In the sphere of improvisational guitarists one name always warrants mention: Django Reinhardt. He was in a class by himself and has been referred to as the Jimi Hendrix of jazz guitar. To this day no guitarist has come close to his style of playing. His tonal clarity, strength of melody, fullness of expression, enthusiasm, and jaw-dropping speed all reinforced the myth of this gypsy guitarist. His European heritage brought a unique sound to the jazz plate, incorporating elements of classical music and folk traditions. Django was a virtuoso of technique and style, admired by guitarists and jazz fans around the world.
Django Reinhardt was born in Belgium on January 23, 1910 and raised in a gypsy settlement on the skirts of Paris. Not privy to a formal education (as an adult he signed his name with an X) he poured his energy into such pastimes as billiards, fishing, and music. Django excelled at all three, but music came particularly easy to him, to the point where he originally felt guilty about accepting money for his services. As a young teenager Django was accompanying other musicians in local restaurants and theaters.
At 18 years of age, Django's genius was already recognized and his star ready to ascend, but a fortuitous accident interrupted his big break. Set to travel to London and play with British bandleader Jack Hylton, one night his caravan caught fire. Django and his wife survived but his right thigh and left hand were badly burned. The tendons in his ring finger and pinky had shrunk from the heat of the fire, leaving them permanently curled towards the palm and nearly useless. It could have spelled the end for a promising musical future, but Django's stalwart nature was determined to prevail over the obstacle.
For the next 18 months Django used recuperating time to rebuild his hand and create a new chord fingering system with the two good fingers. The two paralyzed fingers dragged along the strings or were used for barring. It was a system that still provokes analysis and admiration from musicians today. This unorthodox technique spawned singular phrasings and thumb played octaves. Solos were executed with index and middle fingers only. Command of the guitar had hardly been compromised. In fact, his adapted technique had produced an astonishing speed and wealth of expression.
Reinhardt's musical upbringing was steeped in classical and gypsy folk, yet he was drawn to jazz in his early years due to its instrumental precision and freedom of expression. In 1934, after a chance backstage meeting with violinist Stephane Grappelli, the Quintette du Hot Club de France was formed. Their take on the American art form brought distinct European influences, discarding stateside jazz traditions and fusing elements of gypsy music, classical, and local folk. The Hot Club's attack of three guitars, violin, and a string bass was unheard of. Their new jazz hybrid could encompass a swing take of a Bach concerto or a Ravel flavoured bolero just as comfortably as a Gershwin composition or some New Orleans ragtime. The Quintette widened the perimeters established by African-American jazz players and gained a considerable following on both sides of the Atlantic in the process.
As for Django, his cross-cultural improvisations on the guitar astounded listeners. He had ignored the banjo-style syncopations laid down by previous jazz guitarists. Like a poet searching for new ways of expression Django stacked sophisticated harmonic structures and sparkling melodies in abundance. Producer Charles Delaunay claimed Django had a constant vision of music as a circle in his head. "I think he could see music. Early recordings like "Dinah blended lively triplets and bluesy twists with vigorous rhythm. Other songs like "Djangology , "Limehouse Blues , Chicago , and "Minor Swing continued this inspired execution. Django was also a gifted composer, actually composing music for symphony orchestra by playing all the parts on guitar!
It is said that every jazz musician seeking true recognition must play in America, yet Django was prevented from such a tour until after World War II. However, a handful of jazz stars like Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Dickie Wells, and members of the Duke Ellington band managed to play with Django on their own European tours. Ellington called Django "a great inimitable of jazz, and when Django finally did arrive in America in 1946, they toured on similar bills.
During the war years Django played with different incarnations of the Quintette. Grappelli chose to live in London, though they did reunite to record again after the war. Django avoided the fate of fellow gypsies detained in Nazi concentration camps mostly because Germans loved his music. His most famous composition, "Nuages , captured the imagination of Europeans during this period and his live performances always received top billing. He returned to Paris after the American tour and played music until 1951 when he retired. On May 16, 1953, after partaking in an afternoon of fishing, Django died of a massive brain hemorrhage.
Although Django never gained immense popularity on this side of the ocean during his lifetime, new generations of listeners and, particularly guitarists, have consistently turned to his recordings out of admiration and for inspiration. Noted musicians like Jerry Garcia, Jeff Beck, John McLaughlin, and Trey Anastasio are only a few who have cited how essential his impact was. One has only to hear the magic of Django's playing to understand why.
William P. Gottlieb