The word "genius" gets thrown around a lot in reference to artists and musicians — sometimes correctly, sometimes a little overzealously. But if it applies to anyone, it's Django Reinhardt. With no formal training, the Roma guitarist created a new style of music in the 1930s and '40s that came to be dubbed "gypsy jazz." His playing was at times joyous, fierce and lyrical, and his intensity was such that he's one of the few European musicians to exert a serious influence on the American art form of jazz. Saturday marks the centennial of Django Reinhardt's birth.
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Django Reinhardt would play any chance he got. At the height of his fame, he'd stroll into a bistro with his guitar and busk — not for the spare change, but just to play.
Django Reinhardt would play any chance he got. At the height of his fame, he'd stroll into a bistro with his guitar and busk — not for the spare change, but just to play. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Pianist John Lewis led one of the most popular jazz groups of all time, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and one of his most popular compositions is titled "Django." Lewis wrote the tune after learning of Reinhardt's death in 1953.
"He was the first great European jazz musician," the late pianist said in 2000. "Really, music was it — that was him. He and music were synonymous. This man was literally playing himself into greatness. 'You're going to pay attention to me!' "
That's pretty much what everyone who knew him says about Reinhardt. In a 2000 interview, the late bass player Pierre Michelot said, "He was loving to be with musicians — that was his life."
Reinhardt biographer Michael Dregni recalls interviewing another of the guitarist's bass players, Emmanuel Soudieux.
"He leaned forward, and he really wanted me to understand this," Dregni says. "He said, 'Django was music made into a man.' "
"Dinah" was the first single that Reinhardt and his best-known group, the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, released in 1934. Despite being turned down by one record label as too modern, the group became immensely popular.
The obstacles Reinhardt overcame to get there are nothing short of astounding. He was born outside the town of Liberchies, Belgium, in a wooden trailer to a family of Roma — or gypsies, as they're commonly called. As nomads, they were distrusted and persecuted wherever they went.
Yet by the time he was 12, Reinhardt was drawing the admiration not only of the Roma musicians whose songs he carefully memorized and emulated on banjo and guitar, but also of the non-Roma cabaret patrons. He made his first recordings as a teenage accompanist to accordion players.
A New Way To Play Guitar
When Reinhardt was 18, he suffered a terrible accident.
"He was playing banjo in a dance hall in Paris, and he returned to his caravan late in the night," says Dregni, who has written two books about Reinhardt. "His young wife was making flowers out of celluloid that she would sell at cemeteries. And Django came into the caravan and he lit a candle, and this candle fell onto the floor. It hit these flowers, which burst into flames, and the whole caravan went up. His whole right side of his body was burned. His left hand, his fretting hand, was horribly burned in this fire."
Burned while saving his pregnant wife, Django Reinhardt spent more than a year in and out of hospitals. No one thought he would play again. He had full use of only the index and middle fingers on his left hand. But the name Django means "I awake" in the Romany language, and he did. Through hours of painful practice, he came up with a new way of playing that allowed him to generate flurries of notes with those two fingers and his lightning-quick right hand.
French Musical Revolution
Reinhardt's passion for music was almost matched by Paris in the 1930s. Boulou Ferre, the son of Pierre Ferre, one of the rhythm guitarists in the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, was a child prodigy on the guitar, too. He says his father described a city bursting with talent.
"It's the Paris of Henry Miller, of the legendary restaurant and club La Coupole, in Montparnasse," Boulou Ferre says. "It's the Paris of Ernest Hemingway. It's Paris before the war. Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Gabriel Faure, Erik Satie — French musicians were under their influence. But it was also the era of swing. The arrangements of Fletcher Henderson [and] Duke Ellington's records brought a true revolution to France."
This was the environment that gave birth to the Quintet. Drawing inspiration from early American jazz, the group combined Reinhardt's intensity with violinist Stephane Grappelli's liquid-silver tone to create its own genre.
In War, A Golden Age
They were the toast of Paris and making a decent living when war broke out. The group was on tour in London in 1939, and Grappelli decided to stay. The Roma musicians rushed back to their families. In spite of the Nazis' ethnic-cleansing campaign — more than a million Roma were exterminated along with five times that many Jews — Reinhardt and his band prospered.
"The Germans used Paris basically as their rest-and-relaxation center, and when the soldiers came, they wanted wine and women and song. And to many of them, jazz was the popular music, and Django was the most famous jazz musician in Paris," Dregni says. "And it was really a golden age of swing in Paris, with these gypsies living kind of this grand irony."
In 1940, with "La Marseillaise" banned, Reinhardt wrote a new anthem that struck a chord with listeners across France. "Nuages" ("Clouds") became Reinhardt's best-known composition — a bittersweet ode for occupied France. The liberation brought many American jazz musicians to Paris. One was the late John Lewis. In a 2000 NPR interview, he remembered having to drag Reinhardt away from a Dizzy Gillespie show so the guitarist could make his own gig.
"He wanted to play this American music more than anybody — more than my own people," Lewis said.
That desire to play jazz kept pushing Reinhardt. He tore through the hot jazz of the Quintet, Benny Goodman-inspired swing, and bebop. By the end of his life, he was experimenting with electric guitar.
Reinhardt died on a warm spring day in 1953. After a morning spent engaged in one of his favorite pastimes — fishing — Django went to a cafe, where he collapsed from a stroke. He was just 43. He left the promise of what he might have done with that electric instrument and legions of younger guitarists who've spent hours trying to figure out his style, but have never quite captured his genius.