Music as cultural shorthand | Part 1: Django

Django Reinhardt, New York, 1946

“Timeless.” Judged by intent, “timeless” sounds like a word of praise. It is, at least to an extent. But timelessness is multifaceted. The primary connotation of “timeless” is that a work has an integrity that cuts across time. Timeless music was appealing then. It is appealing now. There’s something that keeps us listening after all these years. Sometimes, however, the term goes beyond mere description. It can imply that there is one definite path to achieving timelessness. I call this implicit notion “timelessness as purity.”

This notion holds that music becomes timeless because it is devoid of the stylistic motifs and clichés associated with a specific era. By this measure, Ornette Coleman’s “The Shape of Jazz to Come” (1959) (music) is timeless because the Coleman Quartet’s conception was so far removed from popular trends of the time. It does not have any stylistic tendencies that mark it as a product of its time and sounds as fresh today as it did on its initial release. Even in less abstract music, this holds true. Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” (music), recorded in the same year, sounds much more fresh than the music Davis made even a few years earlier; he was no longer using the Great American Songbook to frame his improvisations. He turned away from popular taste and forged a new kind of simplicity. Davis stated that the music was intended to evoke the mood of the mbira, or African thumb piano.

While accurate in some cases, the notion of timelessness as purity is inadequate. There is another path. In many cases, an old style survives because of its affinity with a certain time and place — as long as it can serve a larger story. Music can sound old, but still be timeless. The crucial question is “Does this music represent the spirit of the age?”

This seeming paradox — being dated, yet timeless — is embodied in the music guitarist Django Reinhardt made with violinist Stéphane Grapelli as part of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. From the perspective of the present day, few things evoke the bygone world of interwar France as reliably as this music. It is dated, but this datedness does not confine it to the past. Instead, whenever this music is heard, the past roars into the present.

This evocative quality is a double-edged sword because it forces us to give consideration to the costs and benefits of the instrumentalization of art. Whenever we hear the Hot Club sound in popular media, we hear it because a decisionmaker intended for us to hear it — for specific reasons. The music is playing a defined role in the service of some other agenda, but what is this agenda?

The Hot Club Quintet is no longer a popular music, but it is a persistent music. Musicians worldwide continue to play in their style — the contemporary Gypsy Jazz scene prizes a faithful recreation of the original Hot Club sound — but its primary use in mass culture is to represent its original cultural context. The Hot Club sound is interwar France, much as the Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe are Paris in the popular imagination. They have become cultural shorthand. People who may not know Django Reinhardt by name nevertheless know this sound.

When audiences hear this sound, they respond with a vivid web of mental associations, hence its use in film. Benoît Charest’s music for “The Triplets of Belleville” (2003) is an eclectic blend, brilliantly executed, and strongly influenced by Django’s style. Woody Allen used the Hot Club sound to great effect in “Midnight in Paris” (2011). The case of “Midnight…” is particularly illustrative because the film is set in the 1920s, predating Reinhardt and Grapelli’s group, yet this historical inaccuracy does nothing to diminish the music’s power. Au contraire, pressing this historical point comes off as pedantic — an unwelcome dash of cold water on artistic license and good storytelling. I agree. Cultural shorthand works.

Django Reinhardt and the aforementioned Paris landmarks are not alone. The art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec represents an earlier Paris — that of the Belle Époque. The Gateway Arch is St. Louis. The Colosseum is Rome. The statue of Christ the Redeemer is Rio. For many Americans, Dorothea Lange’s photograph “Migrant Mother” (1936) is the Great Depression, its image inculcated into our memories by countless textbooks and documentaries. In the half century since the Six Day War of 1967, David Rubinger’s photograph of three Israeli paratroopers at the Western Wall has come to represent that conflict.

The Six Day War was a pivotal event in a pivotal decade. Two days after Israel’s victory, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Loving v. Virginia and abolished anti-miscegenation statutes nationwide. The entire summer of 1967 came to be known as the “Summer of Love” in the counterculture of San Francisco. The 1960s were an eventful decade and have been the subject of countless films and television shows. In all of these representations, music has played a key role. (To be continued.)