Django Reinhardt - Biography

Guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt, whose dazzling solos and fiery playing have awed listeners and inspired generations of musicians, was the first European innovator to have a significant influence on the development of jazz. The unique stylings of the Quintette du Hot Club de France, which he co-led with violinist Stéphane Grappelli in the thirties and forties, spawned an entire school of gypsy jazz whose practitioners have taken this quintessentially Parisian sound to all corners of the globe. Guitarist Barney Kessel called him "one of the real originals" and it was said that Charlie Christian, the first giant of the electric guitar, could play Reinhardt’s solo on a 1938 version of “Honeysuckle Rose” note for note.


Jean-Baptiste "Django" Reinhardt was born in a caravan during the night of January 23, 1910, near the Belgian town of Liberchies. His nickname “Django” means “I awake” in the Romani language. His mother, who was known to audiences as "La Belle Laurence," worked as a dancer and acrobat with a wandering troupe of performers. Poor, illiterate and uneducated, Reinhardt lived the first part of his life in a horse-drawn caravan. He began playing banjo and violin as a child, later picking up the guitar. As a teenager living in encampments near Paris, he explored an area near the Bastille full of cabarets, bistros and dance halls. He was soon playing professionally in the musette style, often described as the music of the working class, largely Auvergnet and Italian immigrants.


Tragedy struck on November 2, 1928. Django returned to his caravan after a night of playing at a new club. Inside were piles of celluloid flowers that his then wife made to sell at the market. When Reinhardt bent down with a candle to investigate a sound, the wick fell into the highly flammable material. The caravan immediately burst into flames. Reinhardt, wrapped in a blanket as protection, managed to get himself and his wife outside, but his left hand, and his right side from knee to waist were badly burned. He spent eighteen months recuperating in a nursing home, where, with immense determination, he created and mastered an entirely new fingering system for guitar. The heat of the flame shrunk the tendons of his left hand, leaving the fourth and fifth digits of his left hand permanently curled towards the palm. The range of these fingers was quite limited. Amazingly, as a consequence all of his soloing was done with only two fingers. The hand never healed properly, and in later years Reinhardt was continually at risk of infection.


Reinhardt discovered American jazz during his recovery period. He was first drawn to the music of Louis Armstrong, followed in short order by Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti and Duke Ellington. He returned to playing in the cafés and dancehalls, and by 1933 was recording with orchestras and small groups. Violinist Stéphane Grappelli was also on the scene and the two crossed paths on gigs and in the studios. Then, as Grappelli told it, “One day he was strumming on his guitar, and I started to improvise with him.” The pair liked what they heard, so they continued to play together during breaks, soon enlisting Reinhardt’s guitarist brother, Joseph, to join them. The series of informal sessions, which grew to include bassist Louis Vola, led to the group’s first performances in November, 1933, after which they added another guitarist, Roger Chaput, to make it an all-string quintet.


There were not all that many dyed-in-the-wool jazz fans in Paris in the early thirties. In 1932, some of the most resolute enthusiasts formed the Hot Club de France. It was the first French group to recognize jazz as a bona fide art form. With Hugues Panassié and Charles Delaunay leading the way, it became an influential organization in the history of jazz in Europe. They produced the first magazine devoted exclusively to the music (Jazz Hot), Delaunay edited the first real discography, and they had their own label, Swing Records. The organization also held a successful series of concerts. Reinhardt was featured at these shows beginning in February, 1934. When the original organizer, Freddy Johnson, backed out of the event, the Hot Club’s Pierre Nourry sought a group of French musicians to represent the club. The string ensemble that Reinhardt and Grappelli were developing seemed to fit the bill, and Nourry arranged for the group, listed on the label as Delaunay’s Jazz, to cut two songs in September, 1934 as an audition for the Odéon label. Although the record didn’t generate much interest, when the Hot Club presented the group as “Jazz Hot” in early December, the engagement was a smashing success. Before the month was out, the band (now known as the Quintette du Hot Club de France) waxed the first of twenty sides for the Ultrasound label. Jazz historian Mike Peters, editor of The Django Reinhardt Anthology (1985), comments that records like “Tiger Rag,” “Dinah” and “Blue Drag,” “caught fans and musicians totally off guard, nothing like them had been heard in jazz before.”


When their commitment to Ultrasound ended in the middle of 1935, the quintet signed to Decca. At this stage of the band’s career, Grappelli was garnering more press attention than Reinhardt (at least on the Continent; in England, both star soloists got equal attention). In early 1936, the quintet made its first trip abroad to perform at the Hot Club of Barcelona. There they shared the bill with saxophonist and composer Benny Carter, then in the middle of a multi-year sojourn in Europe. Tenor saxophone master Coleman Hawkins was also a resident on the Continent during the mid-thirties. Reinhardt and Grappelli performed, jammed and recorded with the two Americans. The quintet changed labels again, moving to EMI, which enjoyed superior distribution around the world. Their first session for EMI took place in May, 1936. With the release of thirty tunes in the next year, the group would establish itself as the most important hot band in France and the first great jazz band to emerge from Europe.


Delaunay has written that “Django’s affection for the caravan and the open road never left him...After twenty years of a comparatively settled existence, he was still capable of taking to the road once again...for months.” Indeed, Reinhardt took off for the south of France in the summer of 1936, leaving a six-month gap in the quintet’s recording activities. That October, they recorded “Nagasaki,” “Swing Guitars” and four more songs in Paris. One month later, Reinhardt took off again, missing a concert in Switzerland in November.


The quintet had a busy year in 1937, with an extended engagement at Bricktop’s famed cabaret in Paris, broadcasts to America and England, and concert appearances in Belgium, Switzerland, Holland and Belgium. In a frenzied week of April sessions ordered by the British HMV label before the quintet’s EMI contract expired, the group recorded 22 pieces, including a batch of vintage tunes, a few originals and a pair of classic Ellington songs. The Hot Club’s own label, Swing Records, started up in 1937 as the first jazz-only record label. Reinhardt did his first session for the label with a trio that included guitarist Louis Gaste and bassist Eugen d’Hellemmes in early September. Reinhart and Grappelli played together on “I’ve Found a New Baby” later that month and the quintet had its Swing debut that November with “Minor Swing” and “Viper’s Dream.”


In December of 1937, “Bolero” became the first Reinhardt original to get a full-blown orchestral treatment as the quintet (with Grappelli sitting out) was augmented with three trumpets, two trombones, a flute and three violins. Since Reinhardt could not read or write music, he was dependent upon other musicians to write down what he would play, practically note by note, to build a composition. In spite of these limitations, Reinhardt was a fairly prolific creator of short pieces, nearly 100 in the end, including such well-known tunes as “Nuages” and “Manoir de Mes Rêves.”


Reinhardt and the quintet continued to be busy and productive in 1938. The major event was their sold-out premiere performance in London. They followed with recording sessions for Decca in both London and Paris, including a series of duets in September by Reinhardt and Grappelli with the latter on piano. In early 1939, the quintet made its first Scandinavian tour, playing to sold-out houses in Copenhagen and Stockholm. Back in Paris, there were more Decca sessions for the quintet. In April, Reinhardt was a member of a quartet led by Ellington’s cornet master, Rex Stewart, that recorded five songs for Swing. The quintet, which continued its round of BBC broadcasts, concerts and club engagements, and regular recording sessions, made its first full variety tour of the British Isles beginning in the late summer of 1939. Scheduled to appear at the Kilburn Theatre on September 4, 1939, the day after Britain and France declared war on Germany, the members of the quintet, except for Grappelli, elected to return to France immediately. The violinist remained in England for the next seven years and the golden years of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France were over.


Reinhardt played and recorded throughout the German occupation of France, usually substituting Hubert Rostaing's clarinet for Grappelli’s violin and adding the drummer Pierre Fouad. Although the Nazis considered ninety percent of the Romani to threaten German purity, Reinhardt was among the ten percent not targeted for extermination. Mike Peters notes that “Financially, Django was most successful during the occupation...” Reinhardt, now the undisputed star of the band, began to look and act the part. The Nazi stricture on playing “decadent” American jazz meant that he had to create a new repertoire for the group. This inspired a number of excellent compositions. Although Reinhardt toured extensively in occupied Europe, he played only at public events, managing to avoid Nazi Party and army functions. He continued to record for the Swing label, leading the quintet and other groups.


Reinhardt and Grappelli were reunited in a London recording studio in late January and early February, 1946. Soon afterwards, Reinhardt took ill and required surgery at a London hospital. A planned English tour was postponed, and Reinhardt returned to Paris to recuperate. The reunion was a very popular attraction. Over the next several years, both the all-string group with Grappelli and the clarinet-and-drums band that Reinhardt had led during the war continued to record and perform throughout Europe.


In late 1946, Reinhardt made his only trip to America. He toured with the Duke Ellington orchestra through the end of the year and had a New York club date in January, 1947. Reinhardt, an inveterate daydreamer, had expected to take America by storm. His playing had naturally developed since his well-known records of the thirties and he was now playing an amplified guitar. Critics were unprepared for these changes; while audiences were generally appreciative, the press was less than warm. Reinhardt returned to France somewhat disillusioned and confused. Trying to grapple with the new bop sound that was then beginning to make itself felt in Paris, Reinhardt persevered in 1947 and 1948 with continued touring, recording, broadcasts and club work. When the first international jazz festival was organized in Nice in late February, Reinhardt and Grappelli represented France at the event, alongside Claude Luter’s traditional jazz band. In March, the quintet went into a recording studio for the last time. Right after the session, the band left for England, where they toured and appeared twice on television. Reinhardt and Grappelli toured together for the last time in Italy in January, 1949, where they recorded more than 60 sides for Italian radio.


At the beginning of the fifties, Django moved with his wife Sophie "Naguine" Ziegler and their son, Babik, to Samois-sur-Seine, just south of Paris. "I think he ended up living in Samois because it was a retreat for him where he could relax and rethink his music," his son, also a guitarist, later recalled. "He was very inspired at the time and listened to everything from Beethoven to bebop…especially bebop." Reinhardt continued to perform steadily, alternating tours and recordings with relaxation and fishing. He complained of severe headaches during a Swiss tour in early 1953, and was advised to see a doctor. Delaunay writes that “needless to say, he did nothing of the kind.” His final session was with a quintet featuring pianist Martial Solal and bassist Pierre Michelot in April. Back in Samois, Django was suddenly struck by a fatal stroke after fishing, and he died on May 16, 1953. He was just forty-three years old.


Reinhardt recorded perhaps as many as a thousand different tracks during his career from 1928 to 1953. Much of this vast output is available on CD in a variety of formats from single-disc selections to comprehensive reissue series. The collector’s label Mosaic issued an eight disc set of The Complete Django Reinhardt and Quintet of the Hot Club of France Swing/HMV Sessions 1936-1948 in 1999.

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