Reinhardt was born into a family of Manouche gypsies and invented an entirely new style of jazz guitar technique (sometimes called ‘hot’ jazz guitar) that has since become a living musical tradition within French gypsy culture. With violinist Stéphane Grappelli, he co-founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France, described by critic Thom Jurek as “one of the most original bands in the history of recorded jazz.” Reinhardt’s most popular compositions have become jazz standards, including “Minor Swing“, “Daphne”, “Belleville“, “Djangology“, “Swing ’42” and “Nuages” (French for “Clouds”). Not only did Reinhardt put his stamp upon jazz, his “hot” string band music also had an impact upon the parallel development of Texas’s western swing string bands, which eventually fed into the wellspring of what is now called country music.
Born in Liberchies, Pont-à-Celles, Belgium, Reinhardt’s nickname “Django” is Romani for: “I awake.” He spent most of his youth in Romani (Gypsy) encampments close to Paris, playing banjo, guitar and violin from an early age. His family made cane furniture for a living, but included several keen amateur musicians.
He started by playing the violin and eventually moved on to a banjo-guitar that had been given to him as a gift. His first known recordings (in 1928) were of him playing the banjo. During this period he was influenced by two older gypsy musicians, the banjoist Gusti Mahla and the guitarist Jean “Poulette” Castro. Able to make a living in music from his early teens onwards, he received little formal education and acquired the rudiments of literacy only in adult life.
At the age of 18, Reinhardt was injured in a fire that ravaged the caravan he shared with Florine “Bella” Mayer, his first wife. They were very poor, and to supplement their income Bella made imitation flowers out of celluloid and paper. Consequently, their home was full of this highly flammable material. Returning from a performance late one night, Reinhardt apparently knocked over a candle on his way to bed. While his family and neighbours were quick to pull him to safety, he received first- and second-degree burns over half his body. His right leg was paralysed and the third and fourth fingers of his left hand were badly burned. Doctors believed that he would never play guitar again and intended to amputate one of his legs. Reinhardt refused to have the surgery and left the hospital after a short time; he was able to walk within a year with the aid of a cane.
“Sweet Georgia Brown”
His brother Joseph Reinhardt, an accomplished guitarist himself, bought Django a new guitar. With rehabilitation and practice he relearned his craft in a completely new way, even as his third and fourth fingers remained partially paralysed. He played all of his guitar solos with only two fingers, and used the two injured digits only for chord work.
The period between 1929 and 1933 were formative years for Reinhardt. He decisively abandoned the banjo-guitar in favour of the guitar. He was particularly impressed with Louis Armstrong, whom he called “my brother”. Shortly afterwards he made the acquaintance of a young violinist with very similar musical interests—Stéphane Grappelli. In the absence of paid work in their radical new music, the two would jam together, along with a loose circle of other musicians.
In 1934, Reinhardt and Parisian violinist Grappelli were invited to form the “Quintette du Hot Club de France” with Reinhardt’s brother Joseph and Roger Chaput on guitar, and Louis Vola on bass. Occasionally Chaput was replaced by Reinhardt’s best friend and fellow Gypsy Pierre “Baro” Ferret. The vocalist Freddy Taylor participated in a few songs, such as “Georgia On My Mind” and “Nagasaki“. Jean Sablon was the first singer to record with him more than 30 songs from 1933. They also used their guitars for percussive sounds, as they had no true percussion section. The Quintette du Hot Club de France was one of the few well-known jazz ensembles composed only of string instruments. In Paris on 14 March 1933 Reinhardt recorded two takes each of “Parce que je vous aime” and “Si, j’aime Suzy”, vocal numbers with lots of guitar fills and guitar support, using three guitarists along with an accordion lead, violin, and bass. In August of the following year recordings were also made with more than one guitar (Joseph Reinhardt, Roger Chaput, and Django), including the first recording by the Quintette. In both years, it should be noted, the great majority of recordings featured a wide variety of horns, often in multiples, piano, and other instruments.
Reinhardt also played and recorded with many American jazz musicians such as Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Rex Stewart (who later stayed in Paris), and participated in a jam-session and radio performance with Louis Armstrong. Later in his career he played with Dizzy Gillespie in France. Reinhardt and the Hot Club of France used the Selmer Maccaferri, the first commercially available guitars with a cutawayand later with an aluminium-reinforced neck.
When World War II broke out, the original quintet was on tour in the United Kingdom. Reinhardt returned to Paris at once, leaving his wife behind. Grappelli remained in the United Kingdom for the duration of the war. Reinhardt reformed the quintet, with Hubert Rostaing on clarinet replacing Grappelli’s violin. In 1943, Reinhardt married Sophie “Naguine” Ziegler in Salbris, with whom he had a son, Babik Reinhardt, who became a respected guitarist in his own right.
Reinhardt survived the war unscathed, unlike many Romanis who perished in the Porajmos, the Nazi regime’s systematic murder of several hundred thousand European Romanis. He was well aware of the dangers he and his family faced, and made several unsuccessful attempts to escape occupied France. Part of the explanation of his survival is that he enjoyed the protection of (surreptitiously) jazz-loving Nazis such as Luftwaffe officer Dietrich Schulz-Köhn, nicknamed “Doktor Jazz”.
Reinhardt’s problems were compounded by the fact that the Nazis also officially disapproved of jazz. Reinhardt became interested in other musical directions, attempting to write a Mass for the Gypsies and Symphony (since he could not write music, he would perform improvisations to be notated by an assistant). His modernist piece Rhythm Futurwas intended to be acceptably unjazzlike.
After the war, Reinhardt rejoined Grappelli in the UK, and then went on in fall 1946 to tour the United States as a special guest soloist with Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, when he got to play with many notable musicians and composers such as Maury Deutsch. At the end of the tour he played two nights at Carnegie Hall; he received a great ovation and took six curtain calls on the first night. Despite Reinhardt’s great pride in touring with Ellington (one of his two letters to Grappelli relates this excitement), he was not really integrated into the band, playing only a few tunes at the end of the show, backed by Ellington, with no special arrangements written for him. After the tour he secured an engagement at Café Society Uptown, where he did four solos a day backed by the resident band. These performances drew large audiences.
Reinhardt was reportedly given an untuned guitar to play with (discovered after strumming a chord) and it took him five whole minutes to tune it. Having failed to take along a Selmer Modèle Jazz, the guitar he made famous, he had to play on a haphazardly borrowed electric guitar, which failed to bring out the delicacy of his style.
Django Reinhardt was among the first people in France to appreciate the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, whom he sought when he arrived in New York. They were both on tour at the time, however.
He had been promised some jobs in California but these failed to materialize and he got tired of waiting. He returned to France in February 1947.
After returning to France, Reinhardt spent the remainder of his days re-immersed in Romani life, having found it difficult to adjust to the modern world. He would sometimes show up for concerts without a guitar or amp, or wander off to the park or beach, and on a few occasions he refused even to get out of bed. Reinhardt was known by his band, fans, and managers to be extremely unpredictable. He would often skip sold-out concerts to simply “walk to the beach” or “smell the dew”.
In Rome in 1949, Reinhardt recruited three Italian jazz players (on bass, piano, and snare drum) and recorded his final (double) album, “Djangology”. He was once again united with Grappelli, and returned to his acoustic Selmer-Maccaferri. The recording was discovered and issued for the first time in the late 1950s.
In 1951, he retired to Samois-sur-Seine, near Fontainebleau, where he lived until his death. He continued to play in Paris jazz clubs and began playing electric guitar, despite his initial hesitation towards the instrument. His final recordings made in the last few months of his life show him moving in a new musical direction; he had assimilated the vocabulary of bebop and fused it with his own melodic style.
“Georgia On My Mind”
While walking from the Avon railway station after playing in a Paris club he collapsed outside his house from a brain haemorrhage. It was a Saturday and it took a full day for a doctor to arrive and Reinhardt was declared dead on arrival at the hospital in Fontainebleau at age 43.
Sources: wikipedia, imdb.com, nmdb.com, youtube
- 1945 Paris 1945
- 1947 Ellingtonia – with the Rex Stewart Band – Dial 215
- 1949 Djangology
- 1951 Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club Quintet
- 1951 At Club St. Germain
- 1953 Django Reinhardt et Ses Rythmes
- 1954 The Great Artistry of Django Reinhardt
- 1955 Django’s Guitar
- 1959 Django Reinhardt and His Rhythm
- 1980 Routes to Django Reinhardt
- 1991 Django Reinhardt – Pêche à la Mouche: The Great Blue Star Sessions 1947/1953
- 1996 Imagine
- 1997 Django Reinhardt: Nuages with Coleman Hawkins
- 1998 The Complete Django Reinhardt HMV Sessions
- 2000 The Classic Early Recordings in Chronological Order (5 CD boxed set)
- 2001 All Star Sessions
- 2001 Jazz in Paris: Swing 39
- 2002 Djangology (remastered) (recorded in 1948, discovered, remastered and released by Bluebird Records)
- 2003 Jazz in Paris: Nuages
- 2003 Jazz in Paris: Nuits de Saint-Germain des-Prés
- 2004 Le Génie Vagabond
- 2005 Djangology (Bluebird)
- 2008 Django on the Radio (radio broadcasts, 1945–1953)