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Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend

David Rickert By

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Michael Dregni
Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 019-516752-X
326 pages

Today many French gypsies only own two books: the Bible and Charles Delaunay's biography of Django. However, this is a testament to the legacy of the guitarist more than the power of the book itself, for Delaunay (although a key figure in the European jazz scene) only skimmed the surface; at just over 150 pages, it left many a Reinhardt fan wanting more. And since Delaunay's book was originally published in 1961, a new, more in-depth biography of Django was long overdue.

Michael Dregni, a contributor to Vintage Guitar magazine, has written what will surely be the authoritative Django biography for quite some time. Lively, entertaining, and filled with colorful prose, Dregni captures not only the life of the gypsy guitarist, but also the atmosphere of jazz in Europe. He focuses not on the records themselves, but more on the person behind them, and in that shows us the quirks and motivations behind the dazzling arpeggios and wistful melodies that bewitched a nation.

It certainly helps that Django was such an interesting character to begin with. He lived the nomadic gypsy lifestyle, moving from place to place and dining on obscure Romany delicacies like hedgehog. Once he grew famous he was notoriously unreliable, showing up late to recording sessions or forgetting about them entirely. His wealth only fueled his passion for fast automobiles and gambling; frequently money only stayed in his pocket as long as the next concert or recording session. He was a frequent womanizer, and loved billiards and, later, spent more time painting than playing.

All of this serves as the backdrop for some of the most memorable and original music to come out of the swing era. Django's music was a celebration of his culture, a blending together of traditional melodies and the American jazz that was beginning to arrive from overseas. Yet Django's jubilant music also had a tinge of sadness to it, and France embraced "Nuages"? as an elegy for their country, scarred by the Great War. Those familiar with Django's music will hears glimpses of it through Dregni's evocative glimpses of Parisian life.

Dregni also clearly renders the details of the fire that burned Django's left hand as well as the determination that led him to learn a new method of fretting to compensate. He also documents the tension between the guitarist and Grappelli, the violinist who sometimes overshadowed his companion and thus became the target of Django's jealousy. We also get the tale of Django's ego-fuelled trip to America; thinking he would be a sensation and launch a movie career, he toured with Ellington and faced a indifferent country that had largely moved on to bebop. Homesick and disconsolate, he returned home, yet the influence of his visit was apparent in his last recordings.

The amount of research that went into this book is staggering, especially given the inaccessibility of primary sources. There is also a great deal of information on the tension that existed in Paris during the Nazi occupation and how a gypsy eluded the jazz ban (not to mention the concentration camps) and continued to play to eager fans. But most the most insightful passages are where Dregni delves into the gypsy lifestyle, exploring the culture, and demonstrates the shockwaves of Django's playing that caused many a European to pick up guitars and follow him. Even to this day there are droves of people who dedicate their lives to copying his style note for note; thus Django has become a symbol of a culture rather than just a small part of it.

Dregni's book won't replace Delaunay's; there will always be a place for that first-person account of Django's life, as well as the extensive discography that Dregni's book doesn't include. But this new biography provides a lot of details that Delaunay's did not, and will give a more complete picture of the guitarist. Not only is Django a terrific read, it also ranks alongside the greatest jazz biographies.


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