Justin Duhaime is a guitarist, composer/arranger, teacher, impresario, you name it he’s doing it in Ottawa.
He grew up in Orléans, went to École secondaire catholique Béatrice-Desloges and then to Carleton University where he obtained a BA in music. He is the recipient of the Ottawa Arts Council’s 2018 Emerging Artist Award.
And he was the first member of his family to seriously pursue music. A couple of uncles played “campfire” guitar, he said in an interview. He has been joined by his younger brother Sean, who started by secretly playing Justin’s guitar and now he too is busy playing around town.
So far he is sticking around the capital but “I have been tempted to move to other places,” he said. “Montreal is appealing especially for the kind of music that I play lately. It’s popular in Montreal.” Apparently Victoria B.C. is another hub for Justin’s passion, what is known as Gypsy Jazz.
This is the music played by the legendary Django Reinhardt, who is considered the greatest proponent of the style even though, Justin says, Reinhardt never used the term.
Duhaime has watched as Gypsy Jazz has experienced a resurgence especially in Europe in parts of North America.
And, not being one to sit around, he’s been playing the music for sometime now with his ensemble Gypsy Muse.
He says he discovered the music when he was 18. He was jamming with a friend.
“We were both into metal. But then he started showing me music I hadn’t heard before. He introduced me to Bitches Brew (Miles Davis) and some Gypsy Jazz music out of France. That was about 12 years ago now. I really wanted to play that stuff and I couldn’t find anyone in Ottawa who was playing it.
“So I bought a book which I found dry and not that helpful.” Frustrated he kept his eyes and ears open for a few years just “to catch someone coming to town playing it.”
Finally he started seeing some names appear on the Canadian music scene who were trying to play the music.
He met the Montreal-based player Denis Chang a few years ago and “it’s kind of ballooned from there.”
Another important contact is Tcha Limberger, a violinist from Brussels who was into old traditional Hungarian and Transylvanian music, so much so that he moved to Budapest to learn Hungarian. “That’s how crazy these guys are,” Duhaime said.
Not that Justin isn’t a little crazy about the music himself.
Gypsy Muse appears around town and will be at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival on June 30 as well as at Irene’s Pub in July.
Justin and fellow guitarist Nabil Yaghi (also in Gypsy Muse) have a duo and they are now in residence at Irene’s on the second Monday of every month.
“We will play this music there,” he said. “There are different groups within Gypsy Jazz. Some want to play exactly as Django did in 1930s. Others are more open to integrating different rhythms. I lean a bit more that way.”
Well why not. After all jazz crossed the Atlantic and met Django. Duhaime said that towards the end of his life Reinhardt was trying to play bebop.
“His later stuff sounded like early Charlie Christian. He had a band with piano, bass drums and guitar. Django wasn’t interested in playing only Gypsy Jazz, he wanted to play jazz,” Duhaime said.
“I was amazed to read in his biography that shortly before he died he had met an agent who was booking Oscar Peterson and they were organizing a tour with Django, Oscar and Ray Brown.
“That would have been unbelievable. I would have loved to have heard that.”
There is something smoky and slightly sinister about Reinhardt. Consider this quote from the American Charlie Byrd:
“Usually, no one quite knew where Django Reinhardt was going to be, but I met his brother and about an hour later in walks Django with an entourage of friends. He always traveled with a large group — carried his own admirers with him, the most sinister-looking bunch of hoodlums you’ve ever seen. I walked up and offered to buy him a drink. That seemed to be the right thing to do …
For Duhaime, though, it’s not the image, it’s the music.
“It’s more accessible that most jazz because it has a rhythmic foundation. The early stuff comes from dance music.
“I really enjoy the variety and technical prowess of a lot of the newer musicians playing it. I also like the fact that it’s a form that allows improvisation. You don’t have to play it the same way every time. You can really do a lot of things with it.”
He also loves the fact that there is a common culture in the music that “allows me to be able to play with people from around the world.
“For example, I had a chance to play with Jason Anick from the U.S. and it was easy to do because we knew all the same songs. All you need is an acoustic guitar. You don’t have to lug an amp around.
“Jazz is open and you can do anything you want with it.”
In addition to gigging, Duhaime does a lot of teaching to make ends meet.
“I like teaching. I have some wonderful students and I’m happy to teach anybody who is enthusiastic about learning.”
In five years, he says he wants to be touring more so he can explore the world through music.
He recently attended the Django in June festival in North Hampton, Mass. to expand his network.
And he is going to Paris the day after his Jazz Festival gig to pursue his passion.
“I am going to meet people I can make music with and if performing opportunities happen that would be wonderful.”
There is a huge international Django network awaiting him.
“I can’t think of anther person who has so many festivals dedicated just to him.” There is one in the Seattle area, one in Maine, in Taiwan even and the massive Festival Django Reinhardt he is attending south of Paris in the Fontainebleau area.
“Django lived there in the last few years of his life. He is buried there. Since 1968 there has been a festival there.
“People from all over Europe go there and jam like crazy for a couple of weeks. This is where a lot of the big names in the style have honed their chops.”
Duhaime is headed to a campsite where the “real festival happens. A lot of the players camp there and they jam 24/7 for two weeks. I’m hoping to meet people and learn firsthand.
“Over there there will be hundreds playing at a high level.”
He’ll be bringing the distinctive guitar that was made by the Kanata based luthier Dmitry Kulikov, who runs DK Guitars.
It’s a beautiful instrument and Duhaime is concerned about travelling with it. But “I have spent so many hours on the instrument, it’s a part of me. I want to bring it with me.”
First though, he will play on the OLG stage in Confederation Park.
The Jazz Festival show includes Gypsy Muse: Duhaime, Yaghi and bassist Normand Glaude along with three special guests for a few tunes each — William Lamoureux (violin), David Renaud (clarinet) and vocalist Edra Silva Cavada.
Justin Duhaime’s Gypsy Muse
TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
Where: OLG Stage Confederation Park
When: June 30 at noon.
This is a free performance. For information: ottawajazzfestival.com