(NOTE: Last year, I started writing an amateur musical memoir. Then I stopped. These things happen. But I had some fun with it — enough fun that, who knows, I may well finish it one day. Just not today. And probably not the next day, either. So in the eternal spirit of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, I’ve decided to take what I’ve written, break up into tidy, digestible chunks and spew it out into the world via this shit-figurin’ blog. And so, with no further ado. . . )
I GOT MUSIC: CONFESSIONS OF AN AMATEUR
PART II: GYPSY JAZZ AND HOLY TERRORS
Time: June of 2016
Place: Northampton, Mass.
Mood: Still panicked. Maybe even a little more so than usual. No. A lot.
I came late to gypsy jazz. It is a world unto itself, rich in myth and music, created more than 80 years ago by the original gypsy gods: guitarist Django Reinhardt, violinist Stéphane Grappelli and the Quintette du Hot Club de France. For gypsy-jazz enthusiasts, that world still exists. It’s still 1930s Paris. Those who do not speak French wish they could speak French. Those without skinny mustaches wish they had skinny mustaches. Those who do not wear little straw fedoras wish they wore little straw fedoras.
As for me, I do not speak French. I wear no mustache, not any I will confess in public to having, and I seem to have missed the memo about fedoras. As a violinist and a woman, I’m part of a teensy-tiny pie slice compared with the frets-and-facial-hair demographic that prevails at Django in June: of the 240-odd campers and teachers, around 220 are men, and most of them play guitar. I am also distinguished by the sheer and awesome force of my ignorance. I know almost nothing, having only played (at) this music since February, when I decided it was the answer to everything — all of life’s woes, all of my messy, lingering grief over my husband’s suicide four and a half years before, all of my sundry psychosocial heartaches since then. Plus MENOPAUSE! Hurrah! Which I’m confident the men with little mustaches are not struggling with at the moment.
In short, I am a dilettante. I have only been at this a few months. I have no idea what I’m doing, by which I mean I HAVE NOOOO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING. I have not yet committed to memory all or indeed any of the 200-some-odd songs regarded as gypsy standards and bound with gold in the Holy Holy Django Fakebook, which everyone wears strapped to their foreheads like phylacteries. But not me. Not yet. When someone yells out, “Who wants to take the head on “Les Fenetres de Moscou?,” I do not tug sagaciously at my mustache, take a drag on my cig, yank gently on the brim of my fedora, and then rasp out, “Je vais. Oui. Bien sûr. Heh heh hehhh.” Instead I sit there panic-stricken, hyperventilating and silently praying in desperate, monosyllabic, all-caps English, PLEASE GOD NOT ME NO NOT ME PLEASE GOD NOOOOOO.
Still, I chose to be here. I CHOSE THIS. I belong. Crossing campus my first evening here, the Kool-Aid coursing through my veins, I passed clump after clump of happy amateurs pumping out Django ditties on the grass, and I knew that I had found my people. This is my dream realm: a place where everyone is as crazy for this music as I am. Where everyone is as madly, precipitously in love with it. Where playing it is all anyone wants to do, bathroom visits be damned. Where we all fall asleep with its melodies in our heads. Where we all wake in the night to its strains.
It eats my brain. It fills me with joy. It connects me to something greater than myself, and I marvel at the universe that bore it. When I play it, no matter how badly I play it, my heart skips and my knees bounce. After jamming with friends back home, I always drive home riding that gypsy high. When my friend John — guitar, goatee — first mentioned Django in June to me back in March, I thought it sounded like heaven, only closer, and with a much snappier soundtrack. Paradise for jazz nerds! Shangri-La for swing addicts! And it’s only 90-minute drive from Albany! It was meant to be. I had to go. I couldn’t go for the whole five days, being a frenzied single mom with a full-time job, but I couldn’t not go, either. So I opted for the half-camp option: two days and three nights of classes, concerts and jamming, plus three meals in the cafeteria, one dorm room, and one large fan. Its reputed purpose: to cool the room. Its real purpose was revealed late last night, several hours after my arrival.
“At Django in June, we jam constantly. All hours. It never stops,” John had said, and sure enough, there I was, cranking away on “Coquette” and “Blue Drag” in a Smith College common room ordinarily accustomed to Kanye West. John was there. Our friend Dave, too —
violin, goatee. A few strangers who quickly became friends in Django. I could barely contain my glee. I’m at Django in June!, I thought. I can do this! Yesss!
We kept going long past midnight, and I improvised on almost every song.
My left hand flailed. My right hand waggled. My whole body buzzed with giddiness and fear. Intense, chest-seizing fear. I’ve known this sensation in many contexts: on roller coasters; in incidents with dogs, monkeys, turkeys and other combative fauna; in the foaming whitewater of the Rio Pastaza in Ecuador; in witnessing a fatal head-on collision on a twisty Connecticut road; in that frozen moment, one that chills me to this day, when a paramedic stopped my careening heart with drugs in the hopes it would restart at a normal tempo.
And then there is the holy terror of improvising.
Improvising triggers the fight-or-flight response, all quaking muscles and rapid breaths: You could dangle me from a cliff by my pinkie toe, or you could tell me to improvise, and my glands would disgorge the same amount of adrenaline. Improvising is time to panic. Improvising is composing on the spot. Improvising is sticking within the sonic confines of a tune – the changes beneath it – and doing something else with it, something glorious and illuminating, something that expresses your deepest inner self while bringing out an unheard facet of the music. Maybe it’s always been in there, waiting silently to be discovered and brought to the light. Or maybe it’s cowering in fright. And maybe, if you screw up badly enough while attempting to play it, you’ll contort your face with shame and bleat SORRY SORRY SORRY SORRY SORRY while everyone else throws sympathetic glances that say, We do not judge you, friend. But we grieve the dying squirrel.
This is how it works. For me. It works differently for an actual jazz musician who actually knows chords, but I am a classically trained amateur violinist, which means most chords are dead to me. C, G, D: okay. I can do those. As for the rest, I have only myself to blame. I have spent decades honing my Sad and Pathetic Lack of Theory (SPLAT), the effects exacerbated by a lifelong policy of NO Practicing Ever (NOPE). Between SPLAT and NOPE, I am lost.
It all begins when someone shoots me a glance. The glance is thrilling! The glance is terrifying! The glance says: Your turn to improvise, madame!
In reply, I throw back a blanched look of pure dread that asks: What? No? Me? Huh? Really? Now? Are you sure? You must be nodding at someone else, like maybe that hot Belgian over there.
But the glance is adamant. The glance says: Oui oui. Vous vous. Heh Heh.
Defeated, I glance back at the glancer. I gird my loins, which always helps. I lift my fiddle and bow. And I say to myself: Be brave, woman! You have nothing to lose but your self-respect and the respect of everyone here!
And so it begins. Training my ear on the sounds around me, I tell my fingers to play something — preferably something that agrees with the ka-chung-ka-chung-ka-chung of the gypsy rhythm guitar. But something. And something always comes out. Sometimes it sounds like a squirrel. Sometimes it sounds like jazz.
Jamming my first night here, it sounded like jazz. God knows how or why. But I left feeling pretty good about my playing, or at least not humiliated and despondent.
Then, walking back to my room, I heard the gods.
They were there outside my dorm: a clot of teachers in the courtyard, jamming away, their fingers flying at warp speed, their solos illuminating the true and wondrous nature of Django. These were virtuosi of worldwide renown, and their playing struck awe in my heart. Awe and intimidation. Awe, intimidation and the somewhat pathetic realization that I will never play like that, nevereverever, not even if I quit my job, attend music conservatory, learn Every Bleeping Chord Known to Humankind and grow a skinny mustache. I listened to them in this state of awe, intimidation and pathetic-ness until exhaustion tugged sharply and yanked me away. It was late. I needed to sleep.
At the dorm entrance, I bumped into a fellow female camper. We swapped hellos, good nights and a few words of shared amazement at the jamming gods nearby.
Aren’t they amazing?, I asked. They’re superhuman. Unreal. Fantastic. Holy wow!
She agreed, then shot me a knowing look. “This is the time of night,” she said, “when you want to cut off your hands and burn your instrument.”
I laughed. Ha ha! Of course! Cut off my hands and burn my instrument! Then I thought: Hmmm. Where can I find an axe and a torch this time of night?
My room overlooks the courtyard. The gods kept playing until 4 a.m.
I drowned them out with my fan.