Quintette du Hot Club de France
Taking its name from a famous Parisian cafe/nightclub, Quintette du Hot Club de France is still lauded by jazz historians as the greatest European jazz band. With its revolutionary lineup fronted by legendary Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910'53), the French violinist Stephane Grappelli (1908'97) and two acoustic rhythm guitars played by Django's brother, Joseph and Roger Chaput and the double bass of Louis Vola, the Quintette applied a previously unheard of chugging, string-fuelled propulsion to the more sedate yet brassy big-band sound typical of the time, an innovation that still lives on in three generations of legitimate descendants and assorted tribute bands.
The combo began in 1933 as a jam session held between sets at the Hotel Claridge. Grappelli, Reinhardt, Chaput and Vola were employed by the hotel's dance band and often played together for fun in between sets. After the proprietors of the Hot Club heard them, they were invited to make their debut record for the Ultraphone label the following year. They would ultimately release an astounding 200-plus sides over the brief span of the band's existence and created a sensation, touring Europe throughout the '30s.
At the time the Quintette was founded, Reinhardt was already a major exponent of what later became known as manouche (traveler) swing, a blend of long-established Roma (Gypsy) traditions with American jazz. After nearly being killed in a fire as a young man, he was obliged to invent a whole new technique to make up for his badly injured chording hand but his dizzyingly fleet runs and imaginative improvisations never even hinted that he was handicapped. Meanwhile, Grappelli, who was not a Gypsy, grew up in Paris. He had already acquired his first violin by age 12 but this was only one of many instruments he was to master. Grappelli began his professional career playing in theater bands, but once he was discovered jazz he never looked back. A colleague introduced him to Reinhardt and, as later events proved, the two found one another remarkably congenial.
The Quintette crossed all social boundaries, were lionized at society bashes and serious jazz venues and sat in with established luminaries of French jazz like Alix Combelle, Phillipe Brun and Andre Ekyan. The group also performed and made records with just about every American jazz star who passed through the City of Light, including Rex Stewart, Louis Armstrong, Barney Bigard, Bill Coleman, Eddie South, Joe Turner, Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins. Not that the Quintette was always an easy blend to maintain; the affable Grappelli was sometimes stymied by Reinhardt's fits of temperament and tendency to dominate the group's mix but this ultimate team player was generally able to sublimate his frustration for the good of all, with magical results.
The group disbanded in 1939 when it was on tour in London when England declared war on Germany and Grappelli decided to remain in London and while Reinhardt returned to Paris. The two would not meet again until after peace was declared. Both went on to subsequent successes, but the legacy of Quintette du Hot Club de France ranks highest in both their posterities. Christina Roden