Music History

Guitar Virtuoso Django Reinhardt

May 30, 2014

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Django Reinhardt is one of the most innovative and revered guitarists of all time and yet, many people have no idea who he was or what he accomplished. His story is one that defies the odds and champions the creative. Passionate guitarists and music lovers know him as a conqueror of obstacles: a man who created an entirely new and challenging guitar fingering technique after two of his fingers were permanently paralyzed from a fire, a man who created a new genre of music by fusing together the sounds of three different genres that inspired him, a man who avoided Nazi persecution while his fellow gypsies were sent to concentration camps, and a man whose story continues to inspire musicians to be better guitarists today.

Django Reinhardt was born into a nomadic Gypsy family in Belgium in 1910 but grew up in a caravan in the suburbs of Paris. When he was 12, he taught himself to play his first instrument (the guitar-banjo) by mimicking the finger movements of the musicians around him. His professional music career began that same year with gigs in the working-class dance halls in Paris known as the bals musette. A natural musician, he also learned how to play both the banjo and the violin without the ability to read or write music.

The young prodigy contributed to his first recording when he was 18, playing backup guitar-banjo for the popular accordionist Jean Vaissade. His musical and improvisational talent was clearly evident, earning him musical credits and 14 more recordings. Due to his illiteracy, his name was spelled incorrectly on the credits as “Jiango Renard”. That same year, on November 2, 1928, Django experienced a life-altering tragedy when his caravan caught fire. The right side of his body was badly burned and his left hand was permanently crippled putting his musical career in danger. Against the doctor’s recommendation, Django refused the amputation of his right leg. With the heat of the fire shrinking the tendons in his fourth and fifth fingers leaving them forever curled towards his palm, Django spent the next 18 months in bed teaching himself how to play guitar with the remaining two mobile fingers on his left hand.

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After finally being released from bed rest, Django and his brother Joseph played cafes in Paris and toured the south of France where the artist Emile Savitry introduced them to American jazz records by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Eddie Lang. Although Django had heard jazz music before, his encounter with Louis Armstrong’s “Indian Cradle Song” has been said to have been a turning point in his life. Armstrong’s intense and powerful sound moved him so deeply that he held his head in his hands and exclaimed in Romani, “My brother!”. This music had a different sound than the jazz music of the mid-1920s and Django was about to extend the boundaries of jazz even further.

Influenced by his Gypsy roots, Django pioneered a new genre of music in the 1930s known as Gypsy Jazz, or Jazz Manouche in France. Fusing together the sounds of traditional Gypsy guitar, American jazz, and traditional French music that influenced him, Django created a style of music that was completely unique. At the time, jazz instrumentation consisted of piano, horns and drums. Gypsy jazz ensembles, however, included only string instruments (although on some gypsy jazz recordings the accordion, sax, and piano have been incorporated). The lead guitarist would use a down-up picking pattern with a heavy pick and a heavy hand in order to be loud enough to compete with the violin, two rhythm guitars, and bass. The clear tone and ability to project sound made Selmer guitars the ideal guitar for gypsy jazz guitarists. Django was primarily associated with these Selmer guitars made by luthier Mario Maccaferri.

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In addition to the unique instrumentation of gypsy jazz, was Django’s creation of a new guitar technique that would also characterize the genre. Born out of necessity to continue playing, Django created a new fingering style in which he used only two fingers and incorporated diminished chords. The sound of gypsy jazz is one of strong vibrato, rippling melodies, string bending, and “La Pompe” playing style in which the emphasis of sound is on beats 2 and 4.

In 1934, Django co-founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France with the French classically trained violinist Stephane Grappelli. The two rhythm guitars were played by Django’s brother Joseph Reinhardt and Roger Chaput with Louis Vola on bass. The quintet got most of its early work from the founding president of The Hot Club – initially a jazz fan club of young music lovers – Hugues Panassie. Panassie booked recording sessions as well as gigs for the group. The Hot Club had wanted to find French jazz musicians who could play as well as the American musicians and strongly believed in the talent of Django and Stephane Grappelli.

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Initially, Django’s new style of jazz faced obstacles of acceptance. While American jazz had, by this time, become an acceptable genre of music in France, the French believed that jazz was in the blood of African American expat musicians, therefore it was they who were regarded as proper jazz musicians. The Quintette, a string ensemble composed of French musicians with Gypsy guitar styles, was certainly outside the mould of what jazz was supposed to be. However, the Quintette soon acquired fans and would become the most successful European jazz group. Within the first two years of forming, they were playing concerts regularly and had 32 recordings.

In 1937, the Paris World Fair was the host to an abundance of creative works by Picasso, Modigliani, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway and was unlike any other event before it. Bursting with creative energy and inspiration, the Quintette completed 25 recordings that year – their most in a single year – including the Duke Ellington cover “Solitude” and what would become the anthem of gypsy jazz, “Minor Swing”.

Two years later, World War II broke out across Europe. Nazi propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, believed jazz to be a potent force that encouraged people to think and act freely – something the Nazi regime viewed as dangerous to their power. Goebbels banned the importation and playing of all American records, especially jazz. However, the genre was never officially banned due to the fact that both the German people and the Nazi high command had a passion for the music. Only some jazz bands were given a Nazi seal of approval and were allowed to record in Germany and their occupied territories. The German love of jazz is what many believe saved Django Reinhardt’s life during the war. Despite his Gypsy roots, Django managed to avoid being sent to concentration camps and slaughtered during the Nazi genocide while remaining to live, perform, and record in France throughout the war. His musical partner, Grappelli, spent the war years in the U.K., resulting in a hiatus of the Quintette until after the war ended.

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In 1940, Django composed a song that would become the unofficial wartime national anthem for France. Like other occupied territories, the Nazis had banned France’s national anthem. When he first performed the song to an audience, the reaction was unlike anything he had experienced before. The crowd erupted and demanded he play it over and over again. “Nuages” (translated as “clouds” in English) had a soft and slightly melancholy tune that had an air of nostalgia to it that the French immediately identified with. “Nuages” would become Django’s best-selling record and is also one of the few European jazz songs to become a jazz standard.

After the war, Django went to America for three months to tour with one of his musical inspirations, Duke Ellington. Django’s talent was respected and admired by his peers on both sides of the ocean. A powerfully creative improviser, he never played a solo the same way twice. His musical style and technique has been orally passed down through generations of Gypsies, just as Django had learned to create music – without the ability to read or write it. After retiring in 1951, he died of a brain hemorrhage two years later.

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Django has continued to inspire and influence musicians and pop culture throughout the decades. Both Jerry Garcia from The Grateful Dead (who lost his right middle finger when he was five in a wood-chopping accident) and Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi (who lost the tips of his right middle and ring fingers in an industrial accident when he was seventeen) were inspired by Django to continue to pursue their musical callings. Robbie Robertson paid tribute to him with “Tango for Django” on his 2011 album How to Become Clairvoyant. The character of Django appears in Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo playing guitar in a train station cafe and is also the idol of the main character Arvid in the film Swing Kids whose left hand is smashed by the Nazis but who aspires to play like Django.

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Gypsy jazz and the style of Django Reinhardt is still active and practiced in music today. One of the current groups who stay true to the style and technique of gypsy jazz is Toronto-based trio Les Petit Nouveaux, an all string ensemble consisting of Aline Homzy on violin, Andy Mac and Tak Arikushi on guitars, with frequent bass player guests.

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Both guitarists play Selmer-style guitars and rotate between the lead and rhythm roles. The use of these guitars and their traditional strumming style mirror Django’s technique from the 1930s in which his acoustic guitar had to compete with the sounds of the other instruments. Les Petit Nouveaux also use Django’s challenging 2 finger method for most of their songs, staying true to his style.

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While they continue to pay homage to and pass on Django’s music to current audiences by recording and performing Django Reinhardt and Quintette du Hot Club de France originals (like the classics “Minor Swing”, “Nuages”, “Belleville”, and “Daphné”), they also write original gypsy jazz compositions. These original songs are true to Django’s style in their 3 voice chord structures, instrumentation and frequent 2 finger technique. Their original song “Ville Belle” was inspired by Django’s 1942 song “Belleville”. Les Petit Nouveaux will be continuing to spread Django’s legacy on their upcoming tour in Sweden from August 20th – September 8th and can be heard in Toronto every Friday night at 7pm at La Revolución.

A true innovator, Django Reinhardt remains one of the most remarkable and distinctive guitarists of all time. A legend and an inspiration, one name stands apart from the rest: Django.

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