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.
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 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