Quintette du Hot Club de France

In an attempt to keep this blog as varied as possible, this week I would like to share with you the most influential jazz group in Europe. I have more recordings of this ensemble than any other in my collection and although we don’t hear them as often as many others on the social dance floor, their mere existence is a significant point in the history of Swing. Consisting of not one, but two band leaders, the Hot Club created the genre of Gypsy Jazz and promoted jazz in Europe.


Django Reinhardt

Born in Belgium to Manouche Gypsies, Django grew up surrounded by musicians. His father and uncle were both excellent players and he was given a violin at a young age. He also played the banjo-guitar and has credited to recordings from as early as 1928. As an 18 year old gypsy, Django was already married and living in a caravan with his wife Florine, who at the time was making and selling fake flowers from celluloid. One night the flowers caught fire and set the caravan ablaze. Django was severely burned down his left side, the damage to his leg was critical and worse, two of the fingers on his left hand were permanently damaged. Remarkably, Django taught himself to play using the two working fingers to play melodies and adding his damaged ones occasionally to create 9th chords- commonly used in jazz. In this way, a new playing technique was developed which provided inspiration to generations of future guitarists.


Stephane Grappelli

A musical genius in his own right, Grappelli is often overlooked due to the greatness of Django’s reputation. Grappelli spent a lot of his childhood living on the streets in Paris. His father worked for the army and had left him sometimes in orphanages, and once, in the care of eccentric dancer Isadora Duncan, where he was first inspired by music. He survived this time by running errands for the bars and clubs of Montmatre in exchange for some practice time on their piano and scraps of food. Already becoming a great pianist at 10, Stephane’s father gave him a violin when he returned from the war. He taught himself technique by mimicking buskers and learned to play jazz by listening to the few records he could get hold of from New Orleans. When he was 15, he was good enough to join the Musicians’ Union and get regular work playing for the cinema orchestra.

“My life started when I met Django… Before him I was a musician playing here, playing there, but I realised when I was with Django, we can produce something not ordinary.” Stephane Grappelli


The Hot Club

The Hot Club de France was set up in 1931 by jazz loving students in Paris. It was dedicated to promoting jazz, including inviting American artists to France to perform, giving the Quintette a rare opportunity to record with and learn directly from the jazz greats. Although for most of their existence they didn’t have their own club, the Hot Club often held concerts in other clubs and venues. They created the jazz publication “Le Jazz Hot” and in 1937 set up the record label “Swing”. Interestingly, in 1936 Louis Armstrong was elected honorary president of the club and held the title for the rest of his life.


The Quintette

Allegedly it was a member of The Hot Club who discovered a group of musicians having a jam session between dance band sets at the Hotel Claridge. They were invited to play for the club and became the house band in 1933.

The rest of the band consisted of Louis Vola on double bass, and two rhythm guitarists- Roger Chaput and Joseph “Nin-Nin” Reinhardt (Django’s brother) although the line-up would change throughout the Quintette’s career. Django insisted on having two rhythm guitars to back his solos, as Grapelli had two for his.

The Quintette du Hot Club de France recorded their first album in 1934 and were readily embraced by jazz loving Europeans, reaching the height of their fame in 1939. The war then divided the group with Grappelli choosing to stay in England while Reinhardt chose to return to France. He survived despite the Nazi’s strict anti-jazz policy. One of Reinhardt’s attempts to create non jazz music resulted in the insanely intricate Rhythme Futur. After the war, in 1946, Grappelli and Reinhardt reunited to continue recording, but as the 1950s approached, musical tastes were changing and jazz and swing were regarded as old fashioned. The band eventually went its separate ways in 1949.


Gypsy jazz enthusiasts to this day play unique looking guitars, designed by Maccaferri- some sold by manufacturers Selmer. There are two varieties of the instrument: accompaniment was usually played on a Grande Bouche/ D hole, and solos were played on the Petite Bouche because it had a louder, cutting tone. Another technique Django used to project his sound was to play closer to the bridge, giving the guitar a sharper, twangier tone.


Listen out for:

  • Chugging rhythm guitars playing quavers/ on all 8 beats.

  • Chromatic runs, especially the ends of songs.

  • Django’s idiomatic 2 finger runs

  • Harmonics on the violin- they sound like whistling. (eg. beginning of Daphne)

  • Tremolo- a flamenco influenced trembling sound produced by rapidly playing a note or chord.

  • The informal jam session feel of recordings, often with the band call out encouragement or cheering a good solo.

When you dance:

  • Slow down! It’s not as fast as you think, it’s just the chugging rhythm guitars. Listen to the melody instrument which swings more. Also try and feel the stronger of each pair of quavers 12345678.

  • In faster songs take small steps, replace triple steps with kick steps. Try some balboa or 20s Charleston.

  • Listen out for the main melody. Grappelli points out that musicians never improvise over the main tune to show respect for it. Treat it with respect when you dance too- not too much fancy stuff, save that for the improvisations. This allows you to build up to a climax.

  • Match the performers’ energy: take on the same informal jam attitude. Try new things and encourage your partner or other dancers.

Every dancer should know:

  • Minor Swing

  • Daphne (features prominently in the film Swing Kids)

Quintette versions of classics:

  • Sweet Georgia Brown

  • Honeysuckle Rose

  • I’ve Found a New Baby

  • Dinah

  • Sweet Sue

  • Lady be Good

  • Tiger Rag

Also Listen to:

  • Belleville

  • Rhythme Futur

  • Swing 39

  • Djangology

  • Nuages

2 thoughts on “Quintette du Hot Club de France

  1. This isn’t for publication — just to start a conversation! I’m Michael Steinman of JAZZ LIVES. I am delighted to be on your blogroll and have added your fine young blog to mine. Heaven knows, the more that people can learn about the music, and love it even more deeply, the better this world will be — and you’ll note I am not restricting myself to swing dancers, people I celebrate because they are listening and responding in wonderful ways. I am happy that you are writing your own prose: it would have been very easy to lift chunks from Scott Yanow or Eugene Chadbourne, but what you write has its own voice. Now comes the very small pinch, for which I apologize: I’ve always seen the name of the violinist of the HCQF spelled with TWO G’s, whether it’s Grappelly or Grappelli — do you want to check this? Otherwise, even my exacting eyes find nothing to howl about and much to praise. With every good wish, Michael — swingyoucats@gmail.com. P.S. Have we met at a swing dance somewhere, California or New York?

    • Thanks for the praise, It’s always nice to know people are reading and appreciating the blog, and great have a bit of feedback. Thanks for picking up on the Grappelli mistake. I’m so embarrassed! To be honest I can’t believe I managed to spell it wrong the first time, let alone consistently for the entire blog! (and I claim to idolise him!) I’ll be editing immediately.

      I doubt we’ve met on the dance floor unless you’ve been to London. The swing dance world is a lot bigger than it used to be, and expanding exponentially! (one of the reasons I wanted to blog).

      Looking forward to reading your next post,

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