Harry Volpe

Django — Bebop and Electric

Culled from sessions that occurred in 1947 and the early 1950s, this GREAT collection contains many of Django Reinhardt’s final musical statements. The Brussels sessions, recorded in 1947, begin the experimental/transitional arc of Django’s later career, which would continue on other sources, ie. the Rome sessions from 1949-50 (I wrote about here.) The fourth electric side of “Rome” contained fun tunes like Micro, Dream of You, Place De Brouckere, Double Whiskey, and amplified versions of Minor Swing and Dinette that seem in line with the new Django, but the session(s) seem to suffer from lack of purpose, joy and a good recording environment. But back on this Hot Club of France Quintet CD (for stuff from 1950-1953) there are many (well recorded) sessions from Paris that portray a Django completely cut loose from his past. Django bounced back from severe apathy and disenchantment to record a really nice blast of music that is refreshingly original, yet very true to his earlier roots. He had experienced a loss artistic stature because of the end of the Swing Era and his failure to connect with a large audience in the United States on his 1946-47 tour with Duke Ellington. His health (he lost many teeth) and financial situation, along with a temporary loss of muse, did nothing to allay his legendary apathy and dark moods. However, he gradually recovered a sense of purpose, thanks to a new music, a new way of playing guitar and willing young players eager to jam with the master.

Soon after the end of World War II in 1945, Django began appearing with either an electric or amplified instrument although he still played acoustic occasionally… (On this dubbed movie clip of Nuits de Saint Germain des Prés [which is on this Hot Club of France Quintet CD] and on 3 sides of the …In Rome Sessions that he plays with Grappelli.) (You can see Django looking out the train window at the beginning of his segment that was part of the 1952 movie, La Route du Bonheur that also featured jazz legends Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet). Django’s new electric sound allowed his playing to reach previously unknown heights and brought him more in line with the mainstream American jazz guitar artists of the time. While in the States he had jammed with Les Paul, Johnny Smith and Harry Volpe (I wrote about this here) and played American guitars as multiple photographs of the time show. By all accounts Django was thrilled with the possibilities that playing an electrified instrument afforded, however he still preferred his Selmer guitar fitted now with a Stimer pickup through a Stimer amp to all of those “tinpot” American guitars as he was known to refer to them.

But Django did not play the Selmer exclusively. This article and these pictures from the late 40s (1948) show Django performing with a Rio Guitar at the Nice Festival. (This link leads to a really great and informative Django site!!) (Incidentally, the Nice Festival, the first international jazz festival of any renown, debuted in 1948 with Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars as the headliner with Django and Stephane Grappelli among the supporting acts.) For the first time in Django’s 15 year career his guitar carried over the band; he could vary his attack from a bluesy whisper to screaming arpeggio runs and crunchy chords, and milk the instrument for all manner of delightful new tones. On this CD I believe some of the chord stabs and comping fills (that were a bit different from all of his masterful acoustic comping) take on almost a Les Paul/Chet Atkins/Barney Kessel-type rockabilly vibe in some cases and it sounds to me that Django is completely stoked with how it sounds. Likewise, his live performances at Clubs like the Saint Germaine during this period have been hailed as some of the most enjoyable and fully realized gigs (by both band and audience) of his career.

There are people, Stephane Grappelli for one, who believe that Django never got a handle on the electric guitar and that he should’ve stayed with his early choice of instrument. In some ways, this is a valid criticism, especially if you are a fan of the original Hot Club sound (all acoustic/guitars/bass/violin) or enjoy the material from the prewar period. There is a certain charm about that approach to jazz that persists to this day, however, a lot of Django’s later material was obviously inspired by his instrument switch. The change may have been what drove him to play and compose again and his change in style definitely attracted the younger set to his gigs. As I have written Django’s March, 1953 electric take of Night and Day (which along with his final take of Nuages [from the same session] which aren’t on this CD but SHOULD be), is the cut that inspired me to learn how to play jazz. On this track he simultaneously anticipates Miles Davis Cool and West Coast Jazz and digs for a distorted solo that is chock-full of spiraling, quick-picked guitar obbligatos and partial blues/diminished chords that are completely his own invention. A totally fun and outrageous melodic interpretation of a song he obviously enjoyed playing. I have no doubt from these later cuts that had Django lived into his 50s or 60s and continued working he would kept on evolving both his sound and approach to his instrument because above all else he had that JOY of playing the instrument that anyone who is reading this knows about. I don’t have to tell you…he was totally like that too. That almost childlike sense of wonder: “Wow…I can make it do this?”….”Cool” or “Bien” (I guess it would be)

The first 9 cuts on the CD were recorded in 1947 with a band that featured one of his favorite sidemen, Hubert Rostaing, on clarinet. These tracks include “bridge” songs that show Django’s movement from the Swing Era to the 1950s: Just One of Those Things, Songe D’Automne, Del Salle, and Porto Cabello, with other more obvious nods to the destination including Duke and Dukie and Babik (Bi-Bop). All of these tunes feature Eugene Vees playing the swing style pomp guitar to varying degrees which helps make these tunes sound like they could’ve been on the Rome Sessions. Django hasn’t completely left the past behind yet. With Double Whiskey (track 10) through the end of the disc, Chez Moi, Django and his band are completely reborn; there are no pompé guitar rhythms, there IS plenty of brass (Hubert Fol, Roger Guerin and Bernard Hullin) and drums (Pierre Lemarchand) and a very mainstream (almost American) small combo sound. Through it all, of course, is a whole bunch of absolutely amazing guitar playing. Like the final take of Night and Day, Django channels every electric guitar technique and sound from the future into his final batch of recordings.

Porto Cabello begins with a very haunting melody, reminiscent of Debussy perhaps, with Django playing spare figures behind. The amplified acoustic Selmer has the ability to sound semi-acoustic or semi-electric depending on Django mood. After the intro the song kicks into a key and tempo change that is completely out of the blue that features a great, very amplified solo by a Django. After a slurry, quick solo by Rostaing, the song returns to the intro tempo and fades out on that melody just as quickly as it had changed initially. It calls to mind passing boats in the harbor or a street scene even though it is subtitled “Il Mexicana”. Duke and Dukie, another Django original, is a very simple harmonic progression that allows space Django to inject cool chord stabs, octaves, and a whole flurry of single-note lines around a great rhythmic pulse. It’s a very cool early 50s vibe and there are two takes of this song on the disc. Babik (also called Bi-Bop), named for Django’s son is built off of the Dizzy Gillespie early 40s Salt Peanuts riff. Django and company take the song to new dimensions and they sound as modern and on it as Bireli Lagrene’s Gipsy Project circa 2004, the difference being that Django is playing with a drummer, Pierre Fouad. This adds a completely new dimension to the sound of a Django band and gives him a more universally recognized jazz sound. Other titles, that feature the horns of Hubert Fol, Roger Guerin and Bernard Hullin, like Double Whiskey, Crazy Rhythm, Keep Cool, and Fine and Dandy (all covers except Double Whiskey) sound very American…almost Vegas/Hollywood Movie cool. It’s a sound that Django and his Quintet wear well and I believe he was probably very happy with how these recordings came out. Not only does he sound superb as a guitarist, writer, leader, but his band is hot and plays the material well.

Other tracks are total guitar standouts — Impromptu, which is Django’s hit, Dark Eyes redone as a frantic and angular bebop; Fleche D’or, a completely dizzying guitar and sax extravaganza that anticipates hard rock and fusion; the cool, laid back, Latin vibe of Troublant Bolero; and the insistent, suave, uptempo 50s sound of Nuits De Saint Germaine De Pres. On all of these tracks one can hear Django spinning his ideas out on the fly; the master improviser with new tools, a new format and a new lease on life…and art. This is also apparent on all of the blues/rhythm and blues found on the disc: I Cover the Waterfront, DR Blues, Dream of You, Vamp, Le Soir, and Deccarphonie. Django always enjoyed playing the blues and his understanding of the blues is another element that I think was expanded on his trip to the US because these blues all have an atmosphere that was lacking on his previous efforts. Deccarphonie also features superb vibes played by Martial Solal! But perhaps the best example of this was the ballad that he felt defined this whole period and who he was at this stage in his career, Anouman (A new man). He gives the very colorful and almost wistful melody (head) line to Hubert Fol and is content to solo only on the middle eight. But it is the chords fills, ghostly reverb presence of his guitar throughout the song that puts one in the mind of the story of how Django could lay by a river and listen to it for hours on end. Here at the end of his career he was no longer just showing how well a composer or improviser he was. He had transcended his station and synthesized all of his influences and life experiences into pure art and music.

The one definable quality that is constant in Django’s playing that you won’t find in most modern gypsy jazz is his powerful emotionalism, subtlety and minimalist expression. While Django could play complicated arpeggios and octagonic scale patterns at blinding speed with the best of them, he often chose to play slim, bent figures and quiet slurs to accentuate the emotional colors of his music. He also made great use of space and time to let the music breath. Even in the frenzied days of bebop, the world moved at a much slower pace than it does today and this definitely accounts for the speed and which people hear and feel. However, it is on this collection of songs, with Django’s full maturity as an accomplished player/composer realized that what he chooses not to play is what makes these cuts so interesting. This is one reason that he still reigns over the genre; his ability to impart pure feeling and emotion along with all of the verve, color and joie de vivre of Gypsy Jazz. It’s shame he left this world so soon after because it was obvious he still had plenty to say…and play!

Barney Kessel

Barney Kessel is a guy I’ve mentioned a few times lately — in this post on learning resources and again as a member of The Wrecking Crew in this post on Glen Campbell. Above, he is playing an early 60s version of Gypsy in My Soul and of course he tears it up!. Barney was an early student of guitar and was already playing out by the time he was 14. Growing up in Oklahoma allowed him to meet another very famous Oklahoma native, Charlie Christian. While on break from touring with Benny Goodman, Christian went to see Barney play and the two subsequently ended up jamming for three days straight. This later led to Charlie recommending Barney to Benny Goodman and Barney getting the job after killing it on the jazz standard, Cherokee.

“One of the most extraordinarily consistent and emotionally huge improvisers of our era” – Nat Hentoff

“Barney Kessel is definitely the best guitar player in this world, or any other world.” – George Harrison

“Barney Kessel was ‘Mr. Guitar,’ the foremost jazz guitarist of his generation. He had an amazing imagination, his solos were incredible, he swung his tail off, he was a heck of an arranger and could out-read anybody.” – Larry Coryell

“Barney Kessel is incredible. He’s just amazing . . . . Nobody can play guitar like that.” – John Lennon

“I remember first seeing Barney Kessel, in the 1940s, standing on the corner of Hollywood and Vine, in his cowboy boots, sun glasses and hipster threads, holding his guitar case man, you just knew that cat could wail!” – Anita O’Day

“I’d listen to Barney Kessel records and my jaw would drop. I was awe-struck by the nature of his ad-libs. I followed Barney Kessel’s musical stories like a kid following a fairy tale.” – B.B. King

The thing I really like about all of the guitar guys who came up in the 30s and 40s — Reinhardt, Christian, George Barnes, Herb Ellis, Harry Volpe, Les Paul, Sal Salvador, Johnny Smith, and Barney Kessel — is there is a whole lot of rock and roll in their playing. They were just completely going for it on many tracks because they all came up in The Swing Era when people wanted to dance all cray-cray like. You can hear that in Barney’s drive and some of the licks he plays in Gypsy in My Soul. But he also had a great sense of harmony and orchestration and those two sometimes very divergent qualities were combined in all of his performances. This is certainly one of the reasons The Beatles liked him. By the time Barney came along in the 1940s, Django Reinhardt, George Barnes and Charlie Christian were already on record playing all of the important guitar elements and ‘devices’: single lines, octaves, chords, partial chords, fast picking, sweep picking, bent notes, and tremolo picking that enabled the guitar to take on the role of a solo instrument in a band or orchestra setting. Reinhardt and Christian had already drastically expanded the language of the instrument with Christian veering from swing music into early bebop and Reinhardt adding classical and flamenco guitar elements to the jazz/popular canon.

Barney Kessel combined all of these guitar devices, expanded on them and added a few of his own. As far as I know he is the first guy to popularize (and maybe even develop) the backwards pick sweep that shows up in his playing a lot. This enables completely different lines and a different sound, even though it was often played so fast that it sounded sloppy at times. He also played original bebop lines, cool 50s “out” phrasing and a lot of licks that expanded on Charlie Christian’s blues licks (which were different from Reinhardt’s) and sound like what would later be very poplar rock music motifs. Because Barney was also always playing an amplified electric Gibson 350, he was able to dial in a wide array of sounds including fat bass spankin’, sustained horn-type lines, lush harp-like chords and sweet almost vocal single string licks. The Antônio Carlos Jobim composition Wave (above) is a good example of how effective a chordal/single note combination is for setting a mood. Great texture and dynamics and just oh so s m o o o t h. There is a lot to be learned from taking apart what he does in this clip and I’ve picked up a few things by transcribing bits of this performance. It’s also more than just licks; notice the pacing, the mood, textures and sustained drive of the whole song. That is very important! Below, Barney once again takes a number at a wicked tempo with the always-enjoyable Herb Ellis, on the flat-out amazing Tangerine. Talk about smoking! The extra special enjoyment of this for me is that I’ve played both Wave and Tangerine in gig settings. They are two of my favorite standards and fun tunes to learn how to play.

Barney had a very long career, playing with such greats as Chico Marx, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Sonny Rollins and Julie London on the 1955 album Julie Is Her Name, which contains the million-selling song, Cry Me a River. As I related in my post on Glen Campbell, Kessel was a member of “The Clique” or The Wrecking Crew as they came to be known and was a “first call” guitarist for Columbia Pictures during the 1960s. FUN FACT: He played the bass for Spock’s Theme in the Amok Time episode of Star Trek. In the 1970s he performed with Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd as The Great Guitars. Through it all Barney was most often spotted with just one guitar, a Gibson 350 with a Charlie Christian pickup. Although both Kay and Gibson tried to work the endorsement angle (and there are different versions of a Gibson Barney Kessel, a whole lot of his best work was done with that one guitar and he explains why in the following clip.

However, thanks to this very informative page, consider the following interview with the very awesome and talented YES guitarist Steve Howe:

I conducted an interview with Steve Howe, the guitarist in Yes, in October 2003 when I informed him that Kessel was critically ill. Howe has always cited Barney Kessel as a primary influence on his own guitar style: “Barney Kessel was the first American jazz guitarist I ever related to. I started playing when I was 12 in 1959 and I reckon about two years after that I was aware of Barney Kessel. I guess the Kessel album that was most important to me and still is, is ‘The Poll Winners’ with Shelly Manne and Ray Brown. ‘Volume 1’, a blue cover, on the Contemporary label. I bought it and most of Barney’s albums in London at Dobell’s, the famous jazz shop. It was archetypal, real jazz. I bought all the LP’s he made when he was the leader. I also liked him in support roles. I have the whole collection of ‘The Poll Winners’. One of the things I liked about Barney was his sound. Compared to other players, he had a very earthy, organic quality to his sound. And his playing was a remarkable mixture of ‘single line’ and ‘chords’, ya know, which inspired me to believe that any guitarist who doesn’t understand chords won’t be able to play much in the single line because they relate so much. Barney had his own great, highly individual approach to jazz guitar. The way he combined the chords and that single line. It was a perfect balance, really.

“And there was something mysterious about his equipment. In England, we could recognize L5s or 400s but we weren’t sure if he was playing an L7C, or what. Nobody really knew what that guitar was for a while. We knew it was some sort of Gibson. They weren’t heavily clarified in catalogues nor readily available in England in the ’60s. That’s when the L7 was less than popular, ya know? But he had that characteristic big guitar. I mean, I obviously went on to play a rock ‘n’ roll 175. I got it in 1964 and bought a new one in 1975. That was styled after Kessel, who I had seen a few times on television, and Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery and other guitarists who also used a 175, the most gorgeous guitar. As I went around, people said, ‘Wow, you play that guitar?’ Because it wasn’t considered a rock guitar in any shape or form. So it was kind of a breakthrough and it did help me because the sound of a full body is so different from the solids, the slim lines that people were playing. And everybody asked me, ‘Why didn’t it feed back?’ Because I used a volume pedal and I stood a certain distance from my amp and didn’t use too much bass from my amp, I guess. I got ’round that problem but I certainly wasn’t directly emulating Barney Kessel but I was thinking I would not remove myself from that line of fire, because I wanted to be influenced by jazz.

“I read Barney’s column, a few times, in ‘Guitar Player Magazine’. There obviously was a whole line of fine guitarists he inspired, or that had been touched by him. That stuff Barney did with Julie London like ‘Cry Me A River’ which starts with his guitar, is amazing. One important thing to me is that Barney Kessel is the first guitarist I ever saw who said ‘You need eight guitars to be a session guitarist’. I only had about four at the time. And when I saw his ‘eight guitars’ quote I kinda read what he meant. Like having a 12-string. Barney put something very influential in my head about the multi-guitar idea when he mentioned eight guitars including 12-string and mandolin…

“And Barney played that tune, ‘A Tribute To Charlie Christian’, on his ‘Easy, Like’ album. That was one of his things I learned. The fact is I’ve always mentioned Barney Kessel as the first player I ever got into, Barney and Django Reinhardt. And then of course my mind became more distracted from Barney but he never really went away. He was still there. A straight ahead guy with an organic edge to his sound.”

I’ve been saying for years what an influence Django Reinhardt was on the English rock musicians of the 60s and it’s interesting to learn about Barney’s influence as well. Definitely check out the whole article HERE at Spectropop for lots more on Barney’s life and career. He was at the crossroads of music through the 50s, 60s and 70s and performed with many of music’s biggest luminaries. The author interviews Barney’s sons and was able to speak with some of the music world’s biggest stars while Barney was in his final days. Brian Wilson: “Barney Kessel was a wonderful guitar player. He did a wonderful job on ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’. He’s in my prayers.” Barney is listed as playing mandolin on ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ with other Wrecking Crew standouts Carol Kaye (bass), Hal Blaine (drums) and Larry Knechtel (organ). You can hear the backing track here. Here’s another interview with Barney from 1968 that’s notable for what he says about Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan.

Do you think the people who have played guitar in more outlandish ways have aided the instrument?

Not at all. No, they haven’t really done anything for the guitar or music. Like, someone once asked me: “What did you think of Jimi Hendrix?” First of all, I don’t discuss guitar players. I don’t think it’s ethical; it’s like asking a jazz critic about another jazz critic. I’d rather not. But it didn’t even have to be Jimi Hendrix it could be anyone. The fact that any man would go out on the stage and set fire to his guitar, or urinate on his guitar there’s nothing in there that makes me admire it…I can’t get past the disrespect shown the instrument, and I can’t imagine someone having enough genius to justify that…

There are now twelve year olds who think of Elvis Presley and the Beatles as old men, mythical characters things from the past. They just don’t relate to it. It’s a curious thing, but each generation wants its own heroes; it doesn’t matter how good someone else is they want their heroes, from their own age bracket…

It’s like when Bob Dylan came out . . . I knew John Hammond, and that he had discovered Mary Lou Williams and, of course, he’d done a lot for Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Billie Holiday he’s really made the people aware of a lot of fine talent. He also brought Bob Dylan into public awareness and I tried to find out what was the redeeming factor there. He can’t sing, he can’t play guitar, he can’t play the harmonica; his melodies are very, very primitive, bordering on the Neanderthal. Well, trying to look at it objectively the redeeming elements, and the only ones, are the words to his songs, that had a message for the people of his age and his time. But since I’m not his age, his words have no meaning for me. They did not affect me in any way. Therefore, as far as I’m concerned, there were no redeeming qualities but I can see why he was accepted by a lot of people.

It seems Barney was able to appreciate some of the styles from the 60s (even Jimi Hendrix) a little more later in life (thanks to his children), but it’s interesting what he says about each generation wanting it’s own heroes regardless of talent or abilities. How true that is! It is probably also true that most people, especially musicians who spend a lifetime fine-tuning their hearing and their brains to appreciate and play sophisticated music, will get turned off by music that doesn’t match that standard. He certainly liked bands like Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys and The Beatles…he covered Yesterday and that tune certainly has a great melody!

barney_quote

Here is a link to another interview with Barney from the late 60s that has more to do with playing guitar. It contains plenty of quotable nuggets like the above that give insight into what made Barney tick as an artist. He was a great listener, a great reader and had an intense musical imagination and this is how he developed the musical abilities that served him for almost 50 years. He also stressed (and something I wish someone would’ve told me when I was 20) that:

You must be clear on what you want to do with music . . . not just clear—specific. It’s not good enough to say: “I want to be in music.” You have to be as positive as booking a certain seat on a certain plane for a certain destination. The minute you become clear on what you want, it becomes also very apparent what you don’t want. You begin to see the interesting studies, the things that could be intriguing to do, but which are not pertinent to your goal. Today, with all the perplexities, it is not what to practice, but what to avoid practising. What do you want to do? It is time—wasting to taste a little of all these things and not to be master of any—unless you are doing it strictly for amusement. But to accomplish anything, you have to know what you want.

Finally, this version of The Shadow of Your Smile encapsulates everything that made Barney the musician he was: beautiful solo playing that never loses it’s drive, harmonic invention or melodic direction. There isn’t one wasted note, no wanking, nor one lick that is played simply to impress. It’s just a perfect musical performance. I love watching Barney clips on YouTube because they are always simultaneously entertaining AND a learning experience. In our imaginations and on our best days don’t we all aspire to to play like this? While Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass rightfully get a whole lot of praise for what they brought to the jazz guitar world, I feel not enough is said about Barney Kessel. He is beyond jazz — truly one of the titans of sophisticated guitar and a total music legend. Also, unlike Montgomery or Pass or many other players from that era, he was able to fit into a wide spectrum of musical situations and always bring his A- GAME. In addition to being an instrumentalist, producer and guy-on-the-scene, he became an educator later in his career. I’ve already linked to one of his instruction videos. Here’s another. Also, there are pages here and here that have some Barney-esque licks transcribed for your viewing, listening, and learning pleasure.

Django and Harry

Django Reinhardt and Harry Volpe NY 1946Back in the old days of this blog I mentioned in THIS post on Django Reinhardt that I’d found some cool pics and information about Django’s time in New York City in 1946. This period coincided with Django leaving his acoustic-based sound and moving to electric guitar, which thanks to Charlie Christian, had become a viable tool guitarists could use in performance and recording. This was a time of transition for Django and while, in my opinion, he weathered it brilliantly, there are many people, Stephane Grappelli (his partner for many years) and Les Paul included, who believe he never really adapted to the electric format and should’ve stuck with what he had. However, Bebop swept the post-war world and all of the swing bands were no longer the HOT thing and for a guitar pioneer of Django’s stature it couldn’t have been easy to be thought of as “old hat.” When the chance to tour America with Duke Ellington (a chance that was offered to his whole band) Django jumped at it. Alone. He arrived in the USA thinking that the country would roll out the red carpet for him and luthiers and guitar makers would be waiting to hand him the best of what they had. He couldn’t have been more wrong. By the time Django returned to Europe many illusions of his international stature were shattered, but I think that says more about unrealistic expectations than anything else. Had he brought his band they might’ve done very well. What did happen was he met some very interesting players and returned to France an electric, bebop-influenced guitarist. There would only be a few more sessions where he would play acoustic before ditching it altogether in favor of an electrified sound. In the end, I think he got a really good electric thing going. It must have been a thrill for him to have VOLUME and AMPLIFICATION at his disposal — two qualities every guitar player in the West takes completely for granted in this day and age.

One fella that Django met in the United States was Harry Volpe. Harry was almost as much a guitar pioneer as Django and was a well-known figure at the time as a performer and teacher. He had his own music store/studio and teaching academy and in time would count Joe Pass, Johnny Smith and Sal Salvador as some of his students. He was the first guitar player to be on the staff at Radio City Music Hall. I couldn’t find any of his own performances to link to but there are some good players do interpretations HERE, HERE, and HERE. If you have heard any of Django’s solo guitar material it’s easy to see similarities between his and Harry’s styles. Obviously they got along very well musically and personally, as the pictures from their jam sessions show. Aside from the fact that it’s cool to have all the information available on Django’s only trip to the United States, the pictures and info give a nice little snapshot into that period of New York City, which is very interesting to me. A funny thing, for some reason, Downbeat, the jazz magazine of the day, seemed to think Django was a Brooklyn Bum, meaning he was born there! Not really sure where they got that idea.

Harry Volpe’s studio was in Jackson Heights, Queens and this was the scene of a memorable all night jam session he had with Django in 1946. I believe it would have been in November of that year as the Ellington band (with Django) appeared at the New York Aquarium. This is where some of the most famous pictures of Django with a smoke and a guitar were taken. After the Ellington tour Django stayed in New York until he eventually returned to France in February of 1947. A semi-famous silent home movie shows him getting ready to leave and once again, Harry is on the scene. Supposedly there were other movies of them eating spaghetti and jamming, but I don’t think those two films have ever surfaced.

Another thing that was interesting to me, especially as a Gretsch player, was that Harry Volpe endorsed Gretsch guitars, which probably meant a lot to Gretsch at the time because they were trying to compete with Gibson and Epiphone for the arch-top market. While they didn’t succeed both Django and Harry are playing Gretsch guitars at these jam sessions, which amuses me to no end. You don’t see many people trying to play jazz on a Gretsch these days or ever…Chet Atkins might come to mind. Brian Setzer doing his rockabilly/swing thing maybe. George Harrison. But in the picture below Django is playing of the Harry Volpe-endorsed Gretsch Synchromatic 400 Guitar (the same one from the above ad?) while Harry is playing a Gretsch Special.

I thought that the Gretsch would have a nice amplified Django sound and I’ve already tried to show that HERE. In the fall I play some on the Gretsch through my Schertler David amp because that sound is just TOO COOL. I didn’t buy the guitar specifically for that purpose, it was a matter of using what I had, which was the same in Django’s case. He played electric before he came to America, a fact that was established by the good folks at the Hotclub UK site HERE. This is one of only a few movies of Django playing and it is on YouTube. But don’t get too excited — the clip is only 10 seconds long.

During his tour of the US with Ellington Django used a Gibson ES-300. This picture was taken at the Pla Mor Ballroom in either Kansas City or Lincoln Nebraska (there were two ballrooms with that name). He was notorious for not having a Gearhead mentality for equipment and obviously was capable of playing pretty much anything he was handed. He did remark however, once he was back in France, that nothing beat his long-used and trusty Selmer, which he quickly outfitted with the new Stimer pickup system and used (as far as anyone can tell) for all of his recorded electric work until his death in 1953. Harry went on to endorse Epiphone in the 1950s and I have to repeat something I mentioned in my first pass at this topic. Was he the first guy with an endorsement deal? (No! As was kindly pointed out by MAC below in the comments, a fella by the name of Nick Lucas had a deal with Gibson in the mid-20s) Nowadays having a guitar named in your honor is as common as a cheese sandwich, but given Harry’s reputation and the fact that he was also teaching students and running a store makes me wonder if he was the first. Who else would qualify?

Django with his amplified Selmer guitar Django and Harry were able to get their sound on many different guitars, electric or acoustic, because they had really great technique and understood how important great hand work is to playing guitar. There are so many things one can do, a fact I just highlighted in the Fingerpicking Good post, with or without a pick that affects how the instrument will sound. Gypsy-Jazz picking is very forceful and powerful and I’m sure Django had to adapt a bit in order to play some of those creamy-smooth modern jazz lines one can find on his recordings from the 1950s. He could also make the instrument bark if the situation required, but ballads are usually the measure of how well a player translates emotion into pure sound. (One of my best achievements last year was a version of Nuages played on my Gretsch through the Schertler amp at a gig. It was BRAVO) Django and Harry Volpe both excelled at this type of playing, which is why I’m sure they enjoyed the short time they were able to play together. Although Django didn’t do as well as he expected on that US tour, he must have had some fun times because pictures seem to demonstrate that he found a few Americans to be kindred spirits and he was a person who loved life. There was another go at this country in the works when he died and had he been able to come over in the mid-50s and blow his electric brand of music, I believe he would’ve enjoyed a much better reception.

Harry Volpe Epiphone AdHarry Volpe lived for over 40 years after Django passed away and enjoyed some great successes, including the music production of The Time of the Cuckoo at the Empire Theater on Broadway, teaching at the Frost Conservatory and performances with his trio on coast-to-coast broadcasts of early television pioneer Arthur Godfrey’s show. He isn’t a name guy even though he lived into the 1990s, but he was definitely an important guy in the development of guitar, as an instructor to some of the best guitar players ever, and as the creator of some very beautiful music.

Thanks to the folks at the Paul Vernon Chester website for sharing their materials. There is a lot more info there!