If I’m going to write about “Minor Swing,” I should probably listen to it on repeat for hours until I reach a state of transcendent jazz-bliss

I first heard Django Reinhardt’s “Minor Swing” when I saw the film Chocolat as a kid, and though I haven’t seen it in years (so I won’t vouch for it one way or another), I remember at the time I loved it and it made very proud to be Romani, what with Johnny Depp being so outspoken and handsome on that steel-string guitar and drinking his hot chocolate. It also kicked off a deep love of Reinhardt, Lagrene, and other Manouche Jazz stars.

“Minor Swing,” one of Reinhardt’s most popular compositions and a Manouche jazz standard, just came up in the novel. It’s one of my favorite songs ever so I’m happy to “work” for my art (if work can be listening to a song on repeat for hours). Writing requires that I experience everything fully and presently in order to even come close to evoking a true essence. It’s like practicing yoga, mindfulness, and meditation. Ideally, I’d like to be in that state of compassionate awareness all the time, but for now, I will listen the hell out of this 3 minute song, only think a little bit about Johnny Depp, and then I’ll write a thing, and that’s wonderful.


Research in Paris, Day 4: Tzigane Jazz



This is my great-great grandmother Mathilde. She was the last generation of our Romani family to live, though briefly, as a nomad, travelling up and down the Danube from Germany to Hungary, dancing in riparian towns along the way. In the picture, she’s posing in her dancing garb. She’s pretty fabulous.

Obviously I’ve never met her, but I love the idea I have of her from my grandmother’s stories. Her stories about Mathilde are the reason I became a dancer and a fortune teller when I was younger– I set myself the task of reviving old family trades that otherwise would have died out with Mathilde and the Holocaust. Now, being a writer lets me revive all manner of things, some I’ve seen and some I haven’t, so I can only hope this novel breathes good life into something.

On day four, Len, Sean, and Jen and I went to Monmartre and explored the windy streets, the vendors, the cafes and drank pastisse in the sun at a table on the cobblestone street, and chocolate chaud in The Two Windmills. That’s what you do there. Tourists and pigeons dotted the grass below the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur.

Later that night we ventured to L’atlier Charonne for some Manouche or Tzigane (Gypsy) Jazz. They have performances every night from 9-12 and oh holy chickadees it was incredible. We saw the Moreno orkestra tzigane quartet, and the performers, though in their later years, had more energy than most of the young-ones I’ve see on stage. Two men played steel string guitars with the ghost of Django Reinhardt in their fingers. At one point, they both played the same guitar, occasionally holding each other’s hands to show that yes, they really can play that quickly, and yes, they really are that good. And for a few songs, a woman sang with a voice as powerful as a sob, but she was laughing almost continuously. She brought the microphone around the crowd, a happy mix of Parisians, tourists, and Romanies, and good-naturedly teased some audience members into singing the chorus. She wore a magenta and violet ankle-length skirt with ruffles that my grandmother would have gone mad for, and she snapped her fingers above her head and swayed her hips as she warbled her laugh-cry songs. 

That evening, I noticed that as the Romani flower sellers came along, the majority of the audience who adored the performers reviled the sellers with icy sneers and without so much as a non, merci. The only person the flower seller could coax into buying a rose was the guitarist, who seemed to give into his “help a brother out” appeal. He gifted it then to the singer, who twirled it in her left hand as she smoked with her right.

This is the evening that I realized I had come to the right place to research Tzigane Jazz and recreate what these performances might have been like from 1920’s-1950’s. Romani culture changes, of course, like any other, but some things, like music and dance, change very little. They simply enrich. I also realized that I’m going to need a hell of a lot more than a week to get what I need to write this novel.

Did I mention that the Tzigane Cultural Center is closed in August? It is, I discovered that day. Another reason that the research trip, while fruitful, didn’t quite fill me up. I’m currently seeking grants that might allow Len and I to live in Paris next summer, preferably funded, so I can continue my research. So, if you hear of anything, help a sister out, will you? 😉


Researching in Paris, Day One

Sometimes research is practical: where is my train? how do I find myself on the map of Montparnasse? How do I say, do you sell comfort shoe-inserts for my 16-year-old combat boots? in French? These things I learned, except the last one. Instead I discovered how many pharmacies are in a 2 km radius from the hotel (Answer: 6).

It’s been nice to map things out for a change: I’m not nearly as organized as most put-together tweens as I’d like to be. Len and I fell in love circling each other for a few weeks, then circling Italy, then Croatia, too giddy to concentrate on maps, too polite to make an actual suggestion. Circling is fun, let’s not kid ourselves. Who hasn’t gone an extra time around a roundabout at least once? Metaphorically or otherwise. Yet now, seven years later, I’m learning the joys of having a plan. Maybe it’s because I (finally) made myself full outline my novel during the Cambridge Writers Workshop writing and yoga retreat in Verderonne, France for the past two weeks. Such relief! Such clarity! Circling the novel became exhausting and much less inspiring, but saying what, when, where, and how was so powerful, like architecture and alchemy together. And sure, Len and I circled and it was whimsical and romantic, but then I locked that down with paperwork and wedding rings in a Roanoke, VA courthouse. So, plans are nice, too. Balance, right?

For instance, to research Romani culture in France between 1920 and circa 1952, I will go here:
Centre des études Tsiganes
Médiathèque Fnasat-Gens du voyage-Etudes Tsiganes
59 rue de l’Ourcq
75019 PARIS
01 40 35 12 17

and I will be very happy. I am already.This novel takes up about 70% of my brain. Sometimes that’s agonizing (I will admit this), but lately, especially when I’m in a community of writers like my MFA program, or the Writing and Yoga retreat that I just adored and finished, the novel-brain phenomenon is delightful and fulfilling .

So, some sample plans: to learn more about jazz, I could to go Le Petite Journal, and for Romani/Manouche jazz I could check out these gems compiled by Jane Parry of Paris Voice. I will go to catacombs and odd museums, cafes and gardens, I will try to catch some burlesque culture, I will go to Spoken Word Paris to met the wonderful expat writers and listen to their wonderful word-magics, and maybe read something myself. I will probably deviate from my raw-vegan lifestyle and eat a crepe. For research. The point is, I have about 6 maps of Paris, I understand the metro system, I found my comfy inserts, and I’ve had these combat boots since I was 11. I’ve got a plan.

Photo by: KareemaBee

Photo by: KareemaBee