A Gypsy Jazz Journey
Brian Torff looks back on collaborating with legends
Torff strums away on his bass, practicing some new music in his Fairfield University office.
Photo by Ryan Lavine
Perched on a shelf of a floor-to-ceiling bookcase in Brian Torff’s office at Fairfield University and surrounded by an extensive collection of CDs and books are two photos. Together, they suggest that Torff is a good deal more than a longtime popular music educator at Fairfield, and a noted national authority on the Gypsy jazz of the legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt, who influenced such luminaries as Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, and BB King. Torff is also a jazz bassist himself who—in the course of the past four decades—has played some of the world’s largest stages with an array of important musicians, including the great jazz pianists Erroll Garner and George Shearing and celebrated bandleader Benny Goodman.
The first photo, from 1986, depicts Torff onstage at Carnegie Hall beside the pre-eminent jazz vocalist Frank Sinatra. It’s an encounter that, to this day, Torff remembers with a sense of happy astonishment. In the second image, a decidedly younger looking Torff—with shaggy dark hair and a well-kept beard, at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1977, is standing next to a musician who would have a profound effect on the trajectory of Torff’s career.
Though he was in the twilight of his career when the photo was taken, renowned French musician Stephane Grappelli had lost none of his virtuosity. Grappelli, a pioneering violinist in his own right, was also a major early artistic collaborator of Reinhardt, with whom he formed a band known as the Hot Club Quintet. He would function as the young Torff’s entree into the fascinating world of Reinhardt and Gypsy jazz.
“Django was so far ahead of his time as a guitarist. He was really the first to be able to play fluent solos, not just chords. Jazz guitar was usually a background instrument because it wasn’t loud enough, it couldn’t compete with drums and horns,” says Torff from his office in a recent interview. “Once you heard his recordings, you realized there’s a whole language that this guy is playing on guitar that no one had really heard before.”
On the road with Grappelli, Torff began to learn that complex language. “Django and Stephane are the first European jazz musicians to find their own voice. They took the American form and did their own thing with it,” Torff explains. “Now people are taking jazz all over the world. But they were really the first to say it’s not just American music, it’s a universal music.”
Torff’s involvement with Grappelli led to a lifelong fascination with Reinhardt.
Beginning in 2002, Torff served as musical director of the Django Reinhardt New York Festival and played with the Django Reinhardt All Stars, a group that reinterpreted the fast fingerpicking and “hot swing” of the legend in a modern context.
Torff credits his passion for music to his upbringing. During his childhood in the early 1960s in a Chicago suburb, his father, a lawyer, would play everything from opera to jazz to classical on their home stereo. As a teen, by which point he had dabbled with piano and guitar and had dedicated himself to bass, Torff became transfixed by rockers like Jimi Hendrix and Cream, as well as bands fusing rock and jazz, like Chicago and Weather Report, which opened Torff’s eyes to the freedom of playing jazz. “Jazz was like another world. It opened up all sorts of possibilities for me in music,” Torff says. Indeed it did. By the age of 20, Torff had played his first show at Carnegie Hall. Barely a year later, he was touring with Grappelli.
“There’s nothing like playing with the source. It’s one thing to play Muddy Waters’ tunes, but it’s not the same as playing with Muddy Waters,” Torff says of the early thrill of performing with Grappelli. “He was the first guy I worked with in the Django style. And who better to work with than the guy who was there, the guy who helped create it?”
Though Torff left the Django-festival directorship in 2015 to focus on other artistic projects, the influence of the “hot club style” associated with Reinhardt and Grappelli persists in his playing.
IN THE ARENA Brian Torff spends his days in front of a Fairfield U classroom, and many nights jamming with top jazz musicians.