Django Festival Allstars: Strong Picking Hands and Big Hearts

With help from Hollywood royalty, the Django Festival Allstars triumph at Carnegie Hall

Samson, Dorado and Amati Schmitt of the Django Festival Allstars (photo c/o the artists)

On a warm night at the beginning of May, one of New York’s most prestigious venues was taken over by a band of Gypsies. The venerable walls of Carnegie Hall resonated with the classic timbres of le jazz hot, in its manouche translation: sassy violin, ebullient accordion and multiple dexterously played acoustic guitars. Although the concert was called “Forever Django,” in tribute to the undisputed king of Gypsy jazz, Django Reinhardt, the man in the brightest spotlight was 60-year-old French guitarist and violinist Dorado Schmitt. A veteran performer in the Django Festival that’s been a feature at Birdland for the past 18 years, Schmitt is one of the principal modern-day keepers of the Reinhardt flame. And at Carnegie, in time-honored Gypsy style, he was figuratively passing that flame on to the younger generations of his family.

Guitar-playing sons, guitar-playing grandsons, even a hard-belting vocalist granddaughter—all of them fearsomely talented—shared the stage with Schmitt over the course of the evening. One son, Samson, took the helm for the entire first set, flanked by violinist Pierre Blanchard and accordionist Ludovic Beier. Together, they tore through several impressive compositions that they’ve recorded as the Django Festival Allstars for a new album. Titled Attitude Manouche, the disc cannily blends vintage Hot Club aesthetics with a greater harmonic adventurousness reminiscent of Pat Metheny and John McLaughlin. A few special guests showed up at Carnegie too, most notably singer Melody Gardot, a newcomer to the group who sounded like a longtime band member on sensitive renditions of Reinhardt’s “Nuages” and her own “Les Etoiles.”

For the show’s producer, Pat Philips, it was the logical closing of a circle, the starting point of which had occurred almost exactly three decades ago in the same venue. The occasion was an April 1988 concert celebrating the 80th birthday of violinist Stephane Grappelli, Django’s famous partner in the Quintette du Hot Club de France. Philips’ co-producer for that show was conductor, record producer and frequent Grappelli collaborator Ettore Stratta. The process of organizing the birthday concert piqued both Philips’ and Stratta’s interest in Gypsy jazz; they began to investigate, meet and promote the inheritors of Django’s legacy, gifted guitarists like Biréli Lagrène, Jimmy Rosenberg and Schmitt. Ten years later and now married, Philips and Stratta were back at Carnegie, this time for Grappelli’s memorial concert. The audience response to the music that he and Reinhardt had created six decades before was overwhelming. “People were so into it,” Philips recalls, “that we looked at each other and said, ‘Why not do a Django festival?’”

With help from Birdland owner John Valenti, that concept became a reality in 2000. Since then, the festival has grown from an annual to a biannual event at the club, and the Django Festival Allstars have also become a regular touring proposition in the U.S., moving past mere recreations of the Reinhardt/Grappelli catalog to include new music invested with a similar spirit. Stratta died in 2015, but the fest continued undiminished, and it wasn’t long after his death that the idea of bringing the Allstars to Carnegie Hall was first broached. “The guys were excited about it,” Philips says, “but I just kept thinking, ‘It’s too hard and too costly.’”

That’s where the DiCaprio family enters the picture. Writer, publisher, film producer and longtime Gypsy-jazz fan George DiCaprio just happened to be walking past Birdland one day when he saw a flyer for the Django Festival and was intrigued. He checked out a gig, loved what he heard and told his son Leonardo (yes, that Leonardo) about it. Eventually Leonardo contacted Philips to hire the Allstars for his father’s birthday party in L.A. Through that experience, the Schmitts and the DiCaprios became friends—which is how the latter got wind of the Carnegie Hall idea. “One night at Birdland about three years ago,” Philips says, “Leo came over to me and said, ‘I want to be involved.’ I said, ‘Great,’ though I was still wondering how we were going to fill 3,000 seats. But George kept on calling me about it: ‘You’ve got to do Carnegie Hall. Leo wants to help.’”

Once the DiCaprio name was firmly attached, sponsorship doors opened for the Allstars and everything fell into place. So it wasn’t a total surprise to learn on the night of the “Forever Django” show that Dorado Schmitt had written a pair of pretty new numbers for the occasion, the first titled “For George” and the second called “Thanks to Leo.” His virtuosic performance on these, as on every tune he played that evening, demonstrated his possession of the two things he says are crucial to mastering Django-style jazz guitar: “a strong picking hand and a big heart.”

The day before the concert, at his midtown hotel, surrounded by his bandmates (who frequently translated for him, filling in his rudimentary English) and looking every inch the showman with his powder-blue suit and pencil-thin moustache, Schmitt stressed that he wasn’t retiring. “This is simply a celebration that father and sons”—including Samson’s younger brother Amati—“are now on the same level,” he said via Pierre Blanchard. “In Europe, we don’t even typically play together anymore; they have their own bands. I taught them just as my father taught me, by ear, and now they’re developing their own ideas. Django is at the root, but it’s a tree with so many branches.”

Blanchard added his own aside: “Dorado’s supposed to be passing the torch, but it looks to me like he’s still hanging onto it.” That triggered a good-natured laugh from father, sons and colleagues alike. No matter who’s head of the household, the future of this Gypsy-jazz family seems to be in excellent hands.