Las Vegas Romani jazz festival to showcase traditional tunes

If not for a fire, Parisian Django Reinhardt might have stuck with the banjo. When the left side of his body was severely burned, partially paralyzing two of his fingers, his brother bought him a guitar to help with his rehabilitation. Not long after, he discovered the music of Louis Armstrong and other New Orleans jazz and swing artists, combined it with the traditional Romani music of his people and invented a new form of jazz.

“I did some research trying to figure out his technique, and that’s when I found out he only had two working fingers,” said Mundo Juillerat, a guitar player and leader of the Hot Club of Las Vegas. “What he could do with two fingers, I can barely do with four. He was the first rock guitarist. Without him, we wouldn’t have people like Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen.”

Juillerat and the Hot Club of Las Vegas are set to perform at the fifth annual DjangoVegas! Gypsy Jazz Festival scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. June 18 at the Historic Fifth Street School, 401 S. Fourth St. The band has performed at all four of the previous festivals. Juillerat helped get the festival going with Brian Kendall, a cultural supervisor for the city of Las Vegas Office of Cultural Affairs.

“I had heard that kind of music at a couple of conferences I had attended,” Kendall said. “I saw the Hot Club playing in a one-bedroom house during a First Friday. I talked to Mundo, and it all started coming together.”

Juillerat said that, for his part, he finds new acts each year and plays their work for Kendall. If he approves, Juillerat sets up a meeting and then steps away and lets them work out the contracts.

The Hot Club draws its inspiration from Hot Jazz, one of the other names used for the music Reinhardt created and popularized. In his native France and some other places, it is also known as Manouche Jazz, as the Romani consider the word “Gypsy” to be a racial slur.

Reinhardt was a Manouche, a subgroup, or Natsia, of the Romani.

“What I love about it is the musicianship coming together,” Kendall said. “I love the different beats and rhythms coming together and seeing where it goes. There’s a kind of energy to it that’s addictive in an artsy way.”

In addition to Juillerat’s, group performances are scheduled by The Frank Vignola Trio, Hot House West and The Rhythm Future Quartet out of Boston.

“The Boston guys have a real modern take on the music,” Juillerat said. “They’re going to blow the roof off.”

The quartet is led by violinist Jason Anick, who teaches at the Berklee College of Music.

“We have a violin, two acoustic guitars and an upright bass, so we have kind of a traditional sound,” Anick said. “It’s traditional instruments, but we’re trying to bring the music into the future.”

Anick is a rare returning musician to the festival, having performed there previously with another group. He’s excited about performing the music and hearing his peers perform.

“I love the excitement, the energy and the emotion that go into the music,” Anick said. “You can have a super happy joyous foot-tapping swing tune followed by a heart-wrenching soulful dark melody in a minor key. It runs the full range of the emotional and musical palette.”

The Rhythm Future Quartet recently released an album, and it plans to play several selections, including original compositions and an instrumental cover of The Beatles’ “Come Together” played much as they imagine Reinhardt might have performed it.

For Kendall, the highlight of the evening will come at the end, after all of the groups have performed their sets.

“There’s a tradition at these festivals at the end of the night,” Kendall said. “All the groups get down to the auditorium floor and play in an unplugged setting. It’s stripped down with them jamming on just their instruments, creating this awesome art and music.”

Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. Visit artslasvegas.org or call 702-229-1012.

To reach East Valley View reporter F. Andrew Taylor, email ataylor@viewnews.com or call 702-380-4532.

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