Django Reinhardt was born Jean Batiste Reinhardt on January 23, 1910 in Liberchies Belgium. Later in life Django (family nickname, means “I Awake”) born into a family of Gypsys would become a world renowned if unlikely, Genius of Guitar.
Django Reinhardt started playing violin, then banjo later switching to the guitar. In 1928 his first recordings of the French Music of that day were made, Django playing banjo, with accordion players, Jean Vaissade and V. Marceau.
He was married in 1928 also, still living the Gypsy lifestyle in a caravan his wife made artificial flowers out of cellulose and he played guitar and banjo. One evening he knocked over a candle and the cellulose caught fire. Django severely burned his leg and his left hand.
While doctors debated amputating his right leg and left hand, friends smuggled him out of the hospital. It took Django a year to be able to walk again but his left hand was severely injured. He was never able to use his fourth and fifth finger on his left hand after the fire.
His desire to play music led to his two years of hard work relearning to play the guitar now with his disability. He learned to form guitar chords using three fingers. He heard Louis Armstrong’s recording of Dallas Blues and decided he liked jazz.
During the early thirties Django appeared on many records as a sideman. Guitar players were few and far between back in the 1930s; unlike today they were not a dime a dozen. Django was innovating in regard to playing with his reconfigured and hand as well what type of music to play.
In August 1934 Django recorded Tiger Rag accompanied by his brother Joseph Reinhardt and Bass player Juan Fernandez and this was his emergence as a soloist. There were not a good deal of Jazz guitar players to emulate so he was forging his own art and musical path.
Django had met violinist Stephane Grappelli in 1931 and they enjoyed jam sessions playing off of each other. In the summer of 1934 the Hot Club of France invited Grappelli and Reinhardt to play with a jazz string group and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France was born.
The group was a sensation from the start and their sound was unique in all the world. In the Syncopated Times Exploring Hot Jazz, Ragtime and Swing in his story, Django Reinhardt: Profiles in Jazz Steve Yanow captured the snapshot:
“Nothing like this had ever been heard before, not in France, the United States, or anywhere in the jazz world. The solos of Reinhardt and Grappelli (who ranked with Joe Venuti and Stuff Smith among jazz violinists), the steady timekeeping of the other musicians, and the interplay between the two lead voices were consistently exciting. Although there had been a few talented European jazz musicians previously, Reinhardt and Grappelli were the first to be innovators.”
Here is Tiger Rag from The Quintet of the Hot Club of France from 1946 in London. A much more mature group and a higher quality recordings.
All the while Django was also playing backup on vocalists recordings as Steve Yanow also relates:
“Reinhardt remained in demand to accompany French singers on records including Jean Sablon, Germaine Sablon, Le Petit Mirisha, Leo Monosson, Pierre Lord, Nane Cholet, Nina Rette, Bruce Boyce, Yvonne Louis, Jean Trachant, and Jacotte Perrier. The recordings of those vocalists are mostly of interest today due to the guitarist’s playing rather than the singing.” (Yanow)
So Django was the Eric Clapton of his day in the jazz scene of Europe of the mid 1930s thru the mid 1940s. Gypsies were persecuted by the Nazis and Django was a Gypsy.
The War Years
He had been in London when the Nazis invaded Poland. He returned to Paris. He formed a new Quintet of the Hot Club of France. Stephane Grappelli remained in London throughout the war.
Django managed to remain free and keep recording while also not being used in the Nazi propaganda machine. Though they tried, Django would sporadically appear and they failed to get their hands on him. The new Quintet featured a clarinet player, Hubert Rostaing in Grappelli’s place.
Steve Yanow relates this about Django’s career during the war:
“He [Django] became one of the first guitarists to lead a big band on record sessions and was also well featured with smaller swing combos led by Brun, Combelle, Briggs, Ekyan, trumpeter Pierre Allier, clarinetist Christian Wagner, and tenor-saxophonist Noel Chiboust. Among his new compositions were “Swing 41”, “Swing 42”, “Dinette”, “Nympheas”, “Feerie”, “Manoir de Mes Reves”, “Belleville”, and his best-known original, “Nuages.”
On July 7, 1943 the last recording session during the war was complete. No further recordings for over a year were made. People wondered what had become of Reinhardt.
It was international news when Django reappeared after the liberation of France in great shape in 1944. Django immediately after the war started recording again.
There were reunion appearances with Stepahe Grappelli but the two never performed regularly together after that. The music was changing and Django started learning the elctric guitar and the new BeBop style of music.
He was mastering BeBop and the electric guitar as we might imagine after his original comeback from severe injury. Django was an over comer. I especially like that he also remained in Europe recording and performing his Gypsy Jazz in the Nazis faces. My kind of guy.
In 1947 Django made his only trip to the United States touring with Duke Ellington. He was disappointed though inasmuch as Ellington wrote no special music featuring Django only in his rhythm section a few songs each night. American Jazz listeners had never heard of Django Reinhardt. YET.
They would not until after his death. Django was overcoming the music style change and was poised, probably for worldwide success, by 1949 one of the best BeBop guitarist in the world. He recorded in 1950-1953, with younger European musicians.
They were planning to bring Django back to the United States “as part of Norman Granz’s Jazz At The Philharmonic. One could imagine Reinhardt jamming with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and perhaps recording with Oscar Peterson.” (Yanow).
Django Reinhardt was suddenly taken from us by a stroke on May 16, 1953, at the age of 43. Artists from Duane Allman to Mick Jagger have mentioned Django Reinhardt as an influencer. His influence goes way beyond what has been spoken. In 1973 a world tour was set up with “Stephane Grappelli who was persuaded by guitarist Diz Disley to lead a jazz string group and the response was so favorable that the violinist toured the world in that setting. The comeback of Django Reinhardt’s music had begun.” (Yanow)
In the 1980s there was a resurgence of swing jazz and it was inspired by Django Reinhardt. A very amazing man and artist who played the guitar on a world-class level with two functioning fingers and his thumb.
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