Django Reinhardt: Gypsy Swing Pioneer

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Jean “Django” Reinhardt was born in Belgium on January 23, 1910. He began playing violin, guitjo, and guitar from a very young age. By the time he was a teenager, Django was very poor but able to live as a full-time musician.

Django’s innovative playing fused jazz and gypsy music to create a very buoyant, upbeat, exciting style of music. His lines were highly decorated, sometimes downright flashy, but the solos also exhibited Django’s skill in manipulating melodies. During his short career, Django improvised with brilliance and composed tunes that have since become jazz standards, with “Djangology,” “Minor Swing,” “Swing ’42” and “uages among his most famous.

At eighteen, Django was caught in a caravan fire that badly damaged one of his legs. The ring and pinky fingers of his fretting hand were also partially paralyzed in the accident. For the rest of his career, Reinhardt used these damaged fingers only for chords, and played all of his famed solos with only two fingers.

After the fire Django focused exclusively on the guitar rather than the guitjo that he had also been playing. He developed a deep love and respect for jazz, especially the music of Louis Armstrong, who would later be called “Pops” by jazz musicians, an acknowledgment that Armstrong fathered jazz. Django called Armstrong “My brother.” Very soon Django bonded with a violinist named Stéphane Grappelli, who shared similar musical tastes, and the two began to play informally together.

In 1934, Django and Grappelli formed the innovative “Quintette du Hot Club de France,” an all-string gypsy swing band of three guitarists, a violin, and bass.

As Roma, Django and his family were targets of the Holocaust. Despite several attempts to escape Nazi-occupied Paris, and though about half a million Roma fell to the Nazis, Django somehow survived World War II. A photo taken during the war may provide a clue: it depicts Django posing with a group of men, one of whom wore a Nazi uniform. That man was Dietrich Schulz-Köhn, a jazz loving Luftwaffe Oberleutnant of the Third Reich. It’s possible that Django’s status as a composer and performer had afforded him and his family special protection. One can only imagine what it was like to be Roma playing to an audience that included Nazi soldiers.

Having skipped most formal education, Django remained illiterate until adulthood, at which point he learned some of the basics of reading and writing. But sadly, Django did not live a long life. Having survived World War II, the gypsy jazz pioneer died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage in 1953. He was 43 years old. Django left behind a vast quantity of recorded music, and he has inspired legendary guitarists and performers like George Benson, Tommy Emmanuel, Les Paul, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Willie Nelson, and Robert Fripp. Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi was particularly inspired by the gypsy jazz legend; he–like Django–has only limited use of his fretting hand.

To hear Django before the war in the Quintette du Hot Club de France, pick up a copy of the surprisingly affordable 5 CD set The Early Recordings in Chronological Order. You have simply got to hear this music for yourself.

Nicholas Tozier

Nicholas Tozier is a book hoarder and songbird from the woods of Maine. In 2012 he made a small cameo in Songwriting Without Boundaries by Berklee professor Pat Pattison, and was named one of CDBaby’s top 10 Songwriting Resources to follow on Twitter.

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