by Annie Alleman
Paul Mehling was 6 years old when he saw The Beatles perform on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
Even at that young age, he was a music lover, having been exposed to his father's vast record collection since birth. But seeing the Fab Four on TV was like getting hit by a bolt of lightning — suddenly he knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
Fast forward a bunch of years, and that's exactly what he is doing — with a twist. Mehling is the leader of Hot Club of San Francisco, and he's bringing his band to Glen Ellyn this weekend. Hot Club of San Francisco performs at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Playhouse Theatre at the McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.
Mehling has been dubbed the godfather of American gypsy jazz, having discovered the music of Django Reinhardt and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France in grammar school.
He was born in Denver and grew up in California. He picked up the guitar after hearing The Beatles, and learned how to play rock, classical, swing — you name it. He wasn't satisfied, he said, until he heard the music of Django Reinhardt, who was playing jazz music with three guitars.
"Without certain people in history, especially in art, certain movements would never have happened. Certain people feel that, for instance, without Louis Armstrong, there would be no jazz at all," he said. "Now in France, nobody was really playing jazz in the 1930s. American musicians would go and play there in concert, but there was nobody playing jazz in France because it's a language and you learn it from other people that speak the language."
To remedy that situation, the French decided that a cultural exchange was in order, Mehling said. The solution was to have a French band open for the jazz musicians who came to France.
"The short version of the story is, Django Reinhardt was a gypsy who listened to American jazz by way of radio broadcast mostly, and seeing American bands when they came to France or Europe," he said. "Really, Django created his own style of jazz we call gypsy jazz because Django was a gypsy, he was born in a gypsy wagon. He was a nomad, he was a wandered, a very free spirit. He just wanted to play like an American jazz artist. So he started his band, called the Hot Club of France. And that's where we get our name — the Hot Club of San-FRAN-cisco."
Mehling got a lot of pushback in the early years of the band, from club owners and promoters who thought the name was too cumbersome and too much of an esoteric joke, he said.
Thirty years later and the joke's on them. Now, there are many, many bands emulating the style of Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club of San Francisco.
"The style basically is acoustic string jazz," he said. "It's like stringed instruments playing jazz, which is kind of unusual."
He learned how to play in that style, even going to France and "chasing down gypsies," he said.
The music "has something for everyone," he said. "It's got romance, it's got mystery, it's got sentimental value; and it's extremely hot and courageous and kind of show-offy. It's extremely balanced music; it appeals to everybody."
His band started off with friends and attracted interested musicians over the years, he said. The current edition of the Hot Club of San Francisco has been together for five years, anchored by Mehling and the violinist Evan Price. The band is rounded out by Isabelle Fontaine, Jeff Magidson, Sam Rocha and Jordan Samuels.
Fontaine, a native of France, was a fan of the band and is the wife of an ex-band member before coming aboard herself.
"She's our main rhythm guitarist and our French singer," Mehling said. "It's great having her."
The band has 13 albums under its belt and is about to make the 14th, he said. It's going to be an album of all Beatles tunes.
"We're doing it a little bit at a time," he said. "We're working at it very slowly because we want to get it right. We've recorded a few things ... it's an ongoing process. Hopefully it will be out by the end of summer. We're very excited about this record."
They try to cover every tune Reinhardt ever wrote, as well as some originals and some tunes "from the 1930s that Django didn't record but we wish he had," Mehling said.
That being said, Mac audiences will hear a show called "Postcards From Gypsyland," which includes originals, covers and maybe some Beatles tunes too.
"It's sort of a kaleidoscope of different things in the gypsy jazz style," he said.
He hopes to raise consciousness of Django Reinhardt and the style of music in the process, he said.
"We also try to turn people on to the idea of jazz is a really fun kind of music," he said. "A lot of people think they don't like jazz because maybe they aren't smart enough or they don't understand it. Jazz is an American invention and something they should be proud of and enjoy, not push to the side of their plate like vegetables."
Annie Alleman is a freelance writer.
Hot Club of San Francisco
When: Friday and Saturday
Where: McAninch Arts Center, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn
Information: 630-942-4000; www.atthemac.org
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