TAKOMA PARK, Md.— On a recent Monday night in Takoma Park, an empty parking lot for a small, almost unrecognizable bar slowly fills with cars.
Starting around 7 p.m., locals enter the bar intermittently and order beer (cash-only) for around $3.25 each. The most popular beer this night: Sierra Nevada.
As each person joins the others on stage, the circle expands. Around 7:15 p.m., when the group has gotten large enough, they pull out their instruments and play.
The audience at the bar that night may not have been packed, but the bar was sure packed with laughter and a cacophony of string instruments. This was the beginning of a Gypsy jazz jam, where participants share their mutual enjoyment of the music.
Every second and fourth Monday of the month, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 350, Hell’s Bottom, hosts a Gypsy jazz jam where locals gather to play together.
Looking at the bar – small, older and in the middle of a residential neighborhood — this type of event may seem unlikely here. However, Takoma Park is music-oriented town, said VFW volunteer bartender Kiki Oliver.
“You can’t throw a rock without hitting a musician or singer,” Oliver said.
The VFW is one of only a few places that host Gypsy jazz events in the area, said David Albamonte, the organizer of the jam. While bars in D.C. may host Gypsy jazz-style bands, jams are less frequent.
The Gypsy Jazz DC Area Meetup group offers Gypsy jazz jams in Takoma Park – at the VFW – and in Bethesda. The group of about 543 members (only a small number of the group come on a weekly basis) has been getting together since 2014, according to their Meetup page.
Unlike a band performing, a jam is more improvisational — and often open to the public. At the VFW, the Gypsy jazz jams are open to anyone interested, Oliver said.
Gypsy jazz, also known as jazz Manouche, is based on the work of Jean “Django” Reinhardt, a jazz performer who played in France during the 1930s.
Reinhardt was the first musician to use the guitar as a solo instrument during jazz performances, said Siv Lie, an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Maryland.
Lie said the Roma, or Gypsies, popularized Reinhardt’s style of jazz as a genre.
Gypsy jazz has a few specific features, according to Lie, that differentiate it from other forms of jazz, such as New Orleans-style. Gypsy jazz ensembles include mainly string instruments—violin, bass and guitar—but can also feature other instruments such as the accordion.
The jam at the VFW included the common string instruments— at least five guitars and a violin —and also contained an accordion and a clarinet, saxophone and flute, which Lie said are less common.
The music played varied that night. Sometimes the group played up-tempo and lively songs. Other times, the songs were slow and calm. The common characteristic? The rhythm was held mainly by the guitars, while other instruments soloed.
Albamonte played the guitar, which he learned at about age 13. He said he became interested in Gypsy jazz when his first guitar teacher told him to listen to Reinhardt.
Albamonte said he likes Gypsy jazz because “it’s hard. … It’s fast. It’s challenging.”
He continued, “There are aspects of it that are different than what you would find in country, or rock or blues.”
The next meetup is Monday, April 1, at 7 p.m. at the Brookmont Church in Bethesda. The VFW will next host a jam April 8 at 7 p.m.