Jenny Scheinman points out that the famed Gypsy Jazz Band has a distinct regional flavor. In her words, “The Hot Club of San Francisco is a key aspect of San Francisco culture… It is an expression of San Francisco’s bohemian whimsy and its strong cultural ties to France. Like the Coit Tower or the clown on Pier 39, it’s a cultural icon.”
At 30th anniversary in 2019. The HCSF, formed by the guitarist Paul Mehling, has seen a number of personnel changes over the years, particularly in the violin chair, due to the influx of regular members and replacements. Despite these changes, the band has remained true to its sound, which is influenced by, but does not mimic, the legendary Quintette du Hot Club de France, which featured Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt and French violinist Stéphane Grappelli. The band is rooted in French Manouche Roma swing and Gypsy jazz.
The HCSF has released 15 albums to date, including a Christmas CD and the 2016 release John, Paul, George & Django, which included violinist Evan Price, formerly of the Turtle Island Quartet, on a compilation of Gypsy-flavored Beatles tracks.
First heard on their 1993 self-titled debut, which is being released this autumn for the group’s 30th anniversary as a reissue of the original album. “Sweet Chorus” and “Improvisation No. 2” by Reinhardt and Grappelli appear only on that seminal record, which features violinist Ray Landsberg. Original compositions and jazz classics by Jimmy Rowles, Benny Goodman, and James P. Johnson are also included. Maria Muldaur and Dan Hicks, two of Americana music’s best-known vocalists, perform as special guests.
Violinists like Scheinman and Price, as well as others like Jeremy Cohen, Andy Stein, Johnny Frigo, Paul Shelasky and Hanna Mignano and Tracy Silverman have been in and out of the band throughout the years.
When Dan Hicks and the Acoustic Warriors disbanded, HCSF was born as a spin-off. As Mehling remembers, “We’d start with a Django piece, with rhythm and solo guitars, bass and violin, all acoustic.” “It was swishy, cool, fascinating, and a lot of fun. As a result of Dan’s encouragement, I created a couple original songs and a few arrangements.” Brian Godchaux was the violinist in question at the time. Soon after, Mehling and Godchaux made the decision to form their own Django band. After Godchaux’s departure, a clarinet was used in place of the violin, bringing a deeper, jazzier sound. But when violinist Julian Smedley joined the band, everything changed. Mehling describes his voice as “pure Grappelli.” In response, the clarinetist said,
“Well, that man has the tone you’re looking for, so I suppose I’m out.”
While it was always prepared to take a chance with newcomers, the violinist’s chair is always the most visible. As a young musician, Scheinman says, “I had an emotive, raw tone and very little of the distinctive Stéphane Grappelli vocabulary.” It’s true that there have been more flashy and historically informed fiddlers in the past. As for vocalists, “Steven Strauss (who also played bass) and Silvia Herald (who also played rhythm guitar) are two of my all-time favorites. They’re both fantastic, and they always made us flourish.”
When it comes to keeping the HCSF alive, Cohen thinks Mehling’s vision and ability to bring in the best musicians has been a major factor. “Gypsy jazz is alive and thriving because of Paul’s steadfast commitment to the genre, as well as his passion toward moving the heritage forward by creating, organizing, and releasing new material,” Cohen explains. Success in the music industry demands nothing less than a champion, and Paul has championed HCSF despite all of the seismic developments in the music industry over all these years with an iron desire to persevere and prosper.”
Price points out that the Hot Club of San Francisco’s sound combines heart, intelligence, and guts in equal measure, in addition to the band’s high degree of musicianship and the innately appealing elements of its music. According to him: “We have never lost sight of our duty as entertainers.” Each performance is a meticulously planned, a balanced banquet of pleasure, melancholy, comedy, predictability, and surprise. We want to please both our viewers and ourselves with our work. That applies to both live and recorded performances.