Hot Djang! The kings of gypsy jazz
Hot Djang! made its first appearance at Nighttown in early November. The Cleveland band, which includes two musicians who live in Cleveland Heights, describes its music as “gypsy jazz,” a style developed by guitarist Django Reinhardt in Paris during the 1930s. The show, which was truly entertaining, also included some jazz and swing standards from the American songbook.
Brad Smedley, one of the group’s guitarists, came up with the idea for the band after attending a workshop about Reinhardt's music at Smith College in Massachusetts a few years ago. “I was never more blown away in my life,” Smedley said. “All of the top gypsy-jazz guitarists were there, and I thought I could either work hard and try to learn to play like this, or I could just quit.”
Beachwood resident Smedley, who’s 58, has been playing music for most of his life. He began taking piano lessons when he was five years old, and when he was in junior high, he started playing saxophone. Then, after discovering Bob Dylan, he decided to take up the guitar and he focused on playing folk, bluegrass and country music. He attended the 1981 Kent State Folk Festival and heard the Balfa Brothers, a Cajun band. “I started looking into Cajun music, and I found some recordings at the Heights Library,” he said. “Then I bought an accordion and learned how to play the music.” He formed a Cajun band called Stand by You in 1983. Before breaking up in the late '80s, Stand by You played around the country, including shows in New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Smedley’s next band was the Zydeco Dependents. “Zydeco is sort of a louder version of Cajun music,” Smedley said. “It incorporates the blues and rhythm & blues into the Cajun style.” The Zydeco Dependents lasted about four years, and then Smedley formed a Cajun trio called Acadian Driftwood, which played the Barking Spider and other Cleveland-area venues.
After attending the Django Reinhardt workshop, he decided to form Hot Djang! The group’s initial lineup included Smedley on guitar, Kevin Richards on lead guitar, Reed Simon on violin and Bryan Thomas on acoustic bass. Both Simon and Richards live in Cleveland Heights, and Richards is the founder and director of the Cleveland Heights-based organization Roots of American Music, which takes local musicians into schools in Northeast Ohio to teach students about music and other subjects, using the music.
The band came up with its name during one of its first rehearsals. “Reed was playing a violin solo, and one of the people in the room said, ‘Hot dang! You are amazing!’,” Smedley said. “Then I said, ‘Wait, it’s not hot dang, it’s hot Djang!,’ after Django Reinhardt.” The group recently added a clarinetist, Eric Seddon, to its lineup. At the Nighttown show, Sheela Das, who also works with Roots of American Music, joined the group on vocals, and Ray DeForest, who’s also a Cleveland Heights resident, played bass.
In addition to covering gypsy-jazz classics, Hot Djang! also plays a few original songs, including “Temptation Is Calling” and “Roamin’ the Blues,” both of which were written by Richards, and “King’s Highway,” by Seddon. The band hopes to release its first CD sometime next year.
Hot Djang! plays at Rockefeller’s on Mayfield Road in Cleveland Heights the third Friday of every month. In addition, they have a show booked at the Secret Cellar in Kent on Dec. 5, and they also have some appearances at the Barking Spider planned for early next year.
James Henke, a Cleveland Heights resident, was a writer and editor at Rolling Stone magazine for 15 years. He is also the author of several books, including biographies of Jim Morrison, John Lennon and Bob Marley.