One lazy summer evening, I proposed to my friends that we check out a jazz bar just down the street from our place, but which we had never been to in two years of living there. Le QuecumBar is a 1930s inspired gypsy jazz bar which hosts some of the best known players of the style first performed by the now legendary Jean “Django” Reinhardt. Django (whose nickname means “I awake” in Romani) was born in Belgium in 1910 to Romanian parents, before moving to Paris where he learned the banjo, and later the guitar, becoming absorbed in the music of the time. His virtuous, often said “hot”, guitar playing laid the cornerstones for a style which now reminds of silent movies in fast forward or smoky alleys in the deep Parisian night, drowned in gaiety and inebriation.
A friend I met during my second year at college had once told me about this place. He played in the IC Big Band and would often come to the QuecumBar’s Tuesday jam sessions to burn the night away. Gypsy jazz has always seemed to me a very wholesome style, not unlike Jamaican dub or even drum & bass. Stylistically it does not need great scope to do what it does. To the novice ear, all the songs might sound the same, perhaps somewhat like Disney’s Aristocats throwing a double birthday party. It is a fiery music that burns very brightly. The atmosphere is immediate. I imagine it might go very well in the summer with a coffee and a croissant around 6am before an after-party up Montmartre. Though to understand why you might want a coffee before closing a night out you will have to listen for yourself.
As we walked in just shy of 8 o’clock, there was one lady in long feline spectacles sitting by the window and three musicians warming up in a corner. We were greeted by a waiter in piano key suspenders offering dinner or drinks. In the spirit of procrastination we opted for liquid dinner of the gourmet kind. Belgian blonde Leffe for my friend, Czech Budvar for myself (that golden pilsner our humble Union has so woefully forgotten in favour of the American dribble). The only other people in the place, a couple sat for dinner, were presented with the evening’s menu on a billboard over a metre high which – when stood on the floor – was entirely visible from behind the table.
After ordering, the three musicians made their way to the stage in front of us. Crammed atop it were four red velvet chairs that could just about fit three people. Behind them were plants of all forms, all a deep green; a botanical salad analogous to the societal metaphor. The wall behind them was the yellow of a century gone by, lined with the golden frames of photographs which bore witness to the scores of gypsy zealots who had passed through this place. Among them, innumerable portraits of Django and a street sign that read “St. Germain des Près”. By the stage was a disused fireplace inside which sat a bouquet of dry flowers, the sort that flourish in droughts. Candles lined all corners of the room, while chandeliers and fans hung brazen from the ceiling.
As the music begun, a second guitarist joined the group, perching his leg up on the stage for want of room to sit. Earlier I had overheard him speaking with the feline dame, saying he was Hungarian in somewhat broken English. It seemed somehow charming that he had come here to play a century old style of Romani-French music. As he played along, the female violinists exchanged solos before handing over the honours to the men’s curiously shaped guitars. The music resembled courteous small talk caught in a four-way flirt.
A slow shadow swept over my left shoulder. Three seasoned ladies made their way to the dining table closest to the stage. The eldest marked a frail figure beneath a hefty black coat. When she reached the table and removed her covering, the golden lights from the ceiling reflected on the purple sequins of her dress. She wore a silver necklace and a spectacular turquoise ring. There was a look of rejuvenation in her eyes. Perhaps this music had been her passion in younger years. If it is so nostalgic to someone of our time, I can only imagine how it might feel to someone who lived it during its prime.
Soon thereafter, more people started to arrive and the air filled with commotion as the jam went on. Like the ladies before, now a massive upright bass crept past my left shoulder and joined the song midway, suddenly giving it new character. The smell of delicious stew flew from the kitchen. The waiter came back, “another Leffe, sir?” and more musicians approached the stage.
After a couple of drinks, while searching for the gents’ I discovered a beer garden at the back. The walls were worn and decorated with murals of art nouveau. A straw hat that hung on one of the walls had been converted into a bird house. Later when I left I would notice a banner outside announcing an “exotic oasis and tropical patio”. This must be the place.
The ambience was intoxicating, as perhaps our dinner too. I felt an impulse to write down what was happening on the nearest piece of paper, as the beer might later betray my memory. While I wrote through another drink, half the musicians had been replaced by twice as many more. It seemed I had underestimated the gussed up stage. A third guitarist found a way to capitalize on the fourth chair, while an accordion player whose instrument read “Victoria” sat at the front. One of the lady violinists was now replaced by a lad in his late teens with unkempt hair, wearing denim on denim and Nikes that looked like Vans. The bassist, whose curled goatee must have been longer than my beer glass, waved his hand in circles at a friend offering to relay the rhythm section.
The musicianship on display that night was as much an exhibition of virtuosity as an exercise in endurance. When one guitarist dropped his pick, his absence was immediately noticeable through the thicket of the six-strong sound that reverberated from the hollow bodied instruments. Everyone played in unison at a dizzying speed. At times the violins were strummed like mandolins, making way to a frenzy of six-stringed resonance.
After a few songs, the bassist put his piece down, revealing an armful of tattoos as he clutched his music book. When the band resumed, they did so with a more solemn sound, marking the departure of the booming absentee. After a moment of silence, the first guitarist swung a sentimental tone reducing the tempo to a fraction. For a moment it felt like listening to the morning radio through the kitchen doorway and as the beer ebbed through my corpus I remembered this place was an island in time. Decked in the décor of the era, infused with the sound of nostalgia. An exotic oasis as promised from the outside, right in the heart of Battersea.
One jam ended beautifully with the two remaining violinists caught in a soft duet which enthralled the others to a rest. A burst of applause prefaced the burning pace of the next song. Howls came from the crowd and fists stomped on the tables. The smell of coffee at ten past ten. The room was on fire!
The music hardly stopped the whole night. If anything, they just seemed to play faster and faster as the hours went on, squared off against the night as if refusing sleep. The bearded bassist slapped his strings, nearly snapping them off. The others formed gangs, three guitars ripping through one riff, two violinists another, one lone accordion standing its ground. When the flurry was over, the newest guitarist in the group, the fourth that night, panted.
Breaking the pace, the group got started on ‘Blue Drag’. This shot my heart back a few strides. This was one of the first songs I had heard of Django. I remembered the mornings digging through my father’s jazz collection during breakfast, memories now infused with the taste of toast and coffee.
I left the place having written on the back of seven flyers, each advertising a seemingly unique performance on nearly every night of the week. On the 10th and 11th of June, the Moscow Drug Club would blend “1930s Berlin cabaret, hot club de France, New Orleans funeral parade & gypsy campfire songs”. Among numerous Parisian cabaret performances would pass the Kalotaszeg Trio from the Carpathian forests of Transilvania on the 14th. Come the 18th, The Boomtown Swingalings would be bringing the “sweet sounds of swing” to life down the Battersea joint. Finally, on the 24th, Paprika, a Balkan super-group “flying the folk flag for a largely anonymous code of music” would grace the stage after having passed through Glastonbury festival, Edinburgh Fringe and Royal Albert Hall.
Dinner is served from 6 until 10 and judging by the amount of couples in the audience, it seems like a perfect place to surprise your better half. Cover costs around £10 depending on the evening, though of course the jam nights on Tuesdays are free and open to anyone with the spirit of Django.
42-44 Battersea High Street, SW11 3HX