Barry Wahrhaftig was a guitarist who grew up playing rock and roll like everyone else. But around the turn of the century, he rediscovered his love of gypsy jazz music, particularly the kind created by famed Belgian jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.
“It sort of has an old world sound to it,” Wahrhaftig said. “There’s an archaic aspect to it. It’s sad but it’s also happy.”
So in the year 2001, Wahrhaftig’s band, The Hot Club of Philadelphia, was born. The name comes from the band Reinhardt played in throughout the 1930s and 40s, Quintette du Hot Club de France. That translates to The Quintet of the Hot Club of France.
“I thought this is such cool music so I put the band together just for the love of playing it,” Wahrhaftig said. “We got a really great response.”
The group first started out playing shows mainly at the Mermaid Inn in Chestnut Hill, and Rembrandt’s in Fairmount, which has since closed.
Wahrhaftig also had what he called a “party band” that played R&B music at the time. But The Hot Club of Philadelphia slowly but surely took over more and more of his regular gigs. They’ve put out three CDs since. Members have been switched in and out of the band since that time, and to this day, the band shrinks or expands depending on the size of the show they’re playing.
But luckily for Chestnut Hill residents, the full version of the band is slated to perform at the very next edition of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s summer concert series at Pastorius Park, at 7:30 p.m. on July 5. The presenting sponsor is Temple Health – Chestnut Hill Hospital, and admission is free.
And that means singer Phyllis Chapell will be singing with the group.
Chapell started singing intermittently with the band about 20 years ago. But for the last ten, she’s been Warhaftig’s go-to vocalist, in large part because she can sing in French. In fact, she sings in 13 languages, even if she doesn’t completely understand them all.
“I enjoy crossing cultures and bounding over boundaries,” she said. “My voice changes between languages, so I become a different persona in each language.”
Spanish is the only language Chapell is actually fluent in other than English, and to a lesser extent Portuguese too. Though she doesn’t speak the languages she sings in, she often translates the lyrics she’s singing and studies the pronunciation of words to make sure she’s representing the language accurately.
“What I try to do is be authentic whenever I sing in another language,” she said. Though she recoils when asked what her favorite language to sing in is. That’s “like picking a favorite child.”
But the band has lots of fun bouncing between different genres of music onstage, Chapell told the Local. Though The Hot Club of Philadelphia is mostly known for its specialty in gypsy jazz, setlists will often feature everything from bluegrass to the Beatles. There’s also some klezmer music mixed in. They play some originals too. The lineup typically features a lead guitar, rhythm guitar, a bass and a violin in addition to the vocals.
“We mix it up,” Warhaftig said. “I like a lot of different styles of music, and I try to do what people seem to like.”
Chapell told the Local to expect the band’s “A team” at next week’s Pastorius concert. That team includes Joseph Arnold, who performed at last week’s Pastorius Park concert with his other band, the Joseph Arnold String Quartet.
“It's really inspiring to be around such great musicians,” she said. “These are really great players.”