By Michael Dregni
Sure, there were other star guitarists and banjoists in the Twenties and Thirties, performers like Vess Ossman, Fred Van Eps, Johnny St. Cyr, Eddie Lang, and Lonnie Johnson. But Django Reinhardt played like no one before him and like few who followed. When Django played jazz on his Selmer guitar, he opened the world’s ears to the instrument’s potential.
Django was among the first—and certainly, the most influential—musicians to sing out single-note solos on an instrument previously used to woo maidens on balconies, accompany parlor-song sing-a-longs, or chop out percussive beats in early “jass” bands. In giving a voice to his guitar, Django sought to recreate the joyous horn solos of his first jazz hero, Louis Armstrong. At the same time, he was equally inspired by the Romani violinists from whom he first learned, Gypsy flamenco guitarists, and even Parisian dancehall accordionists. These influences shine through in Django’s dazzling glissandi, dashing chromatic runs, and daring virtuoso playing, which was so admired by his fellow Gypsies.
Following his lead, a young guitarist named Les Paul, fresh from Waukesha, Wisconsin, learned Django’s solos by listening to his records and performed them note for note onstage. He was not alone in his veneration. A disgruntled sharecropper in the Mississippi Delta named Riley “B. B.” King heard a recording by Django brought back from France by a returning GI and forever set aside his plow in favor of his guitar. A hot country picker called Chet Atkins made a pilgrimage to see Django perform during his sole visit to the United States, in 1946 and 1947, and came away speechless. A Spanish classical guitarist by the name of Andrés Segovia watched Django play at a Paris soirée and requested a copy of the music to perform. Django’s influence on the guitar world can hardly be exaggerated. Perhaps Jeff Beck said it best: after running through a list of his inspirations, from Les Paul to Cliff Gallup, he declared, “Of course, it all started with Django.”
And yet Django’s influence on guitarists went beyond his music. His life as a musical nomad living free outside the confines of the status quo remains an inspiration even today. (It was not for nothing that Jimi Hendrix named one of his groups Band of Gypsys.) Handsome and charismatic, childlike and unpredictable, Django was a noble savage let loose in Parisian high society, an idiot savant of music who earned fortunes and spent them again as fast as he plucked his guitar.
IN RETROSPECT, IT SEEMS ONLY FITTING that he took the name Django, a phrase in the Gypsy language of Romani that translates as I awake. His official name—the one by which the gendarmes and border officials knew him as his family crisscrossed France in their horse-drawn caravan—was Jean Reinhardt, but among his fellow Gypsies and musicians he always preferred to be called Django. It was certainly a name alive with destiny.
Every guitarist worthy of his or her instrument knows something of the Django legend. He was born by firelight in a wooden caravan outside the Belgian town of Liberchies on the winter night of January 23, 1910. His parents were traveling troubadours: his mother danced to the music that his father played on violin and on a piano that was unveiled on a makeshift stage at the rear of the caravan. In addition, they performed magic tricks, mended musical instruments, and made jewelry.
Django’s first instrument was violin, taught to him by his father. He played around Gypsy campfire parties as well as in country fairs and city markets, or anywhere there was an audience to throw him coins. When he was 10, Django picked up the banjo, an instrument brought to Europe by GIs in World War I. He learned to play it, and then the guitar, from two fellow Gypsies, the stars Jean “Poulette” Castro and Gusti Malha, and when he was just 14 followed them in performing in the underworld dancehalls of Paris.
After playing a dance on the night of October 26, 1928, Django returned to the caravan he shared with his young wife, who made artificial flowers crafted from celluloid. A lit candle was accidentally knocked over, igniting the highly flammable flowers, and the caravan was quickly engulfed in flames. In his attempt to put out the blaze, Django was horribly burned on his right leg and his left hand, which was left all but paralyzed. The two smallest fingers on the hand became inflexible claws, leaving just his index and ring fingers with which to fret his guitar. Doctors said Django would not play guitar again, but after 18 months of convalescence—and what must have been painful practice—he had retaught himself to perform on the instrument.
It was around this time, in the late Twenties, that Django first heard American jazz. He swooned over Duke Ellington’s records, copped licks from Eddie Lang’s duets with violinist Joe Venuti, and became enamored with Louis Armstrong’s exuberant horn solos. After hearing jazz, Django never wanted to play Gypsy music again.
Still, in Thirties-era Paris, jazz was a fledgling, underground music, and Django had to rely on ballroom dance gigs to make a living. He joined a tea-dance orchestra that included a dapper young violinist named Stéphane Grappelli, and together they sawed away on dance tunes for gentlemen and ladies at the smart set’s Hôtel Claridge on the Champs-Élysées.
It was here that the Quintette du Hot Club de France was formed, thanks to the serendipity of a broken string. “One day, just before we were due to go on, a string broke on my violin,” Grappelli recalled. Tuning up his new string, the jazz-obsessed violinist dashed off a quick swing line. “This music seemed to impress Django, because he took his guitar and accompanied my improvisation.” The dance was quickly forgotten as the impromptu duo jammed on jazz. Soon, other band mates—bassist Louis Vola and guitarists Roger Chaput and Django’s brother Joseph—joined in, and the band’s foundation was set.
The jam sessions also caught the ear of Charles Delaunay, a young graphic designer who was a member of possibly the world’s first jazz club, the Hot Club de France. With the club’s backing, the newly named Quintette cut its first song in 1934, a string swing version of the standard “Dinah,” learned from Satchmo’s recording.
“Dinah” captured the genius of Django’s future music in embryo. The band played a rhythm style that became known as la pompe—“the pump”—for its fierce percussive beat. The pompeurs imitated stride piano accompaniment in the style of Fats Waller, hitting the first and third beats with bass notes, accentuating the second and fourth with chords. This basic pompe was then accented by syncopated half-note fills and rhythmic triplets adapted from Gypsy flamenco as well as tremolo chords, echoing the sound of balalaïkas borrowed from Eastern European Romani music.
Trading off with Grappelli’s violin, Django’s improvisations were pure fire. Within just a few choruses of “Dinah,” he pulled from his hat every trick he knew, like his magician father of old. Django’s two fingers danced through precise chromatic runs and flourishes of diminished arpeggios, interspersing deft chord-melody solos into his single-note lines, ending with ringing riffs of octave chimes. It was a bravura performance so hot that, on the master take, his bandmates cheered at the song’s completion.
FROM 1934 UNTIL THE OUTBREAK of World War II, the Quintette du Hot Club de France recorded some 140 sides on 78 rpm records, plus numerous solo improvisations by Django, duets with Grappelli, and all-star jam sessions. Django cut sides with saxman Coleman Hawkins, violinist Eddie South, and other visiting American jazzmen. The band toured France, Spain, Switzerland, Flanders, and Scandinavia while their recordings were released as far afield as the United States and Japan.
During World War II, Django flourished, even as the Nazis were rounding up his fellow Gypsies and sending them off to the camps. Paris was the rest-and-relaxation center for Germany’s soldiers, and they came to hear jazz, the most popular music of the day, played by Europe’s most popular jazzman. Grappelli was safe in London, so in 1940, inspired by Benny Goodman’s modern swing, Django launched his Nouveau Quintette du Hot Club de France with a clarinetist. He also continued to record. On October 1 of that year, he and the Hot Club made a recording of his composition “Nuages,” a wartime melody wistful for peaceful days. It became his most popular song ever.
In late 1946, following the war, Django finally realized his dream of touring the homeland of jazz, America. Duke Ellington invited him as a special guest soloist on a tour through the Midwest, ending with two nights at New York City’s Carnegie Hall.
Les Paul recalled the thrill of meeting Django during that tour. “I was performing at New York City’s Paramount theater. One day, the doorman yelled up six floors to my dressing room, ‘There’s a fellow down here wants to see you, says his name is Django Reinhardt.’ I laughed at the joke and called back, ‘Yeah, sure. Send him up with a case of beer and Jesus Christ, and I’ll give them both an autographed picture.’ So in he walks. Johnny Smith was with him, leading him around New York.
“I had two Epiphones laying on the couch. These were blonde 1939 Epi Deluxe Regent hollowbodies, but I had added all the electronics. Johnny Smith picked up one guitar and Django picked up the other. Django led off and the first number he played was ‘Rose Room.’ It was just the most awesome thing. Here I was in my dressing room, shaving and straightening out my makeup to go on, and Django’s playing guitar. It just stunned me.”
Django himself was stunned by the bebop he heard during a pilgrimage to the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Upon his return to France, he immediately set swing behind him to compose and record this new music. He had adopted the electric guitar and enjoyed playing at full volume, rejoicing in overdriving his small amplifier, using the novel sounds to recast his jazz.
Like the Harlem beboppers, Django took an old song—the ancient Gypsy waltz “Dark Eyes,” which he had played around the campfire—and resurrected it in bebop as “Impromptu.” His melody was a breathless rush of notes played in unison on guitar and sax like the best Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker duets.
By 1953, when Django died of a stroke at just 43, he was playing cool jazz in the mode of Miles Davis. Where his early music with the Quintette had been flurries of furious virtuosity, his last recordings were spare. It was as if he were seeking the perfect single note or simple melody to capture the world’s complexity.
BUILDING A COLLECTION OF Django’s recordings is no small task. In all, he recorded some 500 sides in addition to alternate takes, concert and radio sessions, and other rarities. For the completist, the French label Frémeaux offers a 20-volume chronological series, each volume comprising two CDs. Each includes excellent historical booklets, photos, and detailed personnel listings.
The best introductions to Django’s work are, happily, also the least expensive. JSP Records provides two four-CD box sets, The Classic Early Recordings and Paris and London 1937–48. The transfer sound quality is superb, and the second box set includes his hard-to-find wartime swing sides.
Tracking down Django’s bebop sides requires detective work. So rare are these tracks that many jazz fans don’t even know they exist. Happily, the DRG label has collected Django’s best bebop sides and final cool-jazz recordings on a single CD, the awkwardly named Brussels 1947, Paris 1951, 1952, 1953. Together, these cuts provide another ear-opening side of the man’s music—and an essential coda to his life.
Unlike most musicians, Django was a man of many styles. In the jazz world, Louis Armstrong found his voice in his formative “jass,” Benny Goodman in swing, Dizzy and Bird in bebop, Miles Davis primarily in cool jazz. Django, on the other hand, composed, arranged, and recorded songs in each of these genres, making musical statements in four distinct eras of jazz. Add to this his exploration of classical music and his work composing a symphony, symphonic jazz tunes, and even an organ Mass, and it’s arguable that few musicians have made such lasting statements in so many styles of music.
Django is also one of the few musicians to leave as his legacy an entire genre, that of Gypsy jazz. That style is alive and flourishing today, from Parisian cafés to European Gypsy encampments to American Hot Clubs still swinging in almost any city anywhere.
In the end, the most apt homage to Django may come from his longtime bassist, Emmanuel Soudieux, who said simply, “Django was music made man.”
Michael Dregni is the author of Gypsy Jazz: In Search of Django Reinhardt and the Soul of Gypsy Swing (Oxford University Press, 2010).