By Greg Cahill
Ask Hot Club of San Francisco alumni Jenny Scheinman what is special about that acclaimed Gypsy-jazz group and the celebrated violinist points to its regional flavor. “The Hot Club of San Francisco is a central part of San Francisco culture,” she says. “It embodies and magnifies San Francisco’s connection to French culture and its bohemian whimsy.
“It’s kind of a cultural landmark, like Coit Tower or the clown on Pier 39.”
This year, the Hot Club of San Francisco marks its 30th anniversary. Over the years, HCSF—founded by guitarist Paul Mehling—has gone through several personnel changes, especially in the violin chair, as regular members and substitutes have come and gone. But throughout those changes, the group—grounded in swing and Gypsy jazz from the French Manouche Roma region—has stayed true to its sound, which is inspired by, but does not mimic, the famed Quintette du Hot Club de France—the Quintet of the Hot Club of France (or the Hot Club of France, for short)—that featured Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt and French violinist Stéphane Grappelli.
To date, the HCSF has recorded 12 live and studio albums, including a Christmas album and 2016’s John, Paul, George & Django, a collection of Gypsy-flavored Beatles tunes featuring violinist Evan Price, formerly of the Turtle Island Quartet.
For many, the group’s original spin on the Hot Club sound was first heard on its 1993 eponymous debut, reissued this fall as a 30th-anniversary edition. That landmark album, which features violinist Ray Landsberg, includes just two songs by Reinhardt and Grappelli: “Sweet Chorus” and “Improvisation No. 2.” It also includes originals, as well as covers of songs by jazz greats Jimmy Rowles, Benny Goodman, and James P. Johnson. Among the special guests are the late country-swing artist Dan Hicks and blues vocalist Maria Muldaur.
Among the world-class violinists who have come in and out of the group over the years are Scheinman, Price, Jeremy Cohen, Andy Stein, Johnny Frigo, Paul Shelasky, Hanna Minnano, Tracy Silverman, and Julian Smedley, among others.
HCSF got its start as a spin-off of the San Francisco Bay Area–based Dan Hicks and the Acoustic Warriors. “We’d open with a Django tune—rhythm guitar, solo guitar, bass, and violin, all acoustic—and that would get the audience’s attention,” Mehling recalls. “It was swingy, cool, intriguing, and fun. I wrote a few original pieces and some arrangements for Dan and he encouraged me to do more.”
The violinist at the time was Brian Godchaux.
Soon, Mehling and Godchaux decided to start a Django band of their own. But since Godchaux was a fiddler and lacked strong jazz chops, the group added a clarinetist to spice things up. That all changed when violinist Julian Smedley sat in with the band. “His tone was pure Grappelli,” Mehling says. “The clarinet player told me ‘Well, I guess I’m fired—that guy has the sound you need.’
“It was true.”
“We have never forgotten our roles as entertainers. Each performance is a carefully prepared, balanced meal of joy, sadness, humor, predictability, and unpredictability.”
—Evan Price, HCSF violinist
Since then, the violinist has been the most noticeable changing element in the Hot Club of San Francisco, which has always been willing to take a risk on young players. “I was in my very early 20s when I played with the band and had an emotional, raw sound and very little of the signature Stéphane Grappelli vocabulary,” Scheinman observes. “There have been much flashier fiddle players, and more studied or historically referential players. There have also been some great singers in the band—Steven Strauss, who also played bass, is one of my all-time favorite singers, and Silvia Herald, who also played rhythm guitar. Both amazing—and they always made us bloom.”
Cohen says that Mehling’s vision and his ability to recruit top talent have kept the HCSF vibrant, throughout the ups and downs of Gypsy jazz’s popularity. “Paul’s dogged dedication to the genre of Gypsy jazz, as well as his energy toward bringing the tradition forward by writing, arranging, and introducing new material, helps keep the genre vibrant and contemporary,” Cohen says. “Success in this business requires nothing less than a champion and Paul has championed HCSF against all of the seismic shifts in the music business over all of these years with an iron will to continue and succeed.”
In addition to the band’s high standard of musicianship and the inherently pleasing qualities of the music itself, Price adds, the Hot Club of San Francisco sound combines heart, mind, and guts in equal measure. “We have never forgotten our roles as entertainers,” he says. “Each performance is a carefully prepared, balanced meal of joy, sadness, humor, predictability, and unpredictability. Our goal is to satisfy our audiences and ourselves simultaneously. That goes for live performances as well as recordings.
“It’s a delicate balance, too—none of us want to feel that we’re pandering, but we do feel that it’s important for both parties to have a good time. And our audiences have consistently commented that they love seeing us enjoy ourselves onstage, thereby enhancing their own enjoyment.”
HCSF’s success, he adds, is rooted in the fact that Mehling sought to start a band that was inspired by the Hot Club of France, but was not necessarily a carbon copy of it. “The first iteration of the band set a precedent for demonstrating the group’s connection with tradition while deliberately disrupting that paradigm by composing original tunes and slipping in the occasional anachronism, like a Beatles tune or a bossa nova,” Price says. “And from project to project, we have continued to pursue that balance. Within a single album, for instance, we might try to create a perfect replica of a classic performance by Django and Stéphane, and then turn around and cover a Paolo Conte song. As ironic as it may sound, the signature of the HCSF may be its breadth.
“But the sound of the band has definitely evolved over 30 years of personnel changes and musical growth, though there is also a consistency in the voices of the group’s soloists, especially. Paul has a unique and recognizable voice on the guitar—punchy, sly, and melodic—that can be clearly heard in every HCSF performance. And, in all modesty, my own voice and way of interacting with Paul has been fairly consistent over a significant portion of the group’s history. We discovered an instant rapport when we first sat down to play together—the musical equivalent of the ability to finish another person’s sentences—and that has become a sort of calling card of the group.
“More recently, the addition of Isabelle Fontaine as rhythm guitarist and vocalist has added a new and exciting dimension. And again, it’s partly her breadth as someone who’s able to sing in both her native French and perfect American English that fits the group so well, adding another layer to our trans-Atlantic sound.”
Clearly, Mehling has an ear for talent and a knack for elevating the band’s sound through personnel changes, creative repertoire, and special guests: In 2008, the Hot Club of San Francisco released Bohemian Maestro, Django Reinhardt & the Impressionists, featuring classical pianist Jeffrey Kahane, and the recent Beatles tribute proved a real crowd pleaser.
But, ultimately, Mehling credits the eclectic nature of the violinists themselves with driving the HCSF sound. “In the ’90s, we crossed paths with Jeremy Cohen [of Quartet San Francisco] who is decidedly more of a Joe Venuti– and Eddie South–style player, which was no problem for me: I loved Venuti and it turned out that Jeremy and I were at two or more Venuti shows in San Francisco at the same time before we knew each other,” Mehling explains. “His classical style of playing with his amazing violin [an 1868 Vuillaume] was super fun and opened even more doors for us.”
These days, Mehling says, the Hot Club of San Francisco is still growing musically. He points to the sheer talent and strict work ethic of the group’s current violinist, Evan Price, as a prime example. “One day [in 1999], on a lunchtime gig, Jeremy [Cohen] sent in a young sub that I’d never heard of—and I know all the jazz violinists in the Bay Area! My first impression was that he was too young to know how to really swing. Boy was I wrong. Evan can do it all: classical, folk, Irish, Scottish, trick-fiddling, rock, modern jazz, and, most importantly, Gypsy jazz. He, too, is not interested in copying the Hot Club of France—we just want to use the quintet format to play jazz—Gypsy, or otherwise.
“He has really pushed us into all kinds of material that I would never have dared to attempt. He is a huge contribution to our mission or raison d’etre of ‘What Would Django Do?’ Nineteen years later, Evan and I are still finding new ways to push the envelope and new ideas to spark each other.
“It’s been challenging in the best possible way to keep up with Evan’s depth and breadth musically, painful sometimes, but always, always worth it.”
Red-Hot Hot Clubs
“Jazz attracted me because in it I found a formal perfection and instrumental precision that I admire in classical music, but which popular music doesn’t have,” said Belgian jazz musician Django Reinhardt, who rose to fame as one of history’s greatest guitarists despite a childhood fire that left his fretting hand disfigured.
Jazz took an interesting turn in 1934 when Reinhardt teamed up with Parisian violinist Stéphane Grappelli to found the influential Quintette du Hot Club de France. Now, 84 years later, that unique sound is still inspiring a global movement and attracting string players of all stripes—in 2001, fiddler and classical-crossover violinist Mark O’Connor recorded Hot Swing, an homage to Grappelli, that also featured guitarist Frank Vignola and ex-Grappelli bassist John Burr.
In addition to the Hot Club of San Francisco, the Django/Grappelli sound has launched hundreds of other hot clubs, many of which put their own regional brand on the genre—the Hot Club of Detroit, for example, uses a brass horn section and performs Gypsy-jazz-style versions of Motown hits. Others include the Hot Club of Cowtown (Western swing), the Hot Club of New Orleans (Crescent City stomps), and the violin-less Hot Club of Sweden.
The scene also has drawn numerous guitarists and such world-class Gypsy-jazz violinists as Tcha Limberger of Belgium. Each year, purveyors of that sound gather at locations around the world, including Festival Django Reinhardt in Samois-sur-Seine outside of Paris and at a pair of West Coast DjangoFests held on Whidbey Island, Washington, and in Mill Valley, California.
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Strings magazine.