Born in 1910, Romani-Belgian jazz guitarist Jean ‘Django’ Reinhardt almost single-handedly brought the gypsy jazz style of music to the world. Not only that, he did it with two fewer fingers than most of his colleagues, thanks to a caravan fire at the age of 18!
Join us for a deep dive into the life and story of a true jazz great…
With his pencil moustache, Romani-French guitarist Django Reinhardt was the first major European jazz musician, and remains one of the most significant and famous jazz guitar players of all time.
After being exposed to the prominent American jazz of the 1920s and 30s, he combined the influence of this with Roma-style guitar playing which evolved into what became known as Gypsy Jazz.
Reinhardt would go on to record or perform with American giants such as Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter and Duke Ellington, but the iconic sound of his 1930s work with violinist Stéphane Grappelli as part of the Quintette du Hot Club de France might be his greatest legacy.
The birth of ‘Django’
Jean Baptiste Reinhardt was born into a Manouche Romani family in Liberchies, Belgium, on 23 January 1910.
Nicknamed “Django” from an early age, his family soon moved to Romani encampments near Paris where he began to play violin, banjo and guitar. In true jazz tradition, he learnt by mimicking various musical family members and other local players, before honing his craft busking in cafes.
Aged 17, he made his first recordings on the ‘banjo-guitar’ (essentially a banjo, but with six rather than four strings, and tuned like a guitar) in 1928.
Content to slot in as accompanist to solo accordionists Maurice Alexander and Jean Vaissade, he gives little indication of the jazz improviser that he would later become, although his name had apparently begun to attract international attention already by this point.
A key event in Django’s life came about in November of that year.
The Caravan Fire and Its Aftermath
Aged just 18, Django had recently married Florine “Bella” Mayer.
One night, the young couple’s caravan caught fire, with Reinhardt receiving extremely severe burns, including on the fingers of his left hand. He was hospitalised for 18 months, and there was even talk of amputating his right leg, but he resisted this and was later able to walk with a cane.
During his long recovery he was forced to adopt a radical new approach to his instrument, which usually requires the use of all four left hand fingers on the fretboard.
Not for the first time, personal struggle pushed him to evolve in a way that would change the face of jazz guitar.
Django’s unorthodox guitar style
Now playing an acoustic guitar bought for him by his brother, Django was forced to develop a new method of playing due to irreparable tendon damage to his ring and little fingers.
This new technique utilised only the index and middle fingers on his left hand, whilst his right hand strummed as normal.
That he was able to attain such dexterous virtuosity from a position of apparent physical disadvantage has astonished listeners ever since.
Reinhardt’s repertoire had until then largely comprised Bal-musette (accordion-led French music with Italian influences, which gained popularity in Paris in the late 19th Century) and Sinti/Romani songs of the day.
It was during this period of reinvention, though, that he was exposed to the influence of American jazz for the first time.
Who Was Django Reinhardt Inspired By?
Of course, even with a pioneer such as Django Reinhardt, he had inspirations which shaped his style of playing. Artists such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington loomed large in this period.
It’s been claimed that his friend, the artist and photographer Émile Savitry, was instrumental in introducing Django to this increasingly popular style – Savitry’s record collection included Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington – and that Armstrong’s ‘Dallas Blues’ was a source of particular inspiration.
So too, were the sounds of Joe Venuti’s jazz violin and Eddie Lang’s virtuosic guitar-playing, who must have provided a direct spark for what came next in Django’s life…
It’s a String Thing (Django Reinhardt meets Stéphane Grappelli)
As Django’s interest in jazz developed, he began playing informally with the French-Italian violinist Stéphane Grappelli, with whom he formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France.
Reinhardt and Grappelli were joined by rhythm guitarists Roger Chaput, Django’s brother Joseph Reinhardt and double bassist Louis Vola.
Whilst the typical jazz small group at the time included drums and a trumpet and/or saxophone, the Quintette’s line-up was unusual in that it was the first major jazz ensemble to feature only string instruments.
Although horn players would record with the group at various points, this string-only instrumentation became the go-to format for Gypsy jazz bands.
Django was also the first person to popularise the guitar as a lead solo instrument in jazz.
The electric guitar did not come into general usage in the genre until the late 1930s, so whilst there were a few prominent players who preceded him, such as Eddie Lang (who played with Bix Beiderbecke and Paul Whiteman), jazz guitarists until that point could rarely be heard clearly above the rest of the band, and tended not to take linear solos.
However, the quieter nature of the Quintette’s instrumentation, and especially the absence of drums, allowed Django’s nimble improvisation style to be heard clearly, despite the lack of an amplifier.
It’s perhaps also a reason why he preferred the hardest guitar picks possible, favouring the use of turtle shell.
On recordings like ‘Dinah’ and ‘Tiger Rag’ from 1934, the interaction between Django Reinhardt and Grappelli is magic, with the pair trading ideas on top of the bouncy swing of the rhythm guitarists and double bass.
Alongside the typical swing repertoire of the day, the group also recorded Reinhardt’s compositions, despite the fact that he could not read music.
‘Minor Swing’, ‘Swing 42’ and ‘Djangology’ and many others have become Gypsy jazz standards, while ‘Nuages’ has been played outside of this sphere by musicians including Paul Desmond and Sidney Bechet.
The Quintette toured extensively in Europe, experiencing particular success in the UK. Meanwhile, both Django and Grappelli continued freelancing and recording elsewhere.
A 1937 session with visiting American heavyweights Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter includes fantastic takes of ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ and ‘Out of Nowhere’, although Django is featured much less heavily than with the Quintette.
World War Two in Paris
The outbreak of war in 1939 put an end to the Hot Club’s touring schedule, and marked the beginning of what must have been an extremely worrying period for the guitarist.
War broke out whilst the group were in the UK and, whilst Grappelli remained in England for the remainder of the conflict, Django Reinhardt returned immediately to Paris, where he continued to lead a new version of the Hot Club with clarinettist Hubert Rostaing in place of Grappelli.
With many of the American jazz musicians in Europe heading back to the States, Django found himself in high demand as musician.
But the opportunities and financial rewards this brought were tempered by his position as a Romani jazz musician.
Whilst the Germans only frowned upon jazz, stopping short of a total ban, the Romani gypsy community suffered horrific treatment during the Nazi occupation.
Forced to wear an ID badge sewn on their chest at all times, it’s estimate that up to 1.5 million gypsies were killed during the war, with many others narrowly surviving life as slaves in concentration camps.
The period did bring stories of happiness, musical evolution and incredible luck, though.
Django Reinhardt married his second wife, Sophie ‘Naguine’ Ziegler, in 1943, and also used the time to experiment with formal classical composition. With two failed attempts at fleeing occupied France thwarted (including one thanks to a jazz-loving German officer), he must have nonetheless greeted the end of world war two, like millions of others, with enormous relief.
Django Heads To America
In 1946, with the War over, Grappelli and Reinhardt were reunited and the latter was invited to join Duke Ellington’s Orchestra on a tour for what would be his only visit to the United States.
While the surviving audio of this meeting is certainly worth hearing, the tour was considered a failure and was poorly received by critics: Django would often arrive late on stage and apparently struggled with a now amplified guitar in large concert halls.
Reinhardt continued to record extensively in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, with his music absorbing some of the bebop sounds that were emerging from New York. He also played the electric guitar (his favoured Selmer, fitted with a pick up) accompanied by a more standard jazz rhythm section including drums.
In 1953, living in Samois-sur-Seine, Django Reinhardt suffered a stroke and died unexpectedly aged 43.
The Django Reinhardt Revival Years
Interest in Django Reinhardt and Gypsy jazz lay mostly dormant for a while, before seeing a big revival decades later.
Artists like the prodigious Biréli Lagrène, who emerged in the 1980s at the tender age of 13, and The Rosenberg Trio a decade later are just two examples of high profile musicians keeping the tradition alive.
Widely considered one of the greatest and most influential guitarists of all time, his influence – and that of the gypsy jazz he pioneered – has maintained its popularity well into the 21st Century.
Take a look at the scene in 2024, you’ll find summer camps, festivals (including France’s Django Reinhardt Festival) and dedicated clubs keeping the music as fresh as ever!
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