Django Reinhardt’s Home Town

Liberchies, Belgium—The name Django Reinhardt is among the most fabled in jazz. I first heard him on the guitar on a beat-up 45-rpm record when I was eleven years old, and I’ve been following the music around ever since. Listening to him – to the fine, clear solo sounds of the strings, to the hauntingly solid beat of the two rhythm guitars and the contrabass behind him – makes the hair on my arms rise.

The illiterate gypsy with the damaged hand died in 1953, but for many of us his music has lived on. You come upon references to him in books like “From Here to Eternity” and in Woody Allen movies; we Manouche jazz guitar enthusiasts pay homage to him always.

All of which is why I find myself in a cold wind on a rainy weekend in this small village less than an hour out of Brussels. Django was born in a caravan (horse-drawn resident trailer to us on this side of the pond) outside of town in a gypsy encampment. For nearly 30 years there’s been a fabulous festival tribute to him in France at Samois Sur Seine, on a beautiful wooded island in the Seine River south of Paris each June, but five years ago the Belgians decided they’d get on the bandwagon, and so here I am in Belgium for two days of tribute to the master.

Not that I think that a larger-than-life Django would recognize much of what’s here today, 54 years after he died, leaving behind a trail of two kids, a multitude of women and his recordings. The village is set in the countryside amidst green fields studded with lazy white cows. The buildings are three-story brick structures, their windows framed with white lace. The main street is closed for the weekend of music. There’s still only one café, which I think is where Django hung out when he came back during the winters in later years, and there’s the newsstand, but now there is also a Peugeot dealer on the edge of town and a golf course nearby. Unless you are a gypsy, there is no place for a visitor to stay, so I booked myself fifteen minutes away at the Golf Club de Pierpont, just outside Waterloo (yes, the Waterloo). It is an old farmhouse estate, the buildings of stone and wooden beams, comfortable enough, a nice place to sit outside in the evening between music sets at Liberchies and have a drink or two. But my own cuisine for the weekend was mostly French street food, like boudin blanc, frites, Belgium waffles and crepes; you’ve never seen so much beer slogged down in your life.

As is the case at Samois sur Seine, most often the best music, the hottest stuff is not what’s on the schedule. Yes, the program, in several venues, boasts a swinging big band, some fairly good Django imitators and, in the streets, local brass bands are making the rounds. But it’s what goes on inside the temporary tents of the visiting guitar vendors that make the trip worthwhile.

The rain is still coming down, and the tents are jammed with people pushing in from all sides, eager to watch and to hear improvised jam sessions. Two guys, each with a cigarette hanging from the side of his mouth, are quietly dueling with their guitars. Another fellow makes his way in, takes his own guitar out of its case and sits down. The musicians look at one another, mumble a few words, hesitate for a moment, and then they’re off! Into chorus after chorus of “All of Me.” A few minutes later another musician, a dark-haired young woman, slips inside, a violinist, and when she joins in, the tempo ratchets up another notch, reminding each of us in the tent of the classic collaboration between Django and violinist Stephane Grappelli when they formed the Quintet of the Hot Club of France and introduced an entirely new sound into the jazz world. Inside the tent, the trio is off to other classic Django tunes, melodies such as “Avalon,” “Swing 42,” and the master’s own anthem, the poignant, moving “Nuages.”

Belgium is a long haul for just two days of music, but when you’re sitting inside one of those tents, close to the guitar strings, and the beat is moving, it’s worth it – if it’s Django you’re after.

To Stay: Golf Club de Pierpont, www.pierpont.be, Being there: www.Django-liberchies.be