What is it about Django Reinhardt’s guitar playing that so hooked you as a young musician?
Starting off as a teenager, I was into rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly. I played in a power trio with a wall of amps that terrorized the whole neighborhood. I loved the blues of Chicago’s Chess Records and the acid groups out of California. I was totally into the hippie thing and as life went on, I got the wanderlust. I traveled to Bruges, Belgium and decided to live there and began playing gigs as Tony Green and the House Rockers. Out in the city one night, I found these four guys playing gypsy jazz and the music just punched me in the face. Such virtuosity and musicianship—they totally turned my head around. I gave up the wall of amps and got myself a Selmer-style guitar.
How would you say gypsy jazz differs from other jazz styles?
Gypsy jazz has its origins with the nomadic musicians who came from all over Europe and gravitated toward urban centers. Munich. Paris. They were playing popular pieces of the day, so when the American records started coming over— bringing Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald—jazz worked its way in and soon became part of their culture. The gypsy tradition is heard in the music in how it’s phrased. It’s a language, gypsy, passed on from generation to generation, just like jazz in New Orleans.
You split your time between your native New Orleans and Italy. How does it feel it when you come back to your hometown?
I love to see the renaissance after the utter devastation of Katrina. The city is on an upward trajectory—more restaurants, more places for my musician friends to play. There’s a lot of carpetbaggers around, though.
How would you compare creating music versus paintings?
It’s the same process. It has to do with first knowing the fundamentals. In music, you have to know scales, how to play in time, and it’s important to be awake and aware when you’re playing so you can respond to the moment. In painting, the same thing, you have to know color theory, composition, negative space. But those artistic concepts often work in both—Thelonious Monk, he was the master of negative space.
Do European audiences have a better appreciation of jazz?
I wouldn’t say better—it’s more exotic for them. Growing up in New Orleans, it was background music to your shenanigans, an outgrowth of who we were. Lately, I’m less interested in playing in public. Social media, smartphones, have ruined audiences. I want human connection when I’m playing, that circular energy that spirals upward on a good night.
Tony Green painted the official 2017 French Quarter Festival poster. His Gypsy Jazz combo performs at the festival on Sunday, April 9.