Several years ago I saw the movie “Chocolat” and was immediately intrigued by the music Johnny Depp was playing on his guitar in his role as a gypsy in France. I’d never heard this particular type of music before, but a little online investigation told me the song was called “Minor Swing” and that it was a standard in the genre of “gypsy jazz” music:
I quickly learned that gypsy jazz (also called “gypsy swing” or “hot club jazz”) was started by French gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt in the 1930s. Because of an injury to his left hand, he could fret a guitar only with his first two fingers, so there are no large spanning or barre chords in gypsy jazz, mostly 7th and 9th chords, which are smaller. That and the rhythm, which I will get to more about in a minute, give the music a distinctive sound.
There was little opportunity to hear gypsy jazz music when I lived in Florida, but here in the Pacific Northwest it is performed frequently. Though I didn’t play guitar, when I began learning the ukulele I was hoping to play this type of music in some way. There was a gypsy jazz jam advertised near my home; all skill levels welcome, they said. I hardly had my 7th and 9th chords memorized yet, but I attended gamely and was immediately outclassed by very experienced gypsy jazz guitarists. After a bit of good-natured ribbing about my ukulele (“What’s that thing going to be when it grows up?”) they generously showed me the ropes and let me read off their charts. Because of my lack of experience and the fact that my standard ukulele didn’t produce a lot of sound, I was relegated to playing rhythm only, but it was still exciting to be a part of a group playing this wonderful music.
Gypsy jazz is played in 4/4 time, four beats to a measure. The rhythm is “boom-chuck, boom-chuck,” with a strum called “le pompe,” the first fast up-down stroke playing the chord and the second stroke played with the fingers lifted a bit but muting the strings for the “chuck” sound. Here’s an example of what the chart looks like for the standard song, “Rose Room”:
Doesn’t sound like much by itself, but here it is with the melody in this recording by Django Reinhardt:
This music simply never fails to make me happy; I listen to it every day, whenever I need a lift in my spirit. Here are a couple of my favorite numbers, though many of my favorite performances are not on YouTube. This first one is by the Hot Club of San Francisco, and the number is “r-26”:
Another is this number by a group I became aware of only recently, The Jonny Hepbir Trio, playing “Danube:”
I attended the gypsy jazz jam for several months, until transportation became an issue, and then the jam disbanded at that location. I’m hoping when I move in a few months I’ll be close enough to attend the regular jams on the east side.
This music may not be your cup of tea, and may not lift your spirits the way it does mine, but if it doesn’t move you even a little bit, check to make sure you still have a soul!