By Michael Dregni
A favorite photograph of Django Reinhardt pictures him standing alongside Stéphane Grappelli, the duo looking suave and sophisticated in white tuxedos. The photograph is steeped in the aura of 1930s Paris, where the Quintette du Hot Club de France was formed: charming, cool, classy.
Grappelli—Django’s musical partner and foil, rival and co-composer—holds his magic violin under his arm. Django leans causally on his famous Selmer guitar, his left hand carefully placed in his suit pocket to hide his disfigurement. This is the hand that he not only learned to play in spite of, but the hand that also shaped his style due to its limitations.
But it’s the look on Django’s face that always makes you examine this picture closely. It’s a look that comes through in many photographs of the Gypsy guitarist: His dark eyes seem to twinkle. His pencil-thin mustache seems slightly devilish. And his smile.... His smile is happy-go-lucky, mysterious, and omniscient at the same time.
Above all, Django’s smile seems to hold the key to his music.
From 1928 to 1953, Django recorded some 750 to 1,000 sides—counts vary. Much of his music is readily available today on numerous compact disc reissues and complete, chronological sets. Add to this the alternate takes, unissued sides, radio broadcasts, and live recordings recently issued, and you soon realize that Django was the definition of prolific.
Ironically, many people’s first impressions of Django’s music are often negative due to the medium. Unless you were lucky enough to see him play in person, most people first hear him via his recordings on 78-rpm discs—or LP or CD collections that are often made from the 78s instead of the masters, and even the masters are forty-five to sixty years old.
Listening to the QHCF for the first time, the first sound that greets the ears is hiss and static as the recording begins. Then the full band erupts into the first chorus with three acoustic guitars, Grappelli’s violin soaring above, and a string bass below, the band’s sound often pushing the sonic limits of another era’s single-mike mono recording technology. The sound is akin to the cacophony of the modern civilization of the 1930s: The then-new sound of automobile traffic, machines, airplanes, street noises, a growing population of people.
And then Django’s guitar cuts through the band and the music blossoms. He takes the lead as the rhythm guitars fall back into the famous boom-chick, boom-chick of la pompe, the jazz manouche rhythm. Django’s guitar is sublime and pure, unhurried in its cascades of elegant diminished arpeggios. It’s the sound of one man’s genius breaking through the chaos of the modern world.
When Django begins to play, that’s when the listener is hooked.
The story of Jean Baptiste "Django" Reinhardt has all the makings of legend.
He was born in a gypsy caravan during the night of January 23, 1910, near the Belgian town of Liberchies, neighboring Charleroi. His unmarried mother, known to audiences as "La Belle Laurence," was a dancer and acrobat working with a wandering troupe of Gypsy comedians and musicians.
Many have since referred to Django as a Belgian Gypsy, due to his place of birth, or a French Gypsy, as he lived most of his life in France. But the nationality was never important; his cultural background as a Gypsy was.
Some 2,000 years ago, the Gypsy tribe known as the Sinti are believed to have migrated from the banks of the Sinti River in India (from which they derived their name) to the Persian court, where they found work as musicians. From Persia, the Gypsies traveled what is known as the Romany trail leading through the Middle East, into North Africa and Europe. Europeans, believing these wandering people to come from Egypt, corrupted their name into "Gypsy."
Often chased away from "civilization," the Gypsies have become nomadic of necessity more than desire. Forced to live a transitory life, they managed to survive on their skills as musicians, entertainers, metalsmiths, and traders. They have become a people of the diaspora, without a homeland and without a promised land.
Django grew up a wanderer. Living in a caravan—roulotte in French or verdine in the language of the Rom—Django’s mother led him and his younger brother Joseph, known affectionately as "Nin-Nin," through France, south to Nice, across to Italy, Corsica, Algeria, and then back to Paris. The family would live on and off over the years in caravans on the nether zones at the edge of Paris by one of the old city gates.
Django learned to play first violin, then banjo. The banjo was the prime rhythm instrument before the ascendance of the guitar as the banjo’s unamplified resonator blessed it with volume and the cutting, trebly tone gave it the power to accompany an accordeon. Django, still in his teens, played banjo, then guitar, with the popular Italian Gypsy accordeonist Vetese Guérino and others in the cafés, dancehalls, night clubs, and at the bals des Auvergnats, named for the people of the French province of Auvergne who migrated to the city, bringing the folk music that became a source of musette.
Playing his instrument, Django appeared to have a rare talent as a musician, an ability respected and admired among Gypsies. As Charles Delaunay, Django’s French friend and manager, wrote in his colorful biography of the guitarist: "As water is a fish’s element and the air a bird’s, music was Django’s."
And then tragedy struck. At one o’clock in the morning of November 2, 1928, Django returned from a club to his caravan. His first wife, known to history only as Bella, had fashioned flowers from the highly flammable proto-plastic, celluloid, to sell in the market; a candle Django was holding ignited the celluloid and in minutes the caravan was aflame. Django and his wife escaped, but not before Django suffered horrible burns over half of his body.
Django’s left hand was disfigured from the burns: His two small fingers were twisted and limited in use; his ring and index fingers still functioned. His family thought he would never play guitar again, and as Delaunay writes, the men of the caravan wept.
But while bed-ridden and recovering, Django taught himself, slowly and surely, to play again. Grappelli himself explained it best in a 1954 interview with the British music magazine Melody Maker after Django’s death: "He acquired amazing dexterity with those first two fingers, but that didn’t mean he never employed the others. He learned to grip the guitar with his little finger on the E string and the next finger on the B. That accounts for some of those chord progressions which Django was probably the first to perform on the guitar."
It was when Django met Stéphane Grappelli and began jamming on American swing tunes that a new epoch in European jazz dawned. The Hot Club quintet formed in late 1934, named for the Hot Club de France, a meeting place for jazz musicians and fans in Paris. Together, Django and Grappelli were an inspired pair, similar to the American guitar-and-violin duo of Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti.
Django’s playing with the QHCF in its glory years of 1937-1939 was thoroughly modern, infused by the wild, free, exciting sound of American jazz that transformed the old into the new. Swing supercharged the music, and the sound of the QHCF came to define an era.
In hindsight, it’s important to note that Django was not a solitary Gypsy guitar genius, but part of a style. Gitan Gypsies Poulette Castro, Laro Castro, Matteo Garcia, and Gusti Malha were the patriarchs of Gypsy guitarists at the time when Django first starting playing in the bals-musette and jazz hot clubs of Paris. Malha played with Gypsy accordeonist Guerino and others, composing and recording early musette classics such as "La Valse des Niglos," or "The Waltz of the Hedgehogs," named for a favored delicacy of Gypsy cuisine. It was Poulette Castro, Garcia, and Malha’s style of playing that set the tone of the times and caught Django’s ear.
Django, however, was an audacious pioneer, infusing musette with jazz. Initially, musette and swing were two camps of musical styles that did not want to mix: As the great accordeonist Jo Privat recalled, "There were ‘No swing dancing’ signs in musette ballrooms. Swing could provoke brawls. Guys who like to hold their girls tight didn’t like that."
But to Django, it was the swing that made it mean something. As Delaunay quotes Django himself: "Jazz attracted me because in it I found a formal perfection and instrumental precision that I admire in classical music, but which popular music doesn’t have."
Django was not the only young Gypsy guitarist following in the early masters’ footsteps. The Gitan Gypsy brothers Baro, Sarane, and Matelo Ferret—as well as their cousin, Challain Ferret—remain the most famous of the other Gypsy guitarists. The Ferrets also taught themselves banjo, then guitar, and played in and recorded with Parisian musette bands, often playing daring and inventive solos and blending bebop with waltzes to create a unique style. Django and the Ferret brothers’ careers were intermixed. Sarane, Matelo, and Challain played rhythm in the QHCF at times, but it was Baro who would record numerous sides and play with the quintet on and off for many years.
Stories about Django are many. As a reviewer of the Hot Club’s concert premiere in 1934 in Jazz Tango magazine hinted: "It might be said that he was the revelation of the concert. He is a curious musician, with a style like no one else’s... Moreover, Reinhardt is a charming fellow who seems to offer in his mode of existence the same whimsical imagination that illumines his solos...."
Listen to these stories that illuminate Django the man:
He was terrified of ghosts. He could not stop himself from gambling. He adored movies, particularly American gangster films, and from them developed a fondness for wide-brimmed hats that he liked to perch askew on his head and tuck over one eye. He was amazingly adept at games, from pinball to pool. He had a pet monkey.
And then there was the time he met Andrés Segovia. He played for the Spanish classical maestro a short jazz crepuscule on his Selmer guitar. When Django finished, Segovia was dazzled by the piece and asked for a transcription. Django laughed and shrugged, saying that it was merely an improvisation.
And there was Django’s pride, illustrated by the story of how the Hot Club quartet became a quintet. Grappelli told the tale: "I could see something was worrying Django. And when I asked him what the trouble was one day, he replied: ‘It doesn’t matter all that much. It’s just that when you’re playing, Stéphane, you’ve got both [QHCF guitarist Roger] Chaput and me backing you, but when I’m soloing I’ve only got one guitar behind me!’" With that, Django’s brother Joseph was hired as a second rhythm guitarist.
And there was Django’s sense of style. Grappelli: "I shall never forget the first day Django put on evening dress—with bright red socks. It took some time to explain, without injuring his feelings, that red socks were not the right thing. Django insisted that he liked it that way, because red looked so well with black."
And finally there was his innocence, a Gypsy out of step with the modern world. Again, Grappelli told the story, telling of how the Hot Club was invited to dine with the king of Belgium during a Belgian tour. Django, not knowing better, ate his lettuce with his fingers—but, as Grappelli remembered, he somehow did it with great style and class so it seemed alright.
The New Beginning
World War II split the cornerstones of the QHCF: Django stayed in France while Grappelli was in England. Freed from the confines of the QHCF, Django could explore other venues and band arrangements, setting the stage for a second era of Django’s music as he broadened his vocabulary of styles.
Django replaced Grappelli and his violin with the clarinet of Hubert Rostaing, creating a band sound no doubt influenced by recordings of Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian. Django also played with Fud Candrix’s big band. After the war in 1946, Django regrouped with Grappelli for a short time before setting sail to tour the United States with Duke Ellington and his orchestra.
During the 1940s, Django experimented with going electric. Devoted to his acoustic Selmer guitar but having trouble cutting through the sound of the larger bands he was playing in, he affixed a magnetic French-made Stimer pickup to the petite bouche soundhole. The sound created a new dimension in his playing, which is infused with bebop he heard in America.
At the dawn of the 1950s, Django moved his small family—including his second wife Sophie "Naguine" Ziegler and their son Babik—from Paris to the town of Samois-sur-Seine, just south of the capital. "I think he ended up living in Samois because it was a retreat for him where he could relax and rethink his music," Babik recalled. "He was very inspired at the time and listened to everything from Beethoven to bebop…especially bebop."
Django was in semi-retirement, playing now and then, but spending more time fishing. On May 15, 1953, he was struck by a fatal stroke. He was but forty-three years old.
Django Reinhardt lived a long life in his forty-three years. It’s impossible to sum up his influence on jazz as that influence continues to this day. Matelo Ferret’s sons Boulou and Elios Ferré still carry Django’s torch to the extremes of musical creativity, and Gypsy jazz is currently in a renaissance with Hot Club bands in Japan, Norway, Sardinia, San Francisco, and almost anywhere else that jazz is heard.
Perhaps it’s best for Django’s old cohort, Stéphane Grappelli, to have the final word. He summed up Django’s playing in the 1954 Melody Maker interview: "He did more for the guitar than any other man in jazz. His way of playing was unlike anyone else’s, and jazz is different because of him. There can be many other fine guitarists, but never can there be another Reinhardt. I am sure of that."
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