Django Reinhardt


A favorite photograph of Django Reinhardt pictures him standing alongside Stéphane Grappelli, the duo looking suave and sophisticated in white tuxedos. The photograph is steeped in the aura of 1930s Paris (the home of Quintette du Hot Club de France): charming, cool, classy.

Grappelli – Django’s musical partner, foil, rival and co-composer – holds his magic violin under his arm. Django leans casually on his famous Selmer guitar, his left hand carefully placed in his suit pocket, hiding the disfigured hand that he not only learned to play in spite of, but which shaped his style.

But it’s the look on Django’s face that always makes you examine this picture closely. It’s a look that comes through in many photographs of the gypsy guitarist: his dark eyes seem to twinkle, his pencil-thin mustache seems slightly devilish. And his smile – happy-go-lucky, mysterious, and omniscient.

Above all, Django’s smile seems to hold the key to his music.

The Music
Counts vary, but from 1928 to 1953, Django recorded some 750 to 1,000 sides. Much of his music is readily available today on numerous compact disc reissues and complete chronological sets. Add to this the alternate takes, unissued sides, radio broadcasts, and live recordings recently issued, and you soon realize that Django was the definition of prolific.

Ironically, many people’s first impressions of Django’s music are often negative, due to the medium. Most people first hear him via his recordings on 78-rpm discs – or LP or CD collections made from the 78s instead of the master recordings (which are 45 to 60 years old).

Listening to the QHCF for the first time, the first sound one hears is hiss and static as the recording begins. Then, the full band erupts into the first chorus with three acoustic guitars, Grappelli’s violin soaring above, and string bass below, the band’s sound often pushing the sonic limits of the era’s single-mic mono recording technology. The sound is akin to the cacophony of the modern civilization of the 1930s: the new sound of automobile traffic, machines, airplanes, street noises, a growing population.

Then Django’s guitar cuts through, and the music blossoms. He takes the lead as the rhythm guitars fall back into the famous boom-chick, boom-chick of la pompe – the jazz manouche rhythm. Django’s guitar is sublime and pure, unhurried in its cascades of elegant diminished arpeggios. It’s the sound of one man’s genius breaking through the chaos of the modern world.

When Django begins to play, the listener is hooked.

The Legend
The story of Jean Baptiste “Django” Reinhardt has all the makings of legend.

He was born in a gypsy caravan on January 23, 1910, near the Belgian town of Liverchies. His unmarried mother, known to audiences as “La Belle Laurence,” was a dancer and acrobat working with a wandering troupe of Gypsy comedians and musicians.

Many have since referred to Django as a Belgian gypsy, due to his place of birth, or a French gypsy, as he lived most of his life in France. But the nationality was never important; his cultural background as a gypsy was.

Some 2,000 years ago, the gypsy tribe known as the Sinti are believed to have migrated from the banks of the Sinti River, in India (from which they derived their name), to the Persian court, where they found work as musicians. From Persia, the gypsies traveled what is known as the Romany trail, leading through the Middle East into North Africa and Europe. Europeans, believing these wandering people to come from Egypt, corrupted their name into “gypsy.”

Often chased away from “civilization,” the gypsies have become nomadic of necessity more than desire. Forced to live a transitory life, they managed to survive on their skills as musicians, entertainers, metalsmiths, and traders. They have become a people of the diaspora, without a homeland and without a promised land. But through the centuries, their love for song has endured.

Django grew up a wanderer. Living in a caravan – “la verdine,” in the language of the Rom Django’s mother led him and his younger brother, Joseph (known affectionately as “Nin-Nin,”) through France, south to Nice, across to Italy, Corsica, Algeria, and then back to Paris. The family occasionally spent time in caravans on the nether zones at the edge of Paris by one of the old city gates.

Django learned to play banjo – the prime rhythm instrument before the ascendance of the guitar – because the banjo’s unamplified resonator blessed it with volume and the cutting, trebly tone gave it the power to accompany an accordion. In his teens, Django played banjo and guitar with Vetese Guérino, the popular gypsy accordionist, and others, in the cafes, dance halls, night clubs, and at the bals des Auvergnats (named for the people of the French province of Auvergne who migrated to the city), bringing the folk music that became a source of musette.

Django had a rare talent as a musician, an ability respected and admired among gypsies. As Charles Delaunay, Django’s French friend and manager, wrote in his colorful biography of the guitarist; “As water is a fish’s element and the air a bird’s, music was Django’s.”

The Tragedy
Then tragedy struck. At 1:00 a.m. on November 2, 1928, Django returned from a club to his caravan. He lit a candle to provide some light, and the flame ignited a bouquet of flowers his wife, Sophie “Naguine” Ziegler, had fashioned from celluloid, a highly flammable plastic. In minutes, the caravan was aflame. Django and Naguine escaped, but Django suffered horrible burns over half his body.

His left hand was disfigured from the burns: his two smallest fingers were twisted and thus limited in use; his ring and index fingers still functioned. His family thought he would never play guitar again, and as Delaunay writes, the men of the caravan wept.

But while bedridden and recovering, Django taught himself, slowly and surely, to play again. Grappelli explained the process best in a 1954 interview with the British music magazine Melody Maker, which appeared after Django’s death.

“He acquired amazing dexterity with those first two fingers,” Grappelli said. “But that didn’t mean he never employed the others. He learned to grip the guitar with his little finger on the E string and the next finger on the B. That accounts for some of those chord progressions which Django was probably the first to perform on the guitar.”

The Jazz
A new epoch in European jazz dawned when Django met Stéphane Grappelli, and the two began jamming on American swing tunes. In late 1934, they formed the Hot Club quintet, naming it after the Hot Club of France, a Paris meeting place for jazz musicians and fans. They were an inspired pair, similar to the American guitar/violin duo of Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti. Django’s playing with the QHCF in its glory years (1937 to 1939) was a modern amalgam of French folk music, accordion-lead musette, traditional gypsy music, and even the Argentine tango that was all the rage in 1920s Paris. Added into this strange brew was the wild, free, exciting sound of American jazz that transformed the old into the new. Swing supercharged the music, and the sound of the QHCF came to define an era.

It’s important to note that Django was not a solitary gypsy guitar genius, but part of a style. Gypsy guitarist/composer Gusti Malha was the patriarch of gypsy guitarists at the time when Django first starting playing in the bals-musette and jazz hot clubs of Paris. Malha played with gypsy accordionist Guerino, and others, composing and recording early musette classics such as “La Valse des Niglos,” or “The Waltz of the Hedgehogs,” named for a favored delicacy of gypsy cuisine. Malha’s style set the tone of the times and caught Django’s ear.

Django, however, was an audacious pioneer, infusing musette with jazz. Initially, musette and swing were two camps of musical styles that did not want to mix, as the great accordionist, Jo Privat, recalled.

“There were ‘No Swing Dancing’ signs in musette ballrooms,” he said. “Swing could provoke brawls. Guys who like to hold their girls tight didn’t like that.”

But to Django, swing made it mean something. As Delaunay quotes Django himself: “Jazz attracted me, because in it I found a formal perfection and instrumental precision that I admire in classical music, but which popular music doesn’t have.”

Django wasn’t the only young gypsy guitarist following in Malha’s footsteps. Lulu Galopin, and later Paul “Tchan Tchou” Vidal, of Alsace, Patotte Bousquet, of Marseilles, Didi Duprat, Francis-Alfred Moerman, and others were all drawn to musette.

But it is the brothers Baro, Sarane, and Matelo Ferret who remain the most famous of the other gypsy guitarists. The Ferrets also were self-taught on banjo, then guitar, and played in and recorded with Parisian musette bands, offering daring and inventive solos, and blending bebop with waltzes to create a unique style. Django’s career was intermixed with the Ferret brothers’. At times, Matelo played rhythm in the QHCF, but it was Baro who recorded numerous sides and played with the quintet, on and off, for many years.

The Man
Stories about Django are many. As a reviewer of the Hot Club’s concert premiere in 1934 in Jazz Tango magazine hinted.

“It might be said that he was the revelation of the concert. He is a curious musician, with a style like no one else’s…Moreover, Reinhardt is a charming fellow who seems to offer in his mode of existence the same whimsical imagination that illumines his solos….”

And there are stories that illuminate Django, the man. He apparently was terrified of ghosts. He could not stop himself from gambling. He adored movies, particularly American gangster films, and from them developed a fondness for wide-brimmed hats that he liked to perch askew on his head and tuck over one eye. He was amazingly adept at games, from pinball to pool. He had a pet monkey.

And then there was the time he met Andrés Segovia. He played a short jazz crepuscule on his Selmer guitar for the Spanish classical maestro. Segovia was dazzled by the piece and asked for a transcription. Django laughed and shrugged, saying that it was merely an improvisation.

And there was Django’s pride, illustrated by the story of how the Hot Club quartet became a quintet.

“I could see something was worrying Django,” Grappelli said. “And when I asked him what the trouble was one day, he replied, ‘It doesn’t matter all that much. It’s just that when you’re playing, Stéphane, you’ve got both [QHCF guitarist Roger] Chaput and me backing you, but when I’m soloing I’ve only got one guitar behind me!'”

With that, Django’s brother, Joseph, was hired as a second rhythm guitarist. Grappelli also talked about Django’s sense of style.

“I shall never forget the first day Django put on evening dress – with bright red socks. It took some time to explain, without injuring his feelings, that red socks were not the right thing. Django insisted that he liked it that way, because red looked so well with black.”

And finally there was his innocence – a gypsy out of step with the modern world. Again, Grappelli told the story of how the Hot Club, while touring Belgium, was invited to dine with the King. Django, not knowing better, ate his lettuce with his fingers – but, as Grappelli remembered, he somehow did it with great style and class so it seemed alright.

The New Beginning
World War II split the cornerstones of the Hot Club. Django stayed in France, while Grappelli was in England. Freed from the confines of the Hot Club, Django could explore other venues and band arrangements, setting the stage for a second era of Django’s music, as he broadened his stylistic vocabulary.

Django replaced Grappelli and his violin with the clarinet of Hubert Rostaing, creating a band sound no doubt influenced by recordings of Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian. Django also played with Fud Candrix’s big band. In 1946, Django regrouped with Grappelli for a short time before setting sail to tour the U.S. with Duke Ellington and his orchestra.

In the ’40s, Django experimented with electric instruments. Devoted to his acoustic Selmer, but having trouble cutting through the sound of the larger bands, he affixed a magnetic pickup to the petit bouche soundhole. The sound created a new style, heard on his later recordings, which are infused with the bebop he heard in America.

The Coda
At the dawn of the 1950s, Django moved his family from Paris to the town of Samois-sur-Seine, just south of the capital.

“I think he ended up living in Samois because it was a retreat for him where he could relax and rethink his music,” his second son, Babik, recalled. “He was very inspired at the time and listened to everything from Beethoven to bebop…especially bebop.”

Django was in semi-retirement, playing now and then, but spending more time fishing. On May 15, 1953, he suffered a fatal stroke. He was 43 years old.

Django Reinhardt lived a long life in his 43 years. Today, it’s impossible to sum up his influence on jazz because it continues. Matelo Ferret’s sons, Boulou and Elios Ferré, still carry Django’s torch to the extremes of musical creativity, and jazz manouche is currently in a renaissance with bands such as Latcho Drom, of France, the Rosenberg Trio, of the Netherlands, and Hot Club bands in Japan, Norway, San Francisco, and almost anywhere else jazz is heard.

Perhaps it’s best for Django’s old cohort, Stéphane Grappelli, to have the final word. Now 89, Grappelli is still going strong at this writing. He summed up Django’s playing in the 1954 Melody Maker interview.

“He did more for the guitar than any other man in jazz. His way of playing was unlike anyone else’s, and jazz is different because of him. There can be many other fine guitarists, but never can there be another Reinhardt. I am sure of that.”

Django Reinhardt with his fabled Selmer. Photo courtesy of Frank Driggs collection.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Dec. ’97 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.