music should learn as much as they can, practice a ton and, most importantly, get gigs and play the music in front of audiences. This is the greatest learning tool.”

Another is the cover song. In the jazz world, it is near mandatory for aspiring artists to load their repertoire with the classics. Some go the route of turning originals into reflections of themselves, while others lean toward retaining the integrity of the primary source material.

The question of what angle to take only gets exacerbated when you think about covering a prominent figure like Reinhardt. Vignola thought it best to pull together a group of musicians who could walk a fine tightrope, artists who have their own definitive style of playing while simultaneously being steeped in the appropriate traditions.

“Again, I try to think forward, as Django always did,” says Vignola. “He was influenced by the music of his day: traditional gypsy, French music, as well as classical music. It’s important for me to not copy Django, as many others do, but to come up with my own take on the music, just as if I were playing a classical piece or a Beatles song.”

Reinhardt has certainly cemented his place in the jazz world while simultaneously leaving an indelible mark on the broader musical world. And like many musical greats, he died way before his time, at the age of 43. Luckily, we have Vignola, who is performing yet another role in jazz with his 100 Years project—ensuring a classic artist’s survival by keeping Django’s gypsy spark alight. 

Sheraton City Center
150 W. 500 South
Monday Nov. 15, 7:30 p.m.

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