Alfonso Ponticelli and his group Swing Gitan will bring out the gypsy in your soul with their interpretations of jazz standards in the gypsy jazz style made famous in the 1930s by Django Reinhardt with violinist Stephane Grappelli.
Ponticelli has been part of the local jazz scene in Chicago since the early 1980s and is the founder of the annual Chicago Gypsy Jazz Festival, now in its 13th year. He has been called “the city’s leading Reinhardt champion” by Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich and can be heard every Wednesday night at the Green Mill Jazz Club in Uptown, where he has been performing since 2004.
Coming from a musical family (Ponticelli’s mother plays piano and sings), he started playing guitar at the age of 7 with his brother and sisters. When he was 12 some of his friends joined together to start a band and performed at school talent shows playing blues and rock and roll. It was at this time that Ponticelli first heard Reinhardt’s recordings when one of his teachers exposed him to the music. “I was attracted to the Reinhardt records,” Ponticelli says, “they were soulful and had more dynamics than the other jazz players.”
Infused with his love of Reinhardt’s music, Ponticelli went to France, where there are numerous Django Reinhardt jazz festivals. In France Ponticelli spoke with the musicians and played with them, deepening his connection to the music and the gypsy culture. The experience was something he wanted to bring back with him to Chicago. Ponticelli hoped he and musicians like him would be able to preserve gypsy jazz and bring it to younger audiences. And it seems to be working. The crowd that packs into the Green Mill are mostly 30-somethings. When I spoke with some of them, none of them expressed a real knowledge of jazz or its history but they said they return time and time again because they are amazed at Ponticelli’s playing. Some were not familiar with Django Reinhardt or knew what gypsy jazz was; for this crowd it doesn’t matter. The music hits their soul. Some have made it a ritual to come every Wednesday to experience the music live.
Ponticelli’s efforts to preserve gypsy jazz extend beyond the Green Mill. For 16 years he has taught a Django-style class at the Old Town School of Folk Music. In addition to his own festival he has performed regularly at the Midwest Gypsy Swing Fest in Madison, Wisconsin. He was the subject of a 2006 video documentary entitled Gypsy Jazz Odyssey and has released three albums. His fourth album, Summertime, to be released soon, will feature original compositions by Ponticelli. This will be his first album in five years and will feature musicians from around the world as well as recordings with members of his band. Ponticelli says the new album will go beyond Reinhardt and will showcase various styles that have influenced him over the years.
The appeal and fascination of Reinhardt’s music seems to have never faded away all these years after his death. The music continues to enchant audiences, serve as source material for movies (Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown) and inspire generations of musicians with Django festivals all over the U.S. and in Europe. And here in Chicago music lovers and jazz enthusiasts of all kinds can experience it all and gather to hear this lively music played by an exceptional musician, whom thanks to his dedication and passion will continue to preserve good music and inspire many more. Viva la Reinhardt! Viva la Ponticelli!
Ponticelli plays at the Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway, at 9pm every Wednesday. (Full disclosure: My father, Alex Udvary, plays cimbalom with Swing Gitan at the Green Mill.) There’s a $6 cover charge. For more information on Ponticelli, as well as upcoming show dates, visit his website. For more information on the Green Mill jazz club, visit their website here.