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Django Reinhardt And The Illustrated History Of Gypsy Jazz

J. Robert Bragonier By

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Django Reinhardt And The Illustrated History Of Gypsy Jazz
Michael Dregni, with Alain Antonietto and Anne Legrand
Speck Press
ISBN: 10: 1-933108-10-x
ISBN: 13: 978-1-933108-10-0
2007

My middle-aged son is an orthopaedic surgeon, after-hours jazz musician and lover of Gypsy swing in general (and Django Reinhardt in particular), and, a few months before I got the opportunity to review this book, I discovered it while searching for a Christmas present for him. It is an attractive volume, soft-bound, smallish "coffee-table-reading in size, with a rusty-orange cover featuring a small color painting of Reinhardt by John Firesheets, and it easily captured my attention. Furthermore, it demanded more than a cursory glance, with its more than 400 color and black-and-white photos, posters and paintings, and the decision to purchase it was indeed an easy one.

The opportunity to read it in detail awaited its arrival from AAJ, however, so I didn't realize immediately what a good gift I had chosen. I learned, for instance, that Gypsy jazz is a vagabond music, born on the move of many mothers, and that, as such, it is a true musique métisse, a music of mixed blood, an amalgam of many musical traditions. Although I knew it stemmed from Romany violinists playing Eastern European laments and Tziganes music, I didn't recognize its Spanish, Moorish, Arabian, French, and North African roots. I didn't realize that the Manouche Gypsies, from whom Reinhardt descended, originated in India, where in the year 1001, an army of lower-caste individuals were drafted to fight Muslim invaders. The subsequent wars lasted three decades, after which the warriors migrated west to Byzantium, and from there through Egypt and North Africa to Spain and France, where they became known as Gitanos or, in French, Gitans. They were first reported in France in 1418, from whence some continued into Russia and Eastern Europe.

Reinhardt was born in a Gypsy caravan in the winter of 1910, and his parents wandered about Europe, playing music at town fairs and village flea markets. His father's name was Jean Eugene Weiss, although he used the alias "Jean-Baptiste Reinhard to hide from French military conscription. His mother, Laurence Reinhardt, was a dancer; her last name had been chosen by the clan sometime in the distant past. On his birth certificate, Reinhardt's Christian name was given as Jean, although few of his fellow Romany knew him as such. "Django," a unique, even eccentric name, was a first-person verb meaning "I awake in Romany, a strong statement that radiated hope, power, and a sense of destiny. He was always very proud of his name.

I didn't know that Reinhardt started out playing the violin, before taking up the banjo and guitar. I knew that he had suffered a serious accident, but I didn't realize that he was 17 years old when his caravan was set ablaze by a dropped candle. He was horribly burned; doctors thought they might have to amputate his left leg. His left hand was nearly completely destroyed by the flames; his ring and little fingers were inflexible claws, and nerves and tendons in his hand were withered and difficult to control. He obviously had to learn to play the guitar and banjo all over again, using only his thumb, index and middle fingers on the frets, while forming new chords and arpeggios vertically rather than horizontally on the fretboard.

Reinhardt's story is all here: his convalescence, during which his young wife left him with their first-born son l'Ourson ("bear cub ), which soon became simply Lousson; his meeting, in the summer of 1934, with a fellow musician whose association would forever alter his life, the violinist Stephane Grappelli; their formation of Le Quintette Du Hot Club De France; his subsequent ascent to the pinnacle of the golden age of swing, despite the fact that jazz was outlawed in Nazi-occupied France; his big band; his less than stellar visit to the U.S.; and more.

But don't take my word for it; if this glimpse into one of the most important and fascinating chapters in jazz history has piqued your interest, you'll want to sample this readable, wonderfully-illustrated text for yourself.

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