In Guitar Aficionado’s Summer 2012 issue, we celebrate the brief life and brilliant legacy of Django Reinhardt. The Gypsy jazz guitarist revolutionized the role of the guitar in jazz and captured the imagination of the world’s greatest players. Plus, we cover Django’s lifelong affair with Selmer guitars and discover Gypsy jazz in the City of Lights.
[The following is an excerpt from the Summer 2012 issue of Guitar Aficionado.]
An appreciation of the great Django Reinhardt, whose swinging sides revolutionized the role of the guitar in jazz and captured the imagination of the world’s greatest players. 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.
To read the rest of this article, and the entire Summer 2012 issue of Guitar Aficionado, pick up the back issue here.