A colourful character, a great jazz guitarist, a gangster, and a sometimes friend, sometimes rival of the great Django Reinhardt. Pierre Joseph “Baro” Ferret lives up to all of these. His exceptional life remains one of the fascinating stories to come out of the early days of jazz.

Baro’s life is about as mysterious as they come for a popular performer. His origins are hazy and he never married, leaving behind very few survivors to tell his story. As much of his life was lived on the other side of the law, many of his closest companions were not likely to get loose-lipped about his activity either. This lack of information, as is so often the case, makes Baro ever more intriguing to jazz enthusiasts.

We do know that Baro was born in 1908 to a Romani family with two brothers and a cousin who would also go on to some jazz notoriety. Pierre Joseph Ferret was given the nickname “Baro” — an auspicious Romany word meaning “Big One.” He would spend his life earning such a name.

Friendship with Django Reinhardt

Baro’s close association with Django Reinhardt began with an introduction by his brother Jean Ferret. The two began playing together and struck up a friendship and, from 1931 until the war, recorded 80 tracks together.

During that time, Baro played rhythm in the Quintette du Hot Club de Paris with his brothers, and with manouche guitarist Didi Duprat. While he played well and had the chops to keep up with the likes of Reinhardt and Grappelli, Baro himself was not known as a talented improvisational soloist which limited his ability to stand out in the competitive world of jazz where improvised solos were becoming the calling card of a musician.

What Baro may have lacked in playing ability he made up for as a composer, consider his song “Panique” as one of his most lasting accomplishments. Baro experimented with waltzes and bebop, combining them to create what would be called “valses bebop.”

When war came to France, Reinhardt continued to play music, but Baro turned to a different life. He set down his guitar and decided to make some money on the streets by other means.

A Life of Crime?

Baro went to work in the black market and it has been claimed — with little evidence — that at the height of his success he was the biggest pimp in all of France. He was known for a mercurial temper and willingness to commit violence; character features that matched his new occupation rather well.

The criminal scene under German occupation was fraught, with French and Corsican gangs often turning to the secret police to rat on their enemies. These battles made the dangerous world of mob activity even more dangerous. Nevertheless, Baro survived and, if the rumours are true, thrived.

He opened his first bar in 1945, a hangout for Romani people and his criminal friends. The establishment rode the line of the law, but the atmosphere must have appealed to Baro; throughout his life, he would continue running bars, like the La Lanterne and Le Baro Bar.

In 1949, Baro returned to the studio to record with Jo Privat and this series marks some of the best surviving representations of Baro at work as a jazz musician.

When we think of gypsy jazz, we cannot help but think of Django Reinhardt. His figure rises above all the others. But still, the story of Baro Ferret remains popular. His talent as a composer and rhythm guitarist are beyond debate, and the life he lived is a compelling story of a time now passed. While mystery veils much of the man, his music speaks for itself.

Eloquent, dramatic and unpredictable.