John Jorgenson, a pioneer in the gypsy jazz movement, has traveled the world from his home in southern California to play guitar. During one show in New York City with the The Desert Rose Band, Elton John was in the audience. Jorgenson would later receive a call from the superstar himself asking if he would tour with his band.
That supposed 18-month stint in the mid-1990s lasted six years. But that is only one part of Jorgenson’s long career with various musicians.
Although he makes his Rockport debut in two shows on Sunday, he is no stranger to town because his father spent the last ten years of his life as a resident here.
His father, James Jorgensen, was a conductor and music educator all his life, having taught at the University of Redlands in California for decades.
“He was a trombone player and toured with the big bands in the ‘40s. But he didn’t like the touring life and wanted to be a composer so he went back to college,” said Jorgenson of his father. The last 10 years of his career, the senior Jorgenson taught at Gordon College in Wenham, and lived in Rockport.
“He loved it there,” said Jorgenson, who visited around 2003 and also performed as a soloist at Gordon College.
This is the first time Jorgenson will be in town since his father died in 2004.
“I’m really looking forward to it and revisiting where my father spent his last 10 years. It will be kind of emotional,” he said in a recent telephone interview while in New York City for a show.
As a young musician in his 20s, he landed his first job performing at Disneyland as a street musician.
“They wanted a band that would play bluegrass half the day and then Dixieland music. I never played that kind of music but I needed a job and said ‘I can,’ and learned to do so,” he recalled.
About that time, Jorgenson kept hearing about Django Reinhardt (1910-1953), a Belgium virtuoso who was raised in a gypsy tribe, and who inspired the young Jorgenson. A San Franciso Examiner critic would later write that Jorgenson is “far-and-away the best interpreter of Reinhardt’s material … spirited, romantic, and breathtakingly distinctive.”
“He was the first guitar hero,” said Jorgenson of Reinhardt. “The reason gypsy jazz fulfills me is because of its high level of technique, high energy and improvisation. It has energy like rock music, and it’s very emotional, joyful and melodic. It incorporates all that I like from other styles, the dynamic of the classical style and swing from jazz. And in learning about gypsy culture, it took me down other roads like flamenco.”
Jorgenson, who also sings and plays clarinet and bouzouki, said this show will be primarily instrumental music. He boasted of his quintet’s talents. He said the violinist, Jason Anick, is a young prodigy, a professor at Berklee College of Music at the age of 26. On bass is Simon Planting of Holland, who has played with some of the best gypsy jazz guitarists in Europe. On percussion is Rick Reed from Nashville and on rhythm guitar is Emmitt Mahoney of Hawaii.
“I’m really proud of my musicians. When I pass it off to them, they pick it up and carry it,” said Jorgenson. “Don’t let any description of music scare an audience member off. Some people get scared of jazz but people who hear this music for the first time will fall in love with it — I did. It’s joyful and children love it, too.”
Gail McCarthy may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3445 or email@example.com.
If you go Who and what: John Jorgenson Quintet. Jorgenson is known as a pioneer in the gypsy jazz movement. When: Sunday, July 29, shows at 3 and 7 p.m. Where: Shalin Liu Performance Center at 37 Main St. in Rockport. Tickets: Visit www.rockportmusic.org, or the box office weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. or call 978-546-7391.