Django’s Story

 

magic fingers

There is so much material available in print, especially since the emergence of the internet, on the life and times of Django Reinhardt, that it would be futile to compete even with a simple google search on this endlessly fascinating topic.

But I would highly recommend the two current books by Micheal Dregni: “Django: The Life And Music of a Gypsy Legend,” (Oxford,) and “Django Reinhardt And The Illustrated History of Gypsy Jazz,” (Speck.)


The following article, written in the early 70’s, is an excellent introduction to the Django story by the British guitar enthusiast Maurice Summerfield.


Mr. Summerfield, by the way, joined in a partnership with Mario Maccaferri in 1979 to re-produce his, (Mario’s) original design of the famous Selmer guitar used by Django in the mid 1930’s.



by Maurice J. Summerfield


DJANGO REINHARDT

Born: Liverchies, Belgium, January 23, 1910

Died: Samois, France, May 15, 1953


“Django Reinhardt did more than any other guitarist to create an acceptance for a solo virtuosic guitar, in jazz, and to destroy the concept of the instrument as a device purely for rhythm.”  Bill Simon, Jazz critic and author


A legend in his own time, and an even greater legend today, there are few guitarists--- jazz or classical--- throughout the world, who have not heard of Django and who do not have at least one of his recordings in his collection.


Jean “Django” Reinhardt was born into a Gypsy family and as a child roamed through Belgium and France as a member of a caravan, gaining a great knowledge of the guitar, banjo and the violin.


On November 2, 1928, he was caught in a terrible fire in his caravan which had been camped on the outskirts of Paris. Although he and his first wife succeeded in escaping the fire, Django suffered severe burns on his hands and his body. After hospital treatment he was left with two withered fingers on his left hand. To most guitarists this would have spelt doom to any further thoughts of a musical career. But not to Django, who with the combination of great determination and physical strength, succeeded in developing the techniques which established him as the most outstanding guitarist of his time.


Although Django could use his withered third and fourth fingers for some very simple chords on the first two strings, he could never use them for his brilliant single string runs. For his solos, often played at astonishing speed, he used only the first two fingers of his left hand. A guitar booklet published in England in 1944 by Neill and Gates explains Reinhardt’s method:


“Django uses the first and second left-hand fingers to a limited extent on the first two strings. He plays his famous octave passages on any two strings, with a dampened string in between. His famous chromatic runs if played in the first position, are fingered; if played up the fingerboard, they are glissed with one finger. He plays unusual chord shapes because of his handicap---Reinhardt’s right hand is phenomenal. He does not rest any part of it on the guitar; it pivots from the elbow, but principally swings from the wrist. He employs downstrokes (using a pick) most of the time except for extremely rapid passages and notes played tremolo.”


His early jazz playing has been described as “Provencal,” meaning that it was “flaming in colorful decoration,” yet in his later years his music was most definitely influenced by the great post-war top musicians that Django heard on recordings and during his concert tour of America.


A most fascinating personality, Django was a true Gypsy. He could be at the same time a charming and awkward character, and although often unreliable in his attendances at his own concerts and recording sessions, he was able to reach momentous heights in his musical inventions and artistry, which could forgive his worst transgressions. He was a natural musician, and even if he could have read music, he would still probably have preferred to improvise. He not only loved jazz, but all good music. He also loved color, which he used liberally in both his oil paintings and his often garish and flamboyant dress.


After playing with various musicians and bands, Django joined violinist Stephane Grappelli in 1934 and they formed “The Quintet of The Hot Club of France,” a group which also included two rhythm guitars and a bass. Their sound is even emulated today.


Throughout his career, Django used, almost exclusively, several of the French made Maccaferri guitars, easily recognized by their distinctive shape and sound, although in the latter years when presented by the makers with various American electric guitars, he used these also.


From 1935, as the popularity of the “Hot Club” grew, the group made recording after recording and toured throughout Europe and Britain. Almost every leading jazzman made a point, while visiting Paris, to seek out and play with the legendary Django, one of the few great and original jazz musicians that Europe had ever produced. Among these were Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter and Bill Coleman. The “Hot Club” has been regarded by many as the most important pioneering influence in European jazz up to 1945.


After the war, Django, constantly aware of new movements in jazz, and music generally, played with various new combinations of small and big groups which have been as well recorded as the earlier “Hot Club quintet. One of his many compositions, “Nuage,” reached the hit parade in many countries and today is still a favorite solo piece for the jazz guitarist.


Charlie Byrd played with Reinhardt while stationed in Europe with the U.S. Army in France in 1945. He said of Django: “Reinhardt had an infallible ear. He was famous for his explosive attack and scintillating passages of single notes...it would take ten years of concentrated study to play like Reinhardt...The tragedy of Reinhardt is that he so seldom got to play in sympathetic surroundings. When I heard him play live, it was always 98 times better than anything he ever recorded.” Barney Kessel has said, “The main thing I get out of Django’s playing is the intensity, the emotion. He had a real fire in his playing. He was one of the real originals. If Django wanted to stay in the United States and learn the language, (referring to Django’s North American tour with Duke Ellington in 1947,) I’m convinced he would have altered the course of contemporary jazz guitar playing ---perhaps even the course of the music itself.”


Unfortunately, death came early to Django. In May, 1953, he suffered a stroke after an afternoon of fishing on the bank of the River Seine, and within a few hours was dead. The world had lost a great guitarist and musician. In the words of his friend and musical partner, Stephane Grappelli:


“Django was a genius in the proper sense of the word. He had found expression through the guitar...As soon as he had discovered the way to do it, Django would have written a great deal of music. Because I know that he only had one ambition in this world ---to make music. How tragic that a man like that should die at the age of 43.”



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