George Cole captures the 'uptown swing' of Django Reinhardt
By Lou Fancher, Correspondent San Jose Mercury News
Master guitarist George Cole loves a song with good bones. Get in, tell a four-minute story, get out.
An interview in the Kensington home he shares with Sheila, his wife and booking agent, and Val, their 8-year-old son, becomes a mini concert.
"Lots of attack, bite, sounds pretty, yeah?" he asks, after ripping off a flurry of notes demonstrating the sweet sound of his favorite guitar, a Selmer-Maccaferri replica made by luthier Bob Holo. "The guitar's not a living thing, but it's alive." A snippet of legendary French guitarist Django Reinhardt's "Blue Drag," its cool, minor key tune vocalized, is evidence of Cole's musical heritage. "I still have my grandmother's record player," he claims.
Wrapped up in a musical bundle encompassing Reinhardt, Lawrence Welk, Perry Como, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Sly and the Family Stone, Gypsy jazz, uptown swing, every American Songbook selection he ever met and Green Day (more on that later), Cole began his love affair with music on an accordion. Discovering that girls in his Richmond neighborhood were more into guitar players, he switched instruments, playing James Brown hits with mostly African-American kids from whom he learned the importance of groove.
"Jelling with other musicians, race didn't matter," he recalls. "My first guitar, just taking it out of the case; I knew I was complete." But switching instrumental gears didn't mean he abandoned what he calls "the thrill of doing the unexpected." After playing lead guitar with pop rock band Beatnik Beatch and others, touring with the Eagles' Joe Walsh, performing with Ringo Starr, Boz Scaggs and his own acoustic jazz bands, Cole attended a concert by French guitarist Bireli Lagrene at Yoshi's on March 8, 2003.
"I decided then and there to sell all my electric guitars and amplifiers," he says.
"Bireli was virtuoso, emotional, all about love, not burnt out," he recalls. And the music, zip-lining to 1934 France and the fiery jazz style established by Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli, recaptured his heart. Combined with what he's dubbed "uptown swing," a big band sound shrunk down for small ensemble, Cole says there's "no greater match than a guitar and a violin, playing with no drums covering up the music's power, punch, energy and joy."
The third annual Esprit de Django et Stephane Festival at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage, Jan. 23-26, is the outpouring of Cole's enthusiasm for a style of music that "drives well." The festival's packed performances and workshops (Jan. 24-26) still leave him saying, "Django is the guy who brought acoustic guitar to the world. I'm just another link in that chain."
Recently retired Freight executive director and guitarist Steve Baker says Cole is "a great musician and performer." He says the Freight is typecast as a folk music venue, but the festival Cole curates and directs is a "genre-bending string instrument compilation" erasing traditional lines.
If Cole is an agent of change, he's also connected to the next generation of corner-turning musicians. A longtime educator with a solid list of students (most famously including Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt), he says a great teacher is "a possibility model." His own "best lessons" were delivered by Dan Boyd, the Richmond teacher who forced him to analyze four-part barbershop quartets when he wanted to play Zepplin and convinced him "showing up, encouraging, being a good, wholesome person" were just as important as tuning and fingering.
"I see kids grow up and thrive," he says. "When I met Billie Joe, he was a sad little boy. His father had died; same time as mine. He got music like some people get religion." Cole speaks fondly of their father-son, mentoring-type relationship, causing a question: Is your son picking up the guitar?
"We've started the guitar thing; he sings, writes and plays. There was no pressure, but when I brought him home from Kaiser Walnut Creek, where he was born, there was a vintage guitar hanging over his bed like a crucifix," Cole says, laughing.