Boulou and Elios Ferré: In the Footsteps of Django
By Michael Dregni
Boulou Ferré’s hands read like a resume. His fingers tell of his four decades of playing Gypsy swing and cutting-edge jazz guitar: Each finger of his left hand is wider at the tip than at the base, ending in blunt, thick calluses that are as leathery and hard as a drumhead. These calluses are a testament to the life of a musician, who was inspired to play guitar since he was seven.
Today, Boulou is in his late forties and still playing guitar with an inspired ferocity. Alongside his younger brother, Elios, the duo have been an inseparable team, releasing numerous albums of primarily acoustic jazz, influenced equally by the traditions of jazz manouche and be-bop, by Django Reinhardt and Charlie Parker.
Playing two North American tours in 1997, we met up at their hotel in St. Paul, Minnesota. Our conversation took place just before their show at the Dakota Bar during one of the worst blizzards of the decade. With the roads all but impassable, only diehard fans ventured out on such a night; still, the crowd filled the bar and sold out the show.
Playing electric guitars on this tour and on their new CD, New York, New York, the duo are still going strong after some three decades. Elios is suave and sophisticated in a double-breasted navy blazer, coaxing bouncing runs of intricate rhythm basslines and chords from his ES-175. Boulou is still the same old Boulou, his fingers a blur across the fretboard of his ES-345; as he strikes a playful note in his solo, he smiles a trademark mischievous Ferré smile—an identical smile to that of his father, jazz guitarist Jean “Matelo” Ferret, as seen in ancient photographs from the days when he played with Django’s famous Quintette du Hot Club de France.
A Dynasty of Guitarists
The brothers Ferré are descendants of what is probably the greatest family dynasty of guitarists ever. Along with their father, their uncles, Pierre “Baro” and Étienne “Sarane” Ferret, were also guitar players. A driving force in the development of the fabulous French musette music, Matelo and Baro went on to play guitar with Django in his Hot Club quintet; as one of Django’s rhythm guitarists, Baro appeared on dozens of Hot Club sides.
Boulou is justly proud of his family’s dynasty. As he is quoted in Ian Cruickshank’s book Django’s Gypsies: The Mystique of Django Reinhardt and His People: “The link between Django and my family is an artistic one. Django, with my father and my uncles, was a bit like the Pope and his bishops. Something like a trinity, religious and ritualistic.”
The Ferrets are Gypsies, but the family settled in Paris in the first half of this century to be at the source of the bal-musette and jazz hot culture in the Paris night clubs. Baro (1908-1976) and Matelo (1918-1989) first became proficient on banjo before the guitar usurped the banjo’s place. They found slots in bands playing Gypsy music and the fledgling strains of musette, and became part of the avant garde French movement blending traditional Gypsy music with the new sounds of American jazz.
Matelo soon took the place of the legendary Gypsy guitarist and composer Gusti Malha at the side of accordeonist Emile Vacher, and also accompanied Gypsy accordionist Vétese Guérino. Over the years, Baro, Sarane, and Matelo waxed numerous 78s as sidemen behind musette stars such as Gus Viseur, Jo Privat, and others.
Baro, Sarane, and Matelo played together as well as fronting their own groups. And while Django has become famous for his virtuoso style, many guitarists consider Matelo Ferret an equally fascinating, if lesser known, player for his wide range of adventurous, melodic solos and modern, be-bop-like phrasing.
European Gypsy families have long encouraged their children to excel at music. In the days when Gypsy families traveled by caravan, many children never went to school, instead learning the ways of the world from their elders. With a long tradition of music behind them, there have been numerous Gypsy child guitar prodigies, from Django, who played banjo in the Paris night clubs as a youth, to the Ferré brothers, Biréli Lagrène, and on to a new generation in Stochelo Rosenberg of the Rosenberg Trio and his cousin Jimmy Rosenberg of Sinti fame.
Jean-Jacques “Boulou” Ferré was born in 1951, and took up guitar at age seven under his father’s tutelage. Elie “Elios” Ferré was born in 1956, and followed in his brother’s footsteps. And while their father’s generation spelled the family name “Ferret,” the brothers modernized the spelling to “Ferré.”
Like their father and uncles, the brothers were inspired by Django’s music: “Django was a guru for all of us,” as Boulou said. “A master… we listened to him all the time—it’s part of our history, our world, our culture, our lifestyle.” In fact, Django may be even more than that: For a people spread throughout the world in a diaspora with no government, no homeland, and no promised land, Django is one of the few Gypsy heroes, a cultural icon, especially to European Gypsies.
Along with Django’s music, Boulou was also inspired by that of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He listened to their records, transcribed their solos, and added the be-bop sensibility to the music of his father. “Our father told us he was going to teach us the history of jazz, and not only swing,” Boulou remembers.
At 8, he gave his first concert and appeared on his first record, backing famous French singer Jean Ferrat (no relation). The singer’s A&R man was so impressed by Boulou that he signed him to a four-year record contract. In 1963, Boulou enrolled in the Conservatoire National de Paris, and began the first of many years of classical training.
Boulou released his first record as a leader, Bluesette, when he was 12, but his first album to gain notice, Jazz/Left Bank, came when he was 14. As pianist Marian McPhartland wrote in Downbeat, “His attack is percussive—he plays fiercely and intensely, sounding sure of himself—quite articulate, and he possesses excellent technique. This young musician has a lot to say, and he has plenty of time to grow and develop at his own rate of speed. He shows great promise for the future.”
When he was 13, Boulou played at the Antibes–Juan Les Pins Jazz Festival, trading lines with John Coltrane. After his set, the youthful Gypsy guitarist cornered the veteran African-American saxophone giant and queried him with his few words of English, “‘Is it good what I am doing?’” Boulou remembers asking. “And he said to me, ‘You must continue playing with your passion.’ He gave me phrases to play, and all my life I have continued playing them.”
Elios shared his brother’s passions but was also enamored with the other strain of Gypsy guitar, flamenco. He too entered the Conservatoire, receiving classical training as well as studying with flamenco master Francisco Gil. Elios gave his first concert when he was 13.
In 1969, Elios became entranced by Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?, but even melding all of these disparate influences, it was still through Django that the Ferré brothers saw the world of music. As Elios says, speaking first in French, then switching to English to emphasize his point: “Django Reinhardt is the greatest guitarist in the world. I like all of the famous American and English guitarists, but my hero is Django, all of my life.”
In 1978, the brothers joined forces as a guitar duo, trading solos and rhythm lines. Through the years, this duo has endured, but they have also played with other musicians. Boulou played alongside Dexter Gordon and T-Bone Walker when they toured France and was also a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s quartet. Elios played with Larry Coryell and others.
In 1979, while playing at the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark, the brothers met Nils Winther, producer for the Danish jazz label, Steeplechase. At Winther‘s invitation, the brothers recorded their first album together, Pour Django, released that same year.
The album takes Django’s music to extremes of emotion, melody, and rhythm. The brothers’ version of “Douce Ambiance” is magical and eloquent; their “Rythme Futur” goes beyond what even Django could have imagined of jazz’s future. The finale, “Michto Pelo” by Boulou, is a gypsy fandango that goes on for seven wild minutes. All in all, Pour Django is probably the most adventurous Gypsy jazz record ever.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the brothers continued to release records, all on Steeplechase (see the accompanying discography). Boulou and Elios have experimented with different band arrangements—from their duo to trios and a quartet—and added drums, piano, and horns at times.
Through all the changes in jazz fashion in the last three decades, Boulou and Elios have remained largely faithful to their Selmer guitars, the same acoustics favored by Django, Matelo, and Baro. In addition, the Ferré brothers admire the guitars of Favino, father and son, and note that Maurice Dupont’s guitars are also finely crafted. But at a time when many other Gypsy musicians are trading in their guitares italien in favor of Gibson archtops, the distinct sound of the Ferré’s acoustic guitars is symbolic of their music, bridging the styles of the Hot Club and be-bop.
On their current CD, New York, New York, the duo experiment with electric guitars, and the result is a jazz sound that is more mainstream—or at least, more American.
While he does not apologize for playing electric, Boulou still remains a proponent of his Selmer: “You must learn to play acoustic guitar first. But electric guitar is also great because it allows you more coloring to your music.”
Defining his music remains difficult, however. Boulou sums up his influences: “The music we are playing is based on American music—the music of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Christian. This music is blended with French jazz music.
“My two musical heroes are, for the piano, Art Tatum, and for the guitar, Django Reinhardt.” Boulou also likes the guitarwork of Tal Farlow, Wes Montgomery, and George Benson, the later a common hero of French Gypsy jazz guitarists. Still, it is Django’s music that speaks to him: “If I was stuck on a desert island with my heroes, there would be four: Mozart, Handel, Shakespeare, and Django.”
Elios hears Django’s influences as well: “If you really want to play great music, music from the heart, you must get your inspiration from the greats, such as Django.”
Yet Elios is also cautious about simply mimicking the Hot Club music, as some jazz manouche bands are doing today in the current renaissance of the music. Elios warns, “Django’s music is good but it is also dangerous, because jazz is a living music and one cannot simply copy and recreate it but must step beyond it and make it new. To play jazz you must be playing your own music, your own feelings. So you must start with the history and develop it, like a torch handed on from Django to you.”
Elios sees no reason to recreate Django and the Hot Club’s music—or the music of his father and his uncles: “It’s better to listen to the original,” he says. And he adds, half in jest, “It doesn’t mean anything to copy or imitate: You could be arrested for stealing.”
For several years in the late 1990s, Boulou and Elios did not return to the studio, instead playing festivals, Parisian jazz clubs, and the city’s famous Russian cabarets. Boulou also found a new love, playing organ for a Parisian church, listening to the deep sound of the pipes reverberating off the ancient stone walls.
In 2002, Boulou and Elios returned with a vengeance with the album Intersection (La Lichère). Their guitars were backed guitars are joined by the piano of Guadeloupe’s Alain Jean-Marie, creating a warm, intimate trio. Jean-Marie is the perfect foil to the brothers: His piano work shows the influence of Django in his driving arpeggios and modulations of tones.
Again, the brothers’ sources of inspiration are universal: tunes by Django, Bach, Charlie Parker, Lee Konitz, and a pair of originals. But these are just starting points for their interpretations and improvisations.
Boulou’s creativity appears boundless. He reworks themes with a ferocious inspiration that is the most valuable part of Django’s legacy. Elios is more grounded in a song’s theme but is equally creative in exploring a melody’s nuances.
The standout song here is the short three-four-time valse “La bande des trois,” dedicated to Matelo, Baro, and Sarane. Following the avant garde bebop waltzes of Baro from the 1940s, Boulou has crafted a modern jazz tune in waltz form that is startling in its audacious time structure and surprising melody. With this song and new album, Boulou and Elios again prove that there is no one like them anywhere in the world.
In 2003, Boulou and Elios followed up with The Rainbow of Life (Bee Jazz) with the simple accompaniment of pianist Alain Jean-Marie and bassist Gilles Naturel. Like the duo’s past albums, there is a surfeit of creativity and inspiration in each track. They cover songs by Gypsy violinist Georges Boulanger, American jazzmen Lee Konitz and Lennie Tristano as well as Ennio Morricone’s “Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti,” all suffused with a refined sensibility filtered through their acoustic Selmer guitars. On Eddie Durham’s “Topsy”—a tune played by Django—they turn swing into bebop and then take it a step further.
It’s all in the best Ferré tradition.