Small, overcrowded cafés reeking of sweaty, noisy expectation. Tobacco smoke veils the small stage in the corner where a quartet plays the final bars of a Django Reinhardt waltz. Shouts of "Encore!" from the tables. A young couple, in love with life and each other, stand on their chairs and raise their glasses to the ceiling.
Montparnasse on a hot May night, heads giddy with the scent from the Luxembourg gardens? No, Oslo on an ice-cold night in November when your joints ache with cold until you come into the warmth.
Oslo, of all places, has become a stringswing metropolis thanks to Hot Club de Norvège, a vital quartet of young men who have been playing together for 16 years. They organise a Django festival each year, inviting stringswinging guests from all over the world and playing to full houses. They also run the small, high quality recording company Hot Club Records, which has produced more than 100 discs in twelve years. And behind it all bubbles the enthusiastic idealism of Jon Larsen (35).
Jon Larsen decided to be a guitarist at the age of ten. He practised five hours a day to old Django Reinhardt records. Stringswing requires enormous precision; theory and expertise must combine to emerge with vital spontaneity. Jon Larsen started Hot Club de Norvège with some childhood friends. They toured the country many times and become popular favourites - and when they wanted to make a record they decided they might just as well start their own recording company. Who else would produce stringswing records with a group of young lads who should really be rock guitarists?
Their charm and love of music led to their being asked to play on singer/guitarist Lillebjørn Nilsen's record Tanta til Beate (Beate's Aunty), which was an immediate hit and has even been included in school textbooks. They reached an even wider audience playing cameos for programme breaks on Norwegian TV. Now getting hold of a ticket for one of their concerts requires considerable patience and ingenuity. One peculiarity, which has become their trade mark, is their ability to gather four generations under the same roof as if it were the most natural thing in the world!
Paris, where Django Reinhardt lived and played and where gypsy traditions are an important element of the musical melting pot, is still the stringswing capital of the world. Hot Club de Norvège often play there, to “drink from the source”. They have toured all over Europe, the USA and South America. When they were on a three-week tour of Japan, they were met by the Tokyo Hot Club Band - who knew all their tunes by heart!
Hot Club Records became a refuge for music the established recording companies found too risky to produce. Several of the artists who made their debut with the company have later joined the elite, such as guitarist Knut Reiersrud and Sami artist Mari Boine. The company's most impressive production so far was the series “The Original Vintage Guitars”, which has been exported to twenty countries. Releases featuring Petro Ivanovitch, Stochelo Rosenberg, Joseph Reinhardt (Django's brother and musical partner), Matelo/Ferret, the Gipsy Strings and Svend Stiberg & Svenska Hotkvintetten demonstrate an enlightened selection process.
Of course, Django himself is represented too, but perhaps the greatest joy is the collection of four CDs covering the complete repertoire of Robert Normann, the grand old man of Norwegian guitar music. The project has taken ten years to complete and the recordings cover the period from 1938 to 1989. The company aims to be the foremost producer of Django music, stringswing, gypsy jazz, jazz manouche and related forms. All the recordings are of high quality and include comprehensive booklets.
Pausing to draw breath, I realise I still haven't told you about the annual Django festival. “It can't be described, it has to be experienced,” is the best advice from the Hot Club' chief. When the jazz world celebrated Django's 80th birthday in 1990, only Paris had more visitors than the Oslo clubs.
Hot Club de Norvège has been on the hit charts, received the Norwegian Grammy Award and plays for full houses. The recording company doesn't earn much, but it has become an institution for music-lovers all over the world. And all because an enthusiast had a dream when he was ten years old.