Born into a vagabond life on the outskirts of Paris in 1910, Django Reinhardt took on the fledgling world of jazz and reimagined it through his gypsy roots, bringing the guitar to the fore and changing the perception of the instrument forever.
Given his first instrument, a banjo, at the age of 12, Reinhardt began performing immediately, teaming with an accordion player named Guerino and his brother Joseph to play small bars, clubs and dance halls across Paris throughout his teens.
However, it was not until disaster struck at the age of 18 that he became the Django Reinhardt that history remembers today. Returning home to the carriage he lived in with his wife, Reinhardt mistakenly touched his candle to a collection of cellophane flowers his wife had made to sell, igniting their home in seconds.
Both escaped the fire, but not before the young musician’s left hand and side were burned severely. Refusing orders of amputation from doctors, Reinhardt instead set out to make the most of what movement he still had.
Left with the tendons of his fourth and fifth digits curled toward his hand by the fire, Reinhardt developed a new way of playing that would only require two fingers.
Making his return to performing just months after the fire, Reinhardt blew audiences away with quick-fingered solos that sounded like a Spanish flamenco treatment of modern jazz.
Further, Reinhardt moved the guitar out of the shadows of performing and into the spotlight for the first time. Whereas before, the guitar was usually reserved for providing a rhythm section and little more, Reinhardt co-opted parts usually reserved for violins and saxophones.
Although he still used his ring and pinky fingers, their inability to extend kept them still, reserved for lower strings and unable to be used in solos.
Sources in This Story
- Django Reinhardt
- PBS: Jazz A Film By Ken Burns: Django Reinhardt
- On Point: The Life of Django Reinhardt
- National Geographic World Music: Quintette du Hot Club de France
- YouTube: Django Reinhardt (1939) – Swing
- Paul Vernon Chester: Django ‘n Duke
- YouTube: Willie Nelson Plays Django Reinhardt “Nuages” - Live in Paris
- Hot Club: Babik Reinhardt
At the age of 23, Reinhardt began performing jam sessions with a host of musicians, including his brother and violinist Stephane Grappelli at the Hotel Claridge in Paris. Out of these sessions, Reinhardt created the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, named for the first club that invited them to play.
Throughout the decade that followed, Reinhardt and his band dominated the jazz scene in a city overflowing with artists and musicians, from Pablo Picasso to Josephine Baker. Providing an up-beat soundtrack that drove the prolific city forward despite the impending conflict with Germany, Reinhardt attracted fans far and wide with his legendary “gypsy jazz.”
Most surprisingly, Reinhardt’s reign in Paris continued even as the German military marched into the city. Although no one is sure how he managed it, the gypsy guitarist remained free to play in Nazi-occupied Paris, though his brother fled to London for the duration of the war.
With his unique two-finger solos and his modest and cool showmanship, Reinhardt produced a sensitive and often romantic style of jazz that built upon the sounds of his heroes, like Louis Armstrong and Eddie Lang.
Although Reinhardt’s star began to fade after the end of World War II, as times and musical tastes began to change, his journey was not yet over. Still playing variations of his own style, now usually with the aid of an electric guitar, Reinhardt was invited to live out a life-long dream of playing in the birthplace of jazz—America.
Invited to tour the United States alongside Duke Ellington in 1947, Reinhardt traveled the country, playing “gypsy jazz” to welcoming ears, finishing the trip with two nights in Carnegie Hall.
The Rest of the Story
Not long after his tour with Ellington, Reinhardt retired to the village of Samois-sur-Seine, near where he was born. He would suffer a brain hemorrhage just two years later, passing away in 1953.
As Reinhardt never learned to read or write words or music, his music has always remained at the mercy of transcribers and other musicians, who would classify his early recordings under the name ‘Jiango Renard.’
However, his sound and style can be heard in musicians from B.B. King to Willie Nelson, both of whom count the gypsy guitarist as an influence in their work.
Perhaps more importantly, Reinhardt’s legacy survives in the contemporary role of the guitar in modern music. After all, it was Reinhardt who first took the instrument out of its supporting role and into the fore all those years ago, clearing the way for guitarists from Les Paul to Jimi Hendrix to take their place up front.
In addition to his two sons, Lousson and Babik, who would both become guitarists in their own right, Reinhardt’s spirit lives on in annual music festivals held in his honor across the globe, including celebrations in Turin, Austin, New York and of course, France.
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