Django: the gypsy king of jazz

January 23, 2010 at 10:56 pm (Europe, jazz, Jim D)

We all use the term “genius” too readily. But the Belgian-born gypsy Jean Baptiste “Django” Reinhardt (born 100 years ago today) probably deserves that description. He pioneered a style of jazz guitar playing that still astonishes and captivates  (and not just jazz specialists) 70-odd years later.

He succeeded in doing this despite two major disadvantages:
1/ He was not American;
2/ His left hand had been badly injured in a fire, leaving just two fully-functioning fingers and a thumb to make the chord positions.
The first of these wouldn’t matter so much these days, as European jazz  has long been accepted as the equal of anything coming out of the US (albeit by adopting some pretty turgid “folk” influences well described by one critic as “motionless pastoralism”); but in Django’s day even the best European musicians were considered merely talented copyists of the American originators. Django was the first European jazz musician to establish himself as a distinct and unique player who transcended and surpassed his main American model (the Italian-American guitar pioneer of the 1920’s, Eddie Lang).
The second “disadvantage” turned out to be the making of him.  His handicap forced him to use a technique called “barring”, in which (as the late Richard Sudhalter described it) “one or two fingers are laid across the strings in the manner of a metal capo (or the solid bar of the Texas steel guitar) and another finger moves to vary the resultant pitch from there.”
The injury also led Django to develop some innovative chordal inversions. The present day US guitarist and Django fan Frank Vignola told Sudhalter, “They’re things other players didn’t use, because they didn’t have to. There are records he made in the 1920’s, before his accident, and he’s playing more or less standard inversions. I think it’s safe to say he owes a lot of the uniqueness of his way of playing, ironically, to the handicap caused by the fire.”
This technique, plus a brilliant sense of dynamics, all went to create what Richard Cook describes as a “wonderfully resonant (sound), accentuated by his use of silences and unexpected phrases which might allow a single cadence to sound like the chime of a bell.”
Django was also notoriously unreliable, petulant – childish, even – and vain. When things were going well, he basked in the adulation of fans, blew his money on sharp clothes and sports cars and generally behaved like a spoiled brat. When things went badly, he wallowed in self-pity and booze. He was the despair of booking agents, recording studios and – in particular – his long-suffering musical partner Stephane Grappelli, who said many years after Django’s death, “I think now I would rather play with lesser musicians and have a peaceable time than with Django and his monkey-business.”
Django and Grappelli were not an obvious pairing either musically or personally. Grappelli in the 1930’s was a very ‘correct’ and rather restrained violinist who could play a very ‘polite’ form of jazz, but had nothing like the fire and verve of his US opposite number and model, Joe Venuti. Grappelli wasn’t even Django’s first choice as violinist in their famous group the Quintette du Hot Club de France: Django had wanted to use the now almost forgotten Michel Warlop, but for some reason Warlop wasn’t available. Nevertheless, Grappelli and Reinhardt formed a team that is, these days,  far better remembered than their American models Venuti and Lang.
Grappelli, whatever his personal frustrations with Django, made a comfortable living out of his association with the “gypsy genius” and the Quintette until his own death in December 1997.
It has been suggested (noteably by Chris Goddard in the book ‘Jazz Away From Home’ ) that Django’s ready understanding of the language of jazz (though he could scarcely read or write French) was because Gypsy society in Europe is (or was) very similar to Afro-American society in the US:
“Both the Afro-American and gypsy races live within a culture but are not part of it. Their own cultural and social identities are thereby reinforced. It is therefore no coincidence that such societies display a taste for music at a very practical level. The world outside does not cater to their needs and so they provide their own entertainment.”
Be that as it may, there is no doubt that Django was the first European musician to be accepted as a musical equal by such black American giants as Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Rex Stewart, Dicky Wells and Bill Coleman (all of whom recorded with him in Paris in the late thirties), and even Duke Ellington (who brought him over to the US for a brief and not entirely successful tour in 1946).
Django died of a stroke at the age of 43. By then Charlie Christian’s modernistic advances on amplified guitar and the arrival of bebop had begun to eclipse his pre-eminence. But all the signs were that Django was preparing to hit back: on his very last recordings he successfully switched to an amplified instrument and showed some understanding of bop. We’ll never know how he would have developed. But the rich and extensive recorded legacy is plenty to be grateful for.



  1. FlyingRodent said,

    Yeah, you’ve got to love the geezer.

  2. entdinglichung said,

    a piece of his cousin, the violinist Schnuckenack Reinhardt (1921-2006) who was deported from Germany to a concentration camp in occupied Poland but able to escape and survive in hiding:

  3. Jim Denham said,

    One of Django’s many cousins! He swings harder than Stephane…more like Stuff Smith or even Joe Venuti, imho.


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