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Before & After: Simba Baumgartner

Django Reinhardt’s great-grandson steps into the limelight

Simba Baumgartner
Simba Baumgartner (photo: Irene Ypenberg)

Simba Baumgartner, Django Reinhardt’s great-grandson, is just 22, but he has already proven himself an adept practitioner of Gypsy jazz, the indelible style pioneered by Reinhardt in the 1930s. Baumgartner’s debut album, Les Yeux Noir (Arte Boreal), is a faithful tribute to Reinhardt made up entirely of songs he recorded in his relatively short lifetime, including “Blues Clair,” “Dark Eyes,” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”

Baumgartner began playing guitar at age four, and he regards his great-grandfather’s music as almost a cultural heirloom. He resides with his family in the small French town of Samois-sur-Seine, where Reinhardt died, and lives a traditional Gypsy lifestyle. He speaks just French. He does not go to school, and cannot read or write. He does not listen to a lot of music outside of Reinhardt’s discography.

All of which made his first Before & After something of a challenge. In late April, I met Baumgartner at the Woodland, a venue in Maplewood, N.J., where he was participating in a camp and festival called Django a Gogo. He had been invited by the festival’s presenter, French guitarist Stephane Wrembel, who is most well-known for having written the manouche-inflected theme song to the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris.

Wrembel first met Baumgartner last year, during a performance at Town Hall that marked his first appearance in New York. Wrembel grew up not far from Samois-sur-Seine and felt an affinity for the young guitarist. He was so impressed with his cascading runs and expressive use of vibrato that he invited him to make his own album. “The idea for him was to play as many Django songs as possible,” said Wrembel, who served as an interpreter for Baumgartner during our listening session.

In many instances throughout the session, Wrembel could not resist the temptation to venture a few guesses himself, which made this B&A something of a quiz for two.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring all the songs in this Before & After session:


1. Joe Pass
“How High the Moon” (Virtuoso, Pablo). Pass, guitar. Recorded in 1973.

BEFORE: [Baumgartner speaking] Biréli?

Stephane Wrembel: No.

Simba Baumgartner: Martin Taylor?

SW: No.

Do you know who it is, Stephane?

SW: Yes, of course. Simba doesn’t know, though he knows Joe Pass. He first mentioned Biréli Lagrène and then Martin Taylor. They both learned from [Pass], and their earlier recordings sound like this. So he got confused for the right reasons.

What are his thoughts on the music?

AFTER: [Wrembel asks Baumgartner and then interprets] He likes it a lot. It gives him ideas. When he hears this, he thinks of nature. He thinks it goes very well as a soundtrack to the countryside where he lives, which I kind of understand because I’m from the same area too. And we play this a lot at home. That solo guitar, it’s a bit like bluegrass, in a way. It’s very close to nature. Also, he says that he would like to incorporate this kind of sound into his playing. He hasn’t studied it yet, but it makes him want to transcribe more.

2. Biréli Lagrène
“Lullaby of Birdland” (Gipsy Trio, Dreyfus). Lagrène and Hono Winterstein, guitar; Diego Imbert, bass. Recorded in 2009.

BEFORE: [Baumgartner speaks without delay] Biréli.

SW: This he knows. [They exchange words in French] He thinks Biréli is a great musician and he feels very touched by his playing, very touched. He can’t really phrase his feelings, but if you want, I can extract a few thoughts. I know him very well.

Sure, why not?

SW: What he’s more impressed with is not so much how fast and technical he can play—it’s more his touch. It’s a very vibrant touch. He says he listens more to Biréli than he transcribes him. He’s transcribed Django, because that’s the source, but he’s only transcribed a few things from Biréli that are very lyrical. Still, it’s not so much transcribing the notes—it’s like, he tries to reproduce a certain sense of swing and a certain sense of groove. That’s more where he stands with Biréli.

3. Oscar Peterson and Stéphane Grappelli
“Makin’ Whoopee” (Skol, Pablo). Peterson, piano; Grappelli, violin; Joe Pass, guitar; Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, bass; Mickey Roker, drums. Recorded in 1979.

BEFORE: [Baumgartner speaking] Florin?

He should think of the more obvious choice.

SB: Grappelli?

SW: I think he got confused between Grappelli and [the Romanian violinist] Florin Niculescu because this sounds more like a modern recording, and Florin is really influenced by Grappelli. He plays like this, so I can totally see how he got confused.

What does Simba think?

AFTER: [Wrembel interpreting] He loves it. It makes him think of New York. Right now, he’s concentrating on Django’s music, but he would like to do more jazz like this sometime, with the piano.

Has he done any stuff like this?

SW: Not yet. He thinks he’s too young, and he still wants to do the Django thing. He’s establishing himself right now, but further along the line, he wants to do something in this straight-ahead style. He’s pretty much into jazz—Django, of course, but he likes the rest of it too. Except right now he can’t do it—he can’t get together a combo in France. At any time of day or night, he can get a cousin to play rhythm guitar or something. But finding a piano, bass, and drums is a whole different ballgame.

Does he listen to jazz of this kind?

SW: Not much. He’s really into Django. And he plays a lot. When you visit him and his family in France, there’s a table set up, a barbecue, and you sit down and just play guitar all day long. A lot of nature, a fire, the moon, music.

Does he prefer playing music onstage or with his family at a barbecue?

SW: [Wrembel asks Baumgartner, who responds without hesitation] He prefers the barbecue. It’s his favorite thing. Family is sacred for him.

4. Michel Legrand
“Django” (Legrand Jazz, Columbia). Miles Davis, trumpet; Paul Chambers, bass; Kenny Dennis, drums; Barry Galbraith, guitar; Betty Glamann, harp; Bill Evans, piano; Eddie Costa, vibraphone. Recorded in 1958.

BEFORE: [After a few lines are phrased on trumpet, Wrembel speaks to Baumgartner] Who is the trumpeter?

SB: Charlie Parker?

SW: [To Baumgartner] No, he’s an alto saxophonist. It’s Miles. [Baumgartner nods in recognition.]

Does he know the song?

SW: He knows the song.

AFTER: [Wrembel speaking] I would have guessed it was from Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. It has a similar vibe. You know what’s funny? No one plays “Django.” Nobody. Though we’ve all heard it at some point.

Does Simba feel that it evokes the spirit of his great-grandfather?

SB: No.

Does he have any thoughts on Michel Legrand?

SW: He says he likes him as a pianist, he knows him as a composer, but he doesn’t listen to him too much. Michel Legrand is very famous in France, especially for his film scoring. This is a nice arrangement. I didn’t know this album. I thought I knew all of Miles Davis, but I guess not.

5. Django Reinhardt
“La Mer” (Django in Rome, JSP). Reinhardt, guitar; StéphaneGrappelli, violin; Gianni Safred, piano; Carlo Pecori, bass; Aurelio de Carolis, drums. Recorded in 1949.

BEFORE: [Baumgartner, immediately] Django.

SW: This time he got it right away. He says he’s listened to this song a lot. The 1949 Rome sessions are very popular. They’re also on the late side, very well-recorded compared to earlier stuff, and they are available. Before the Rome sessions, it’s like four tracks on 78s here, four tracks on 78s there. It’s all scattered. Simba says that he’s working on this song, but he doesn’t play it yet.

What does he mean when he says he’s working on it?

SW: The Django world is not exactly jazz. Django plays a song a certain way, he usually has different versions—or in this case one version—and you can transcribe what he does. It’s almost like pop music. [Mouths solo] Incredible. You hear it, and you just connect. It’s transcendent. You can’t explain it. You hear it, and it’s like, boom. I’m not a Gypsy, but I grew up listening to Django. When I was 15, I used to go drink with his son. So it’s something very ingrained for us.

When did Simba learn to transcribe?

SW: He doesn’t transcribe on paper—it’s directly onto the instrument. The way he thinks of it is very geometrical. So when he transcribes, he does it directly from the record to the guitar, and he memorizes the drawings and the sound that is attached to each drawing.

Each drawing?

SW: When you play a chord, it has a shape, and each shape is kind of like a drawing, and that drawing is a sound, and he recognizes that sound within the drawing. So it isn’t C or D or E. It’s a geometrical shape that fits over a chord.

Did he feel any sense of anxiety taking on his great-grandfather’s music for this album, given the long shadow Reinhardt casts over the Gypsy jazz tradition?

SW: No. He’s happy to be Django’s great-grandson. He’s not stressed at all about it. He’s proud.

6. Michel Petrucciani
“Turnaround” (100 Hearts, George Wein Collection). Petrucciani, piano. Recorded in 1983.

BEFORE: [Baumgartner speaking] Ray Charles?

It does sound a bit like Ray Charles, now that he mentions it.

SW: I think it’s Michel Petrucciani. What a genius, man. Oof. The timing.

This is a blues by Ornette Coleman. How do you feel the blues connects to manouche jazz?

SW: Django composed a lot around the blues. One of his most famous songs is “Minor Swing,” which is a blues, but in 16 bars. But in it, there’s a B-flat going back to A minor. The last four bars are E7, B-flat, A minor, E7, and it’s a Neapolitan sixth—a very classical move. So there’s always blues and a bit of classical. Django is a very classical musician, too.

7. John Lewis
“September Song” (Evolution, Atlantic). Lewis, piano. Recorded in 1999.

BEFORE: [Baumgartner doesn’t know, so Wrembel takes a guess] I can think of three guesses, because this guy seems to be influenced by classical music, like Ravel and Debussy. I would say maybe Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, or Ahmad Jamal. These are the names that come to mind.

It’s John Lewis, who wrote “Django,” and he’s playing “September Song,” though it’s kind of difficult to hear. Simba chose to play this tune on his album. Why?

AFTER: [Wrembel interpreting] He loves Django’s version. He likes the chord progression, and thinks it’s very pleasant to solo on. He feels very comfortable. He knows the versions by Django, but he doesn’t know the full solos—he’s just extracted a few phrases, an idea here, an idea there. And when he has an idea, like a phrase or something, then he extracts it—and it doesn’t only fit on this one song, it fits on many songs. It’s more like a relationship between a phrase and a chord, and then from there, there are many ways to transform one phrase. So one phrase that he uses on this song will also be reborn elsewhere.

8. Mary Halvorson
“Leak Over Six Five (No. 14)” (Saturn Sings, Firehouse 12). Halvorson, guitar; Jonathan Finlayson, trumpet; Jon Irabagon, alto saxophone; John Hébert, bass; Ches Smith, drums. Recorded in 2009.

BEFORE: [Baumgartner furrows his brow as Wrembel speaks] It sounds familiar. Is she a New Yorker?

She lives in New York. She studied with Anthony Braxton, so she’s a bit more experimental in her approach. Would Simba ever be interested in playing music like this?

AFTER: [Wrembel interpreting] This is not really his jam. He’s never heard it—so at first he didn’t really like it, but he doesn’t really know it, so he doesn’t really know what to think of it. It’s like a new experience. It’s very New York. I love it. But, yeah, he’s not fond of it.

Does it make him think of anything?

SW: He said it sounds a bit like a crazy New Orleans brass band. [Halvorson’s distorted pedal effects come in] He thinks you’re tricking him and that she isn’t really making these sounds on guitar. I told him it’s still a guitar.

9. Cyrille Aimée & Diego Figueiredo
“Que Reste-t’il?” (Smile, self-released). Aimée, voice; Figueiredo, guitar. Recorded in 2009.

BEFORE: [Immediately, Baumgartner speaks] Cyrille Aimée.

SW: She’s our buddy. She’s from Samois. She and Simba grew up in the same town.

Does he have any stories?

SW: When he was a child, he says she was friends with his older sister; she was always in the trailers and playing music with his family. Sometimes, when she was 12 or so, she would leave her parents’ house and she would stay with them in their trailer. They were just children in the country, playing in the woods, learning music, being in nature.

Matthew Kassel

Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and The Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications.