Django (pronounced zhan (long “a”) – go) Reinhardt grew up in a gypsy culture that held medieval beliefs such as distrust in science. He was born into a tribe that roamed the countryside until they established themselves near Old Paris, when he was eight. Imagine a camp with dogs and children playing, chicken simmering in campfire pots, the music of accordions, banjos, and violins dancing through the air, women in long dresses and curls, the men in stripped waistcoats donning moustaches. The caravans, large covered (and usually horse-drawn) vehicles, doubled as both family dwelling and transportation.
His tribe assimilated into the Manouches, which are the local Romani groups of France. From the gathered cultural and linguistic evidence, it has been ascertained that his people probably originally came from Roma, which is now part of southeast Pakistan.
Django was born January 23, 1910 in Lieberchies, Belgium. He always liked music and got his first banjo/guitar at age twelve. This instrument has six strings and is tuned to standard guitar tuning. He started his career in music at age thirteen, playing at a dance hall on the Rue Monge, with Guerino an accordionist.
His first recordings were made at the Ideal Company with accordionist Jean Vaissade.
He accompanied Coleman Hawkins on the recording of Stardust in 1935. Ultraphone recorded the first sides of the Quinette, which included Dinah, Tiger Rag, Oh Lady Be Good, and I Saw Stars. In 1937, he recorded Chicago with the Quinette.
In 1928, some celluloid flowers his wife had made caught on fire in their caravan. In the fire, Reinhardt suffered a badly burned left hand. His right leg was seriously burned, as well. The third and fourth fingers of his fretting hand didn’t heal well and were basically paralyzed as the tendons had shrunk.
His mother stayed with him during his recuperation, which lasted a year and a half. She would ask him what he thought about and he always answered, about his hand. His brother, Joseph, bought him a new guitar in an oilcloth case. Reinhardt overcame his great disability; he retrained his hand to make chords and notes, by fashioning his own method. The early thirties saw him back pursuing his musical career at an increased pace.
By 1931 Reinhardt and his brother struck out for Côte d’Azur, living the romantic troubadour’s life, camping on beaches. During their travels they met the painter and photographer, Emile Savitry, who gave them lodging at his home. Savitry, according to EMI France Djangology, played for the brothers some of the first jazz records to come to France. Louis Armstrong’s rendition of Dallas Blues really impressed Django and he eagerly delved into jazz.
Around 1932, he returned to Paris and explored new sounds at Cuban and West Indies clubs; he’d already absorbed the music of czardas, tangos, and musette waltzes and had found jazz.
In 1934, Reinhardt and violinist Stephen Grappeli were among fourteen musicians playing at the Hotel Cambridge at teatime. In a moment of serendipity, Reinhardt and Grappeli started jamming in the dressing room, with Lois Vola on bass and brother Joseph playing second guitar. They formed the ensemble Quinetette du Hot Club de France. Roger Chaput and Pierre Ferret variously played rhythm guitar in place of Django’s brother Joseph. Some say the concept of lead and rhythm guitar in a band was started with their group. The group had no drummer, so the second guitarist often used their instruments as percussion instruments. Perhaps their work was a forerunner of jazz and funk comping to come later that century.
After the Hot Club’s first concert in February 1934, the magazine Jazz-Tango wrote of Django, “He is a curious musician, whose style is like no other we know. We now have a great improviser in Paris.”
He was inspired by Louis Armstrong, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. Before this, in the Roaring Twenties, he had heard Billy Arnold’s Novelty Jazz Band at the Abbaye de Thélème in Pigalle.
He was an ingenious composer, and innovator, and improviser. He hailed from a musical tradition that embellished its playing with appoggiaturas, chromatic passages, and arpeggios. Improvisation naturally flowed from his fingers.
When WW II began, the group was touring in England. Reinhardt quickly returned to France while Grappelli stayed in England. The quintet continued to play with Hurbert Rostaing on clarinet replacing Grappeli. During the German Occupation of Paris, jazz (American music) was forbidden as it stood for freedom, but swing was allowed, according to Dregni in “Django Reinhardt and the Illustrated History Of Jazz.” Dregni also chronicles that, as the German Occupation worsened, Reingardt did try to escape through the Swiss border but was turned back.
In 1946, a reunited Reinhardt and Grappeli opened for Duke Ellington. This was the first time Django played electric guitar. He usually played an acoustic Selmer-Maccafferi. Also, in that year, Django and Andre Hodeir composed the music to the movie Le Village de la Colere, in addition to touring Switzerland.
During his latter years, Reinhardt started a quintet that was skilled in bebop. David Rickett of allaboutjazz.com says that “He had integrated his love for bebop into his playing and compositions, and all of the songs here (Keep Cool: Guitar Solos 1950-53) sound like much of what would come out of the States from ’50’s guitar players like Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis.
Many artists have appreciated Reindhardt ‘s music and ability such as Julian Bream (classical guitarist), Chet Atkins (country), Carlos Santana (rock), B.B. King (blues), Jerry Garcia (rock/blue grass), Tony Iommi, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Mark Knopfler, Les Paul, Joe Pass, Willie Nelson and the list continues. In 2002 Wille Nelson wore a Django Reinhardt t-shirt on tour in Europe. It is thought that Jimi Hendrix named his “Band of Gypsys” after Django’s heritage. Dickey Betts. (Allman Brothers) wrote Jessica to write a song that could be played with two fingers because of his admiration for Reinhardt.
Jean Cocteau sums up the Reinhardt mystique:
“His soul was ambulant and saintly; and his rhythms were his own as the tiger his stripes, as his phosphorescence and his mustache. He lived within his skin. He rendered it royal and invisible to the hunter.”
He retired to Samois sur Seine. Reinhardt died of a massive brain hemorrhage on May 16, 1953. He was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1984.
Other Sites of Interest
- Django Reinhardt and the Illustrated History of Gypsy Jazz
Guitar (guitar and strings and picks he used)