Demystifying Django

March 14, 2005

0.000gp0909_riffs1933ViviTone.jpg0.000gp0909_riffs1935Regal.jpgFew guitarist’s lives are as shrouded in mystery as that of Django Reinhardt. Fewer still have had such an enduring influence on the evolution of jazz. In his new book, Django, the Life and Music of the Gypsy Legend [Oxford], Michael Dregni presents an encyclopedic account of the Gypsy jazzman’s life and times that provides an abundance of new information, finds new connections between what was already known, and clears up many misconceptions along the way.

“The fascinating thing about Django was, despite all this mythology and legend surrounding him, much of his story was unknown,” enthuses Dregni. “There were about five surviving radio interviews—in which Django primarily answers ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to questions—along with half a dozen film clips ranging from 15 seconds to a couple of minutes, two surviving letters he wrote, and one printed interview. Aside from his music, he was kind of a ghost in history.”

Dregni, who is an accomplished guitarist himself, was slowly seduced into the Django mythos over a period of seven years. “First I collected his recordings, then the unreleased recordings, and then the really obscure ones,” he explains. “After that, there was about a two-year process of extensive interviews and actual writing. I pieced the information together from a wide variety of sources, including talking with family members, some of the Hot Club of France founders, and other musicians Django played with.”

Django tells the guitarist’s personal story within the context of overall jazz history—as well as that of early 20th-Century Europe—and paints a vivid picture of what it meant to be a Gypsy jazz musician in occupied France. “The most surprising thing I uncovered,” reveals Dregni, “was what happened during the WWII years, when the Nazis banned jazz while simultaneously supporting it.”

Another new book, Django Reinhardt: Know the Man, Play the Music [Backbeat] by Dave Gelly and Rod Fogg, couples a concise 45-page bio with information on Django’s guitars, playing techniques, and signature stylistic elements. The book also includes analysis and transcriptions (in notation and tab, with chord charts) of the classics “Djangology,” “Sweet Chorus,” “Bouncin’ Around,” “Minor Swing,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “Nuages.” In addition, a CD containing newly recorded versions of the songs makes it easy to hear the individual parts clearly—which is often not easy to do when studying the original recordings. The book’s emphasis on playing Django’s music makes it a suitable companion to Dregni’s exhaustive biography.

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