Frank Vignola, playing his signature model Thorell guitar: ‘What is appealing to me is the way Django plays the melody. He plays with a lot of expression; he bends notes; he uses the vibrato so beautifully; the trills. Just a wonderful, passionate player.’

Life Begins With Django

With 100 Years of Django, Frank Vignola honors the master who set him on the path—and there’s more where that came from

By David McGee

Frank Vignola didn’t need his new album, 100 Years of Django, to place him in the front ranks of the world’s finest practitioners of the Django style—he was already there, had been for awhile. In fact, it’s not stretching the truth to say that without Django, Frank Vignola is a very different musician. Maybe we would know him as the first-call guitarist for a variety of artists ranging from Leon Redbone to Madonna, which he has been. Maybe he would have become one of the foremost guitar teachers around, which he is, with 18 guitar instructions books to his credit as well as several instructional DVDs, to go with the clinics and master classes he’s presided over at institutes of higher learning throughout the land, including Boston Univerrsity and Juilliard.

But many of these achievements have ensued from his advanced degree in the gypsy jazz style, something he’s been honing since he first picked up a guitar at age six. His father, a tenor banjo player, bought him a guitar and three records: one by Django, one by Les Paul, one by Bucky Pizzarelli. Influenced by the first, he wound playing with the second- and third-named six-string wizards. But that was later. At age six, upon being presented with the guitar and cueing up the Django record, “is kind of when I remember life beginning. The first song on the record was ‘Limehouse Blues’—a nice, easy tempo—and my father taught me the chords and I would just play along with that record, over and over again. That’s how I learned to play; my father would show me the chords to the songs, and I would play along with the records. I wasn’t really thinking about it, I was just kinda doing it.”

Frank Vignola and special guest Tommy Emmaneul work out to Django’s ‘Limehouse Blues,’ the first Django song Vignola learned on guitar, at age six. This performance took place March 29, 2008 at Teatro Olimpico, Vicenza, Italy. Other group members include Vinny Raniolo, guitar; Matt Flinner, mandolin; and Pete Coco, bass.

Speaking from outside Boston, where he and his group were on a tour stop in their promotion of the Django CD, the Long Island-born Vignola says nothing about Django’s music has diminished in its impact on his own playing. Certain truths about the gypsy’s style persist.

“What was appealing to me, then and now, is the way he plays the melody. He plays with a lot of expression; he bends notes; he uses the vibrato so beautifully; the trills. Just a wonderful, passionate player. Given the fact that he was in pain most of the time, because his whole body was burned, not just his hand—that’s not an easy thing to live with.”

“Just a wonderful, passionate player” could easily describe Vignola, too. The meshing of technique with feeling is all over his 100 Years of Django salute. Well, almost all over—on the first cut, “Rhythm Future,” Vignola gives wide latitude to guest accordionist Julien Labro to romp through the bright melody while he lays down an elegant carpet of supporting riffs for Labro’s keyboard excursions. Vignola is quick to point out, though, that Django was as formidable a rhythm player as he was a soloist, a fact often overlooked when the lead work is as stirring and evocative as Django’s was.

“Don’t forget,” Vignola points out, “Django’s rhythm playing, the way he would support Grappellli, when he started playing rhythm, you felt it. When he would play a solo it would be a different thing. When he would come in with that rhythm and Grappelli would come roaring, you knew it. That’s one thing about Django’s playing that always struck me, his rhythm. My goodness! My goodness! Just wonderful.”

Also of note, as Vignola points out, when Django made his debut on record, at age 18, he had all five of the fingers on his left hand and was playing six-string banjo and accordion. So when you’re saluting the entire Django catalogue, it’s not inappropriate to inject an accordion into the proceedings. In Labro Vignola felt he’d found “one of the great young musicians I’ve heard. He’s from France, finishing up his doctorate in classical composition at Wayne State University in Detroit, and he just got his work visa. He’s about to bust out on the scene.”

This Django path of Vignola’s is well worn now: he began clearing it in 1988, when he was but a lad of 22 and talked the owner of Michael’s Pub (then one of the finest of the city’s upscale cabarets, now sadly gone and sorely missed) into letting him bring a Hot Club of France-style show into the venue.

“I walked into Michael’s Pub unannounced in a tuxedo, which is what you gotta do if you’re a musician,” Vignola recalls, “and sure enough, the owner loved the idea. We were in there for ten weeks with a Hot Club of France show. First night, all the major publications were there. It proved to me that there was always an underground following for Django, because that place was packed every night of the week.”

(One of his fondest memories of the epic Michael’s Pub stand was the night a friend of Django’s came to the show, and visited him backstage afterwards, and related a classic Django tale. Vignola: “And out of the blue, a lady walks in after the show; she’s 78 at the time, she comes up and introduces herself, from England, lives in New York now, and she was a friend of Django’s. And she gave me pictures of her and Django in London, during the ‘40s when he left France. When Django would go to London, they were friends and she used to house him. She gave me these four pictures of him, right next to the new car that he bought—because whenever he would get money, he would just spend it and then all the money was gone. She showed me the picture of him next to the brand new car and said right after the picture was taken they got into the new car, and he immediately crashed it into a tree.”)

Five years after the Michael’s Pub dates, Vignola made his debut on record as a leader upon signing with the Concord Jazz label. Naturally, the title track from his debut CD was a Django song: “Appel Direct.” He hasn’t stopped recording since, and now his catalogue shows an impressive breadth and depth—besides multiple entries in the gypsy jazz field, there are interesting excursions into ‘70s and ‘80s pop (1999’s Dèjá Vu, which includes interpretations of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” and Kansas’s “Dust In the Wind,” among others, as well as the intriguing multi-part title track); into the Great American Songbook as defined by one of its foremost composers (2007’s Vignola Plays Gershwin); and not least of all, into the oeuvre of another of Vignola’s major influences, Les Paul (in a duet album with the third of his holy trinity of guitar gods, Bucky Pizzarelli, 2005’s Moonglow.)—all told, more than a dozen CDs leading his own band, and probably a dozen more as part of other artists’ projects (such as Mark O’Connor’s first full-blown Hot Club-inspired long player, 2001’s Hot Swing). Not the least of the important achievements on Vignola’s resume is his five years sitting in every Monday night with Les Paul at the Iridium nightclub, where Paul held forth for a dozen years before his death in 2009.

With Les Paul: ‘Les Paul and Django were friends. I was with Les for five years, and one of my favorite memories is having dinner with him every week after soundcheck. A couple of times he got into Django and how he was very depressed that he didn’t get his due in America, that he wasn’t respected in America.’

“Les Paul and Django were friends,” Vignola says. “I was with Les for five years, and one of my favorite memories is having dinner with him every week after soundcheck. A couple of times he got into Django and how he was very depressed that he didn’t get his due in America, that he wasn’t respected in America. Les went over to France in 1952 and arranged for Django and Stephane to warm up for and tour with Les Paul and Mary Ford, who were huge stars. Then Django passed away in 1953 and Les collected all the royalties for the family. Les said when he went over there he walked up four flights of stairs and there was just a little room with Django and his wife and his son Babik. No heat. All he wanted was a record player, so Les went out and bought him a record player. He collected all the money Django was owed from the record companies for publishing and gave it to the family. 1953. So he collected all that, paid for the funeral, walked Babik down the processional and in return his wife Naguine gave Les the guitar he had there, the Selmer Macaferri.” (See related story in this issue about the friendship of Les Paul and Django.)

For his Django tribute, Vignola determined that the most interesting approach, amidst all the other 100th anniversary projects he expected to surface, would be a survey of the artist’s original compositions, but not necessarily the most obvious ones—of the 10 tracks only “Nuages” is a widely acknowledged Reinhardt monument, although “Swing 49” has become a gypsy jazz staple over time. Five of the songs were recorded by the Hot Club quintet; the others are from a range of post-Hot Club-era sessions, with the soothing blues of “Diminishing Blackness,” from the early ‘50s, representing Django’s final years. The frailing, hard charging pace of “Mystery Pacific” is an occasion for Vignola’s guitar and Labro’s accordion to stoke the fire with furious rhythm and dazzling, fleet-fingered precision runs across strings and keys. Recorded in 1937 by Reindhardt, with Stephane Grappelli on violin and Louis Vola on bass (Gary Mazzaroppi does the bass honors on 100 Years), “Mystery Pacific” has been identified as Django’s personal tribute to Duke Ellington, with whom he toured in his only American visit, as its harmonic structure and form are based on Ellington’s “Daybreak Express.” To Vignola, though, “Mystery Pacific” is a perfect example of the relationship of gypsy jazz to bluegrass: “I think it’s a lot like bluegrass. It’s what I call ‘European bluegrass.’ Django’s band was drummerless, all strings, playing two-beat—the original group wasn’t a swing band at all—and Django’s is ethnic music, really.”

As Vignola reels off one dazzling solo after another on 100 Years, both the art and the will of Reinhardt become all the more imposing, because what Vignola (and John Jorgenson, and all the other gypsy jazz guitarists in the Django mold) does with five fingers on his left hand, Django did with two fingers and a thumb after his hand was nearly burned off in the now-legendary gypsy caravan fire when he was 18. Asked if he’s figured out how Django did it with his limited physical tools, Vignola admits he hasn’t studied the whys and wherefores, but he’s figured it out from experience: “Moving horizontally up the fingerboard instead of vertically is a great study for any guitar player or mandolin player—learn all your scales and play melodies just on one string. Your ear starts to connect to your hands more, because you’re seeing the interval jumps and you can kind of guess how far it’s going to be and you start to have a visual going on, just like you would with a piano. And I know he did a lot of that horizontal playing, where he would move up one string as opposed to moving a position vertically, as guitar players are taught—there are six positions. He threw all that out the window and just played what he was hearing. It’s kind of interesting. I’m a firm believer if he had no hands, he still would have figured it out. Absolutely. A guy like that could not be denied.”

Tommy Emmanuel and Frank Vignola perform Django’s most famous song, ‘Nuages,’ at the Soave Guitar Festival, 2008

Vignola is not an artist who will be denied, either. 100 Years of Django is only the beginning of an ambitious vision he has for honoring the master: a 10-volume CD series (one a year for the next nine years after this) comprising all of Reinhardt’s original compositions given a fresh perspective, a la 100 Years. “I think that would be a neat way to tribute him instead of playing originals or standards, which I love—don’t get me wrong—but I think his composing skills were just over the top. He wrote some beautiful, beautiful melodies. Comparable with Gershwin, Berlin, all those. And then he wrote some pretty ‘out’ pieces. What I loved about Django is that he was in the forefront of the music, he was picking the modern-day compositions, heard bebop and really got into it; heard a Les Paul record and immediately switched to electric guitar; he was really into classical music. I think that’s pretty cool, and that’s a testament to the way jazz should be played, in your own voice, as opposed to copying. Personally, I like when someone has their own voice, and when you hear them you immediately know who they are, like a Django, like a Charlie Christian, like a Les Paul, like a Bucky Pizzarelli, Louis Armstrong, Bill Monroe—that just about covers everything in strings.”

Given the standing of “Nuages” as a song firmly imprinted in the jazz and popular song culture, one wonders if Vignola had any trepidation about taking it on himself. Indeed, he says, “that whole record was very intimidating,” but the spirit of Les Paul carried him through, as it were.

“I’ve been playing that music for 35 years. I mean I had every Django record there was; I know all the songs, I’ve played them a zillion times. He recorded [‘Nuages’] in a church; a beautiful, cathedral-style church—not a cathedral, a little smaller. And the sound of the acoustic instruments was just perfect in there. So we started playing ‘Nuages’ and I couldn’t play it, because it was just so awe-inspiring. Okay, here’s the Django tribute, here’s his most famous song, which has been covered by every major guitarist, and just the aura of the church was very intimidating.

“But I figured I would just stick true to the melody, instead of trying to impress someone with another lick. Let me stay true to the melody—and I thought of Les Paul a lot in that version, because we recorded it right after his 94th birthday. He and I used to play that song every week together. I just remember how beautiful he played that melody—real nice, nothing fancy, but really soulful. I’m looking forward to the next album. We’re going to record that in June, and we’re just picking out the tunes during this ten-day tour.”

Django Reinhard with the Hot Club (Stephane Grappelli, Roger Chaput, Joseph Reinhardt, Louis Vola), ‘J’attendrai Swing,’ 1939

Beyond this, Vignola is staying open to configuring the forthcoming Django discs to accommodate the signature contributions from a variety of guest artists yet to be determined. But he has his wish list.

“A year goes by, your tastes change, you play a little differently, you meet new musicians along the way,” he says. “I thought it would be nice to have a different guest on every record. Like a violin—I love this guy Zach Brock, he plays wonderfully. And I was thinking Ken Poplowski, the great clarinetist. Maybe Warren Vache—not that we’ll play the songs he played with Benny Carter, but just because of the association between Django and Benny. And do our own thing with it.

“So that’s the thinking, 101 Years of Django, 102 Years and so on. And then you have your box set. But we have to hope the stars line up and it actually comes to fruition. Who knows what recording is going to be like in five years?”

For more information about Frank Vignola, visit his website,, which also includes a section on all of his materials for students to work with, including interactive software and DVDS, books with CDs, and eBooks.

100 Years of Django and other Frank Vignola recordings are available at

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