Interview with Marcel Loeffler, Manouche accordionist 8 November 2013

by Siv B. Lie

Siv B. Lie | Photo of Marcel Loeffler | photograph | France | March 26, 2014 | mus_00200 Rights held by: Siv B. Lie | Licensed by: Siv B. Lie | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Siv B. Lie – Private Archive

‘That’s something very positive for us Manouches, to know that this music now exists throughout the world. Not just in France, not just in Alsace, but throughout the world now.’

Marcel Loeffler

SL: What does the term ‘jazz manouche’ mean for you?

In fact, in itself, [jazz manouche] doesn’t mean much. But it’s all the better for us [Manouches] that this word exists now.

ML: The word jazz manouche, in fact, has not existed for very long. Before, during Django Reinhardt’s time, the word jazz manouche didn’t exist. It came much later, beginning in the 1990s. Before, in any case, it was a form of jazz because Django Reinhardt played with a lot of Americans. He borrowed many American standards. Following that, he invented this style that corresponded to what he wanted to do. When he played an American standard, he really knew how to make it his own, as if it belonged to him. He [was] one of the only musicians, I believe, of the last century, who knew how to distinguish himself in relation to American jazz. [...]

Today, if there is this music [jazz manouche], it’s only thanks to him. People have always qualified it as French jazz, in fact, before jazz manouche. In fact, in itself, [jazz manouche] doesn’t mean much. But it’s all the better for us [Manouches] that this word exists now. [...] As long as we play this form of jazz, I would rather call it French jazz. It’s the only meaning that you can use today if you don’t want to associate yourself with American music. Today, there are so many people who play this music. It’s really saturated. There are a lot of people, [as far as] the United States, in England.

SL: Yes, yes, of course. As you have certainly seen, during tours and all that, there are a lot of people interested in this music.

ML: Yes, enormously [interested]. You also have to know that Django was in the United States. He played with Duke Ellington at that time, at Carnegie Hall. He didn’t have a huge career there since he messed up a little then, because he arrived late to Carnegie Hall and Duke Ellington didn’t really appreciate that. [...] Django had met his friend [French boxer] Michel Cerdan, with whom he played billiards in New York. So he preferred to stay with him. He forgot to go to Carnegie Hall.


SL: How did you begin to listen to and play these styles of music?

ML: In fact, I started the accordion at five years old.

SL: That’s early!

ML: Yes. And then, from there, my father taught me. I never had a teacher. My father showed me tunes, just like that.

SL: Was he also an accordionist?

ML: No, a guitarist. But he knew his way around the accordion a little. He taught me tunes like that, tunes from French chanson, from musette, and all that. later, [when I was] around ten years old, I found myself with my father playing at dances. Starting then, my father started buying records of accordionists such as Gus Viseur, Jo Privat, Marcel Azzola, all these people. I would put myself in front of my record player at the time, and I would reproduce exactly what these people played, by ear, like that. So I spent many nights, even days [doing this]. Then, I started to notice that I had a potential to develop. So I took tunes that were more and more difficult and reproduced them. It became easier and easier. After that, my father bought more and more records for me, records that were very famous at the time, just by Gus Visuer, Marcel Azzola, and Jo Privat. It was from then on that I devoted myself to this music. You could even say that from age ten I began to play this music.

‘I’m cut out to play concerts.’

Then, I continued to play at dances with my father. Except at the dances where people wanted to dance, I couldn’t really play what I wanted to because for these people, it wasn’t danceable. It was music to listen to. That displeased me. So sometimes I’d come home and say to myself, ‘This is not what I want to do, because it’s all good if people dance, but me, I’m not cut out for that. I’m cut out to play concerts.’ I couldn’t stop playing dances all of a sudden, since I was still young at the time and I wasn’t the one to decide. My father would tell me, ‘Next Saturday there’s a dance at such and such a place, and Friday, at such and such a place,’ and I never had the choice [not] to accept.

I continued like that until I was eighteen. Then I stopped entirely with the dances and I started to form jazz ensembles. I had plenty of friends who were musicians and who listened to the same things I did. That’s when I started forming groups to play in major jazz festivals. That’s how all that happened, and since then, I’ve never stopped.

SL: You’ve certainly had a lot of success since then.

ML: Yes, yes, in the 1980s. Then, we started to tour throughout Europe, in all the major jazz festivals, with my friend Mandino Reinhardt who played guitar. We started to form groups and then went to Italy, England, Norway, Russia, Poland. That’s how I became famous.

SL: So that was with the group Sweet Chorus. I have a Sweet Chorus record that I’ve listened to for a while, but it’s not quote-unquote ‘jazz manouche,’ like you hear elsewhere. It’s really something else.

ML: Yes, yes, it was the first group I toured with at the time, playing jazz manouche, except that we had a vibraphone.

SL: That makes a huge difference in the sound.

ML: Yes, yes. There was the vibraphone, there were three guitars, there was Mandino’s brother [on guitar], and there was another rhythm guitar player, Patrick Andresz.

SL: To come back to jazz manouche: why did people adopt this term ‘jazz manouche,’ and does it mean something really different from French jazz? Maybe in terms of who this music belongs to?

ML: If you say jazz manouche now, you might believe that belongs to us, and only to us [Manouches]. So it belongs not to the French, not to anyone, just to Manouches. But in fact, that’s not necessarily true, because everyone can play this music now. Except when you hear musicians who aren’t Manouche, you still hear a difference, because we have this culture. We’ve been raised with this music, but others, they haven’t been immersed in it like we have. There have been some who have been immersed, too. But when a Manouche plays this music, there is still a difference in relation to Gadjé [non-Manouches].

SL: Is it possible to describe the difference between these sounds, or do you really have to just listen?

ML: Of course you have to listen, but there isn’t really a theoretical explanation of it. When a Manouche plays this music, you hear the soul of this music, which was of course invented by Django, who himself was Manouche. When we play today, we try as best as we can to render [the music] the way Django composed it. But not everyone has this soul that we, we say Manouches, have. There are some people who are not Manouche who play this music very well. Technically speaking, and all that, but I will say that at the level of feeling, I think you have to listen more to [music played] by Manouches. That’s my own opinion. Maybe someone else will tell you otherwise. But that’s my own opinion, and my feeling. [...]

SL: For you, if someone wants to say that they’re really Manouche, what is necessary to be able to say that?

ML: First, you have to have experienced something [with a Manouche] family, which is to say you have to have experienced parties. Because with us, there used to be a lot of parties. Whenever there was a birthday, a marriage — or even without a birthday, without a marriage, I know that in my family, there were at least two days of parties every weekend: Friday and Saturday. Everyone got together and we took out our instruments and played with my uncles, my grandparents. Everyone played guitar, violin. I was the only accordionist. Otherwise, there was only guitar, violin, sometimes double bass. But it was most often guitar [and] violin. So we played at least twice a week. They bought alcohol, beer and all that. And people played and sang. At that time, we of course played Django’s music, but we also played especially ‘Gypsy’ music. That means traditional music that comes from Eastern Europe. Our elders listened more to this music from the East than Django, because Django, even then, was much too modern for them. So they listened to Django a little bit later, around 1970, 1975 at the latest. But before, it was really Gypsy music from the East. Yoska Nemeth, Georges Boulanger, major violinists like them. They played csárdás, ‘Dark Eyes,’ violins [that make you] cry. They said that Django pleased them, but at the same time, we knew that it wasn’t their preferred music. For them, at that time, ‘Gypsy’ music was music that came from Hungary. And I know that my grandfather played violin, and that all my uncles played guitar. Back then, it was they who taught me all this music from the East, because they listened a lot and transmitted it to others. [...]

So in order to say that you’re Manouche, you have to know how to speak the language. You have to experience all that I’ve told you, parties, music, culture. And also, back then, we were poor, we didn’t have a lot of money. But that was part of our culture at the time, because my mother and my father, they had to resell used goods. My father, he sold scrap metal, and all that means that we lived we lived a bit precariously back then. But later, things got much better because we played more and more music, and my father also worked in construction.

‘There are a lot of people who say that they have a culture with Manouche origins. When I hear that, it makes me laugh a little, because in a way it’s a selling point.’

To be able to say that you’re Manouche, you can’t just say it like that, ‘I’m Manouche.’ Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who say that they have a culture with Manouche origins. When I hear that, it makes me laugh a little, because in a way it’s a selling point, you understand? These are people who want to sell themselves. They start a group, they try to play Django’s music, and that’s how they come to sell themselves better. If today, you start a quote-unquote ‘normal’ jazz group – piano, bass, drums – it’s very difficult to sell because there are many, many [of them]. Whereas if you start a group with guitars, violin, accordion, and if you call it ‘Gypsy,’ or I don’t know, ‘Gypsy Planet,’ commercially, it sells much better. But that doesn’t mean that the people who play it are Manouche, and yet there are many people who take advantage of [the Manouche label] to sell [themselves.] And that’s what, personally, I find not good. [...]

Then you see now a lot of very good Manouche musicians who don’t play very much anymore because there have been so many others who came after, who aren’t Manouche, and sell themselves like that, with the word ‘Gypsy.’ And then they are of course less expensive than we are. So people fall into that trap.


SL: Have you ever lived in a caravan?

ML: No. But my whole family, all my grandparents, they all travelled [i.e. lived itinerantly in caravans]. Before, my whole family traveled in roulottes [old-fashioned wooden caravans]. They were persecuted at the time, so they couldn’t stay for very long on a terrain [a designated plot for caravans], for example. They travelled across Alsace, but no further. During the war they were detained in internment camps, and when they returned to Alsace, they stopped travelling. It was only before the war that they travelled. After the war, everyone found work, everyone bought houses, and everyone became sedentary.


SL: In Alsace, how do Manouches and Gadjé get along?

ML: There is still racism here. There are racist people, and there are good people here. There are really both. Me, I’ve had fewer problems with racism [than some other Manouches], but I have suffered from it too, when I was younger. Since I have a notoriety now, people see me like a star. [...] In fact, the people who are racist, even if they are racist against a people, if they see someone who is famous who is a part of this people, they aren’t racist anymore. Because he’s famous, because he is cited in the media. But as soon as he is no longer famous, they become racist again. I once heard a musician say, ‘When I’m on stage, I’m a real, famous musician, and as soon as I descend from the stage, I become “Gypsy” again.’

SL: Yes. I think it was [Manouche guitarist] Angelo Debarre who said that. So do you think that with the trend of jazz manouche that happened recently, has that changed anything in terms of racism?

‘When I’m on stage, I’m a real, famous musician, and as soon as I descend from the stage, I become “Gypsy” again.’

ML: I think, still, yes. [...] As soon as there is a jazz manouche concert, there’s really, really a lot of people, because people love it. It’s the most accessible jazz, the easiest for a wide audience. And when there is a quote-unquote ‘intellectual’ jazz concert, people get bored a lot more quickly. [...] There have still been some very very famous people, like my cousin [Manouche guitarist] Biréli Lagrène, like Angelo Debarre, all these people, and then me, and I think that everyone brought something to this culture. That necessarily changed how people saw [us]. And it’s rather positive. But today, since the trend [of jazz manouche] has passed, we don’t know if it will come back like before. Personally, I don’t think [it will]. It’s a music that will always work, in any case. But the reason why we all toured a lot, why this music really worked well a dozen years ago, was because there was the fiftieth anniversary of Django’s death. Then there was his hundredth birthday. So that meant that everyone benefited from this trend to record, to sell themselves, and today we can’t do that anymore. I think the trend is over. The music is still the same quality even though the trend is finished.

But this music is not a question of trends because it’s such a beautiful music. Commercially it works well with everyone. [...] There are a lot of groups that have been created, who are neither professional nor Manouche, around the world. I was in Japan in 2007, and I saw some Japanese groups who played this music, and it was impressive. In the United States, it’s the same. It really impressed us. That’s something very positive for us Manouches, to know that this music now exists throughout the world. Not just in France, not just in Alsace, but throughout the world now. That’s really a very very positive thing for us.

Rights held by: Siv B. Lie | Licensed by: Siv B. Lie | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: RomArchive