IF YOU COULD PINPOINT A BIG BANG IN THE GUITAR UNIVERSE, IT WOULD MOST LIKELY HAVE EMANATED FROM THE STRINGS AND SOUNDBOARD OF JEAN “DJANGO” REINHARDT’S STEEL-STRING ACOUSTIC ON DECEMBER 27, 1934, IN MONTPARNASSE, FRANCE.
Reinhardt had already been playing professionally for years and, in fact, he predated Charlie Christian by well over a decade. But this date (the Big Djang?) marked his first recording with the celebrated Quintette du Hot Club de France—featuring violinist Stéphane Grappelli, Reinhardt’s brother Joseph “Nin-Nin” Reinhardt and Roger Chaput (later replaced by Eugene “Ninine” Vées and Pierre Ferret) on rhythm guitars, and Louis Vola (replaced by Emmanuel Soudieux in 1938) on bass—whose instrumentation and remarkable improvisations were unprecedented in the European jazz world. From that moment on, Reinhardt’s fearless gypsy approach to jazz guitar re- sounded like a shot heard ’round the world, leaving millions of mouths agape and setting the course for the instrument’s evolution.
Employing a revolving roster of rhythm guitarists and bassists, Reinhardt and Grappelli supercharged the jazz guitar/violin format (pioneered on our side of the pond by Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti) with virtuosic gypsy passion, leaving most comers in their dust. And you’d be hard pressed to find a cooler looking outfit than the Quintette, with their five stringed instruments chugging away like a happy, runaway freight train. Few films of the group exist, but you’ll find an exquisite performance of “J’Attendrai” (“I Will Wait”) currently making the rounds on the ’Net. Though their live appearances from 1934 through 1936 were sporadic and met with critical indifference, the Quintette essentially ruled Europe from 1937 until they dissolved in 1939, when Django fled from London to Paris in the face of the impending war (with Grappelli choosing to remain behind). After the split, Reinhardt’s career continued to flourish. Between 1942 and 1944, he focused on impressionistic classical music and composed a symphony and a mass, neither of which was ever performed. Other musical explorations included various resurrections of the Quintette and a 1946 stint as featured soloist with Duke Ellington’s orchestra in the U.S., before Reinhardt charged head-on into the ensuing bebop era. Following his success in America, Django remained an international star until his untimely death on May 16, 1953, when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage near his home in France at the age of 43. Reinhardt was survived by a son, Jean Jacques (b. 1944, also called Chien-Chien or Babik), who became an accomplished guitarist in his own right, and carried his father’s torch until his death in 2001.
Reinhardt was a fearless innovator, the original punk-jazz rocker, if you will, who by all accounts treated music and life as one grand improvisation. Ironically, Reinhardt was painfully shy and rarely spoke in public, a trait that belied the brave torrents of emotion that poured from his instrument. “With my guitar in my hands, I am not afraid of anyone,” he once declared. His breadth of influence remains immeasurable, and legions of guitarists from Les Paul to B.B. King to Jeff Beck to George Benson, plus all of their disciples, are forever in his debt. In fact, the majority of rockers from the past half-century have channeled some aspect of Django’s fiery and passionate attitude. You’ll find virtually every trick in the rock vocabulary, including string bends, vibrato, hammer-ons, pull-offs, dissonant chromatics, flawless arpeggios, flashy triplets, and tremoloed glissandos in any given Reinhardt solo. Reinhardt’s gypsy spirit and musical virtuosity were inexorably linked, and though none of us will even come close to living the way Django did (for fear of winding up in jail), we’ve still got his music, thanks to hundreds of reissues that document the Quintette’s original recordings. Spin a few sides cut between 1934 and 1939—the time period covered in the following musical examples—and you’ll soon be craving a piece of that sweet, Romany action. First, you gotta...
For more insight into Reinhardt’s music, check out the well-written Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend by Michael Dregni [Oxford], which was referenced in the writing of this article.
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