Skip to main content

Artist

Django Reinhardt

0

Biography

Jean "Django" Reinhardt (French:  or ; 23 January 1910 – 16 May 1953) was a Belgian-born French guitarist and composer of Romani ethnicity.

Reinhardt is regarded as one of the greatest guitar players of all time. He was the first important European jazz musician who made major contributions to the development of the guitar genre. After his third and fourth fingers were paralyzed when he suffered burns in a fire, Reinhardt used only the index and middle fingers of his left hand on his solos. In spite of this disability he nonetheless went on to forge an entirely new style of jazz guitar technique (sometimes called 'hot' jazz guitar), which has since become a living musical tradition within French Gypsy culture. With violinist Stéphane Grappelli, Reinhardt 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".

Jean "Django" Reinhardt was born on 23 January 1910 in Liberchies, Pont-à-Celles, Belgium, into a French family of Manouche Romani descent. His father was named Jean Eugene Weiss, but used the alias "Jean-Baptiste Reinhard" on the birth certificate to hide from French military conscription. His mother, Laurence Reinhardt, was a dancer. The birth certificate refers to: « Jean Reinhart, son of Jean Baptiste Reinhart, artist, and Laurence Reinhart, housewife, domiciled in Paris ». Reinhardt's nickname "Django", in Romani means "I awake." Reinhardt spent most of his youth in Romani encampments close to Paris, where he started playing violin, banjo, and guitar. His family made cane furniture for a living, but its members included several keen amateur musicians.

Reinhardt was attracted to music at an early age, first playing the violin. At the age of 12 he received a banjo-guitar as a gift. He quickly learned to play, mimicking the fingerings of musicians he watched. His first known recordings, made in 1927, were of him playing the banjo and guitar. Reinhardt was able to make a living playing music by the time he was 15. He received little formal education and acquired the rudiments of literacy only in adult life.

In 1928 in Saint-Ouen, Seine-Saint-Denis, Reinhardt was injured in a fire which 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. Returning from a performance late one night, Reinhardt apparently knocked over a candle on his way to bed, igniting these highly flammable materials. While his family and neighbors were quick to pull him to safety, he received first- and second-degree burns over half his body. His right leg was paralyzed, and the fourth and fifth 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.

His brother Joseph Reinhardt, also an accomplished guitarist, bought Django a new guitar. With rehabilitation and practice, he relearned his craft in a completely new way, even as his fourth and fifth fingers remained partially paralyzed. He played all his guitar solos with only two fingers, and used the two injured digits only for chord work.

In 1929, Reinhardt's estranged wife Florine gave birth to a son named Henri "Lousson" Reinhardt, who grew up with the surname of his mother's new husband, Baumgartner, and later recorded with Django.

The years between 1925 and 1933 were musically formative for Reinhardt. One development was his abandonment of the banjo in favour of the guitar. He was playing all types of music previously but began to appreciate American jazz a little during this period, when acquaintance Émile Savitry played him a number of records from his collection. Shortly afterwards Reinhardt met Stéphane Grappelli, a young violinist with very similar musical interests. In the absence of paid work in their radical new music, the two would jam together, along with a loose circle of other musicians. Finally, Reinhardt acquired his first Selmer guitar in the mid-1930s. He used the volume and expressiveness of the instrument as integral to his style.

In 1934, Hot Club de France secretary Pierre Nourry invited Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli 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. 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 Reinhardt; the pair recorded more than 30 songs starting in 1933. They also used their guitars for percussive sounds, as they had no true percussion section. The Quintette du Hot Club de France (in some of its versions at least) was one of the few well-known jazz ensembles composed only of stringed 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. He used three guitarists along with an accordion lead, violin, and bass. In August 1934, he made other recordings 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 their recordings featured a wide variety of horns, often in multiples, piano, and other instruments. But, the all-string format is the one most often adopted by emulators of the Hot Club sound.

Decca Records in the U.S.A. released three records of Quintette songs with Reinhardt on guitar, and one other labeled "Stephane Grappelly & His Hot 4 with Django Reinhardt" in 1935.

Reinhardt also played and recorded with many American jazz musicians, such as Adelaide Hall, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, and Rex Stewart (who later stayed in Paris). He participated in a jam-session and radio performance with Louis Armstrong. Later in his career, Reinhardt played with Dizzy Gillespie in France. Reinhardt and the Hot Club of France used the Selmer Maccaferri, the first commercially available guitars with a cutaway and later with an aluminium-reinforced neck. In 1937, American jazz singer Adelaide Hall opened a nightclub, 'La Grosse Pomme,' in Montmartre with her husband Bert Hicks. She sang there nightly and hired the Quintette du Hot Club de France as one of the house bands. Also in the neighbourhood was the artistic salon R-26, at which Reinhardt and Grappelli performed regularly as they developed their unique musical style.

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 in the UK. 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. They had a son, Babik Reinhardt, who later became a respected guitarist in his own right.

Reinhardt survived the war unscathed, unlike many Gypsies who were interned and killed in the Porajmos, the Nazi regime's systematic murder of several hundred thousand European Gypsies. Aware of the risk, he made several unsuccessful attempts to escape from occupied France with his family. He survived in part due to protection of surreptitiously jazz-loving Germans, such as Luftwaffe officer Dietrich Schulz-Köhn, nicknamed "Doktor Jazz".

The Nazis officially disapproved of jazz. Reinhardt tried to develop other musical directions. He tried to write a Mass for the Gypsies and a Symphony (he worked with an assistant to notate what he was improvising). His modernist piece, Rhythm Futur, was intended to be acceptable.

After the war, Reinhardt rejoined Grappelli in the UK. In the autumn of 1946, he made his first tour in the United States, debuting at Cleveland Music Hall as a special guest soloist with Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. He played with many notable musicians and composers such as Maury Deutsch. At the end of the tour, Reinhardt played two nights at Carnegie Hall in New York City; 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 his excitement), he was not fully integrated into the band. He played a few tunes at the end of the show, backed by Ellington, with no special arrangements written for him. After the tour, Reinhardt secured an engagement at Café Society Uptown, where he played four solos a day, backed by the resident band. These performances drew large audiences.

Reinhardt was reportedly given an untuned guitar to play, which took him five minutes to tune. Having failed to take along a Selmer Modèle Jazz, which he had made famous, he had to play on a borrowed electric guitar. He was unable to express the delicacy of his style.

He had been promised some jobs in California but these failed to develop. Tired of waiting, Reinhardt returned to France in February 1947.

After his return, Reinhardt became re-immersed in Gypsy life, finding it difficult to adjust to the postwar world. He sometimes showed up for scheduled concerts without a guitar or amplifier, or wandered off to the park or beach. On a few occasions he refused to get out of bed. Reinhardt developed a reputation among his band, fans, and managers as being extremely unreliable. He skipped sold-out concerts to "walk to the beach" or "smell the dew". During this period he continued to attend the R-26 artistic salon in Montmartre, improvising with his devoted collaborator, Stéphane Grappelli.

In Rome in 1949, Reinhardt recruited three Italian jazz players (on bass, piano, and snare drum) and recorded over 60 tunes in an Italian studio. He was united with Grappelli, and used his acoustic Selmer-Maccaferri. The recording was discovered in the late 1950s, when it was issued for the first time.

In 1951, Reinhardt 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. (He often used a Selmer fitted with an electric pickup, despite his initial hesitation about the instrument.) His final recordings made with his "Nouvelle Quintette" 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.

While walking from the Avon railway station after playing in a Paris club, he collapsed outside his house from a brain hemorrhage. It was a Saturday and it took a full day for a doctor to arrive. Reinhardt was declared dead on arrival at the hospital in Fontainebleau at the age of 43.

Reinhardt's second son, Babik, became a guitarist in the contemporary jazz style. His first son, Lousson, was more of a traditionalist. He followed the Romani lifestyle and rarely performed in public. After Django died, his brother Joseph at first swore to abandon music, but he was persuaded to perform and record again. Joseph's son Markus Reinhardt is a violinist in the Romani style.

A third generation of direct descendants has developed as musicians: David Reinhardt, Reinhardt's grandson (by his son Babik), leads his own trio. Dallas Baumgartner, a great-grandson by Lousson, is a guitarist who travels with the Romani and keeps a low public profile.

Django had a distant relative, Schnuckenack Reinhardt, who was a violinist. Schnuckenack lived in Germany, and the two never met. Many of his descendants, such as his grandson Lulo Reinhardt, are also involved in gypsy music.

For about a decade after Reinhardt's death, interest in his musical style was minimal. In the fifties, bebop superseded swing in jazz, rock and roll took off, and electric instruments became dominant in popular music. Reinhardt's friends and sidemen, such as Baro Ferret and his brothers, continued to perform their own version of gypsy swing.

Since the mid-sixties, there has been a revival of interest in Reinhardt's music. Acoustic music was revived with the folk movement. Several of Reinhardt's near-contemporaries, such as Paul "Tchan Tchou" Vidal, recorded for the first time in the sixties and seventies.

In 1973 Stéphane Grappelli formed a successful Quintette-style band with British guitarists Diz Disley and Denny Wright. Grappelli formed many other musical partnerships, including John Etheridge, Nigel Kennedy and David Grisman, and became very popular. He influenced other musicians, such as Dutch violinist Tim Kliphuis.

New generations began to emerge, for instance, Jimmy and Stochelo Rosenberg, Paulus Schäfer and their relatives from the Netherlands. Another musical clan is the Reinhardt brothers and cousins from Germany, distant relatives of Reinhardt's.

Boulou Ferré, son of "Matelot" Ferret, was a child prodigy who entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 13, and studied under Olivier Messiaen. He continues to perform with his brother Elios; they can mix bebop and classical music with gypsy swing. Biréli Lagrène and Angelo Debarre were other prodigies.

Most of the above-mentioned are Roma who learned music by the 'gypsy method', involving intense practice, direct imitation of older musicians (often family members) and playing by ear, with little formal musical study. Since the late 1970s, workshops, books and videos have become available, allowing musicians worldwide to master the style.

An early non-Roma gypsy-style guitarist was René Didi Duprat (b. 1926). Contemporary guitarists include John Jorgenson, Jon Larsen (and his Hot Club de Norvège, established 1979); Joscho Stephan, Andreas Öberg, Frank Vignola, George Cole, Stephane Wrembel and Reynold Philipsek. Their music is sometimes jokingly referred to as "Gadjo jazz" (Gadjo is the Romani term for a non-Romani.) Young players such as Adrien Moignard and Gwenole Cahue represent the rising generation. The popularity of gypsy jazz has generated an increasing number of festivals, such as the Festival Django Reinhardt held every last week-end of June since 1983 in Samois-sur-Seine (France), the various DjangoFests held in the USA, and Django in June, an annual camp for Gypsy jazz musicians and aficionados.

Many guitar players, and musicians, have expressed admiration for Django Reinhardt, or have cited him as a major influence. Jeff Beck has described Reinhardt as "By far the most astonishing guitar player ever..." and "...quite superhuman..."

Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia and Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi, both of whom lost fingers in accidents, were inspired by Reinhardt's example of becoming an accomplished guitar player/musician, despite his injuries. Jerry Garcia was quoted in June 1985 in Frets Magazine:


"His technique is awesome! Even today, nobody has really come to the state that he was playing at. As good as players are, they haven’t gotten to where he is. There's a lot of guys that play fast and a lot of guys that play clean, and the guitar has come a long way as far as speed and clarity go, but nobody plays with the whole fullness of expression that Django has. I mean, the combination of incredible speed – all the speed you could possibly want – but also the thing of every note have a specific personality. You don’t hear it. I really haven’t heard it anywhere but with Django".


(A) Releases in his lifetime

Django recorded over 900 sides in his recording career covering the years 1928-1953, the majority as sides of the then-prevalent 78 RPM records with the remainder as acetates, transcription discs, private and off-air recordings (of radio broadcasts), and part of a film soundtrack; only one session (8 tracks) from March 1953 was ever recorded specifically for album release by Norman Granz on the then-new LP format, but Django died before the album could be released. The earliest recordings feature Django on banjo (or more accurately, banjo-guitar) accompanying accordionists and singers on dances and popular tunes of the day, with no jazz content, while the last before his death feature him playing amplified guitar in the bebop idiom with a pool of younger, more modern French musicians. A full chronological listing of his lifetime recorded output is available here, while an index of individual tunes is available here. A few fragments of film performance (without original sound) also survive, plus one complete performance with sound, of the tune "J'Attendrai" performed with the Quintet in 1938 for the short film "Le Jazz Hot".,

(B) Posthumous compilations (LP, cassette and CD)

Django's recorded output has been re-released on a large number of individual LP, cassette and CD releases since his death and also the start of the LP era. Of particular mention is "Intégrale Django Reinhardt" vols. 1-20 by the French company Frémeaux, issued over the period 2002-2005, which over this set of 20 volumes (40 CDs) attempts to include every known track on which Django plays.

The following list of reissues is only a selection; as at December 2015, www.discogs.com lists more than 560 such albums, for a full listing see here

(C) Unrecorded Compositions

A small number of waltzes composed by Django in his youth were never recorded by the composer, but were retained in the repertoire of his associates and several are still played today. They came to light via recordings by Matelo Ferret in 1960 (waltz titles are "Montagne Sainte-Genevieve", "Gagoug", "Chez Jazquet" and "Choti") (Disques Vogue (F)EPL7740) and 1961 (titles are "Djalamichto" and "En Verdine") (Disques Vogue (F)EPL7829). The first four are now available on Matelo's CD "Tziganskaïa And Other Rare Recordings" on Hot Club Records (subsequently reissued as "Tziganskaïa - The Django Reinhardt Waltzes").

Timeline