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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

Finally today, we mark the centennial birthday of a musical genius. That word gets thrown around a lot. But when it comes to music, Django Reinhardt certainly deserves that mantle. With no formal training, the guitarist created a new style of music in the 1930s and '40s, which came to be dubbed gypsy jazz. He's one of the few, if not only, European musicians to exert a serious influence on the American art form of jazz.

NPR's Tom Cole has an appreciation.

TOM COLE: People, even those who knew him, speak of Django Reinhardt with a kind of awe, as almost some superhuman being consumed with music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHN LEWIS (Pianist): He was the first great European jazz musician. Really, music was it. That was him. He and music were synonymous.

Mr. MICHAEL DREGNI (Author): Talking to his bass player, Emmanuel Soudieux, he leaned forward and just really wanted me to understand as he said, Django was a music made into a man.

COLE: Pianist John Lewis and biographer Michael Dregni talking about a musician who overcame enormous obstacles to become one of the most influential and popular performers of his day.

(Soundbite of music)

COLE: Django was born outside the town of Liberchies, Belgium in a wooden trailer to a family of Roma, or gypsies as they're commonly called. Nomads distrusted and persecuted wherever they went. But that's not the half of it. When he was 18, after establishing himself as a virtuoso of both guitar and banjo in the Paris clubs, Reinhardt suffered a terrible accident.

Michael Dregni has written two books about Django and the music he created.

Mr. DREGNI: He was playing banjo in a dance hall in Paris. He returned to his caravan late in the night. His young wife was making flowers out of celluloid that she would sell at cemeteries. And Django lit a candle and this candle fell onto the floor and it hit these celluloid 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.

COLE: Burned, saving his pregnant wife. Django spent more than a year in and out of hospitals. No one thought he would play again. But the name Django means I awake in the Romani language, and that 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.

(Soundbite of music)

COLE: Django Reinhardt and the quintet of the Hot Club of France with Stephane Grappelli playing violin became the toast of Paris.

(Soundbite of music)

COLE: Then World War II broke out. More than a million Roma were exterminated along with five times that many Jews, yet Django and his band prospered. Again, author Michael Dregni.

Mr. DREGNI: The Germans used Paris basically as their rest and relaxation center. 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. And it was really a golden age of swing with these gypsies living kind of this grand irony.

COLE: In 1940, with the La Marseillaise banned by the Germans, Django wrote a new anthem that struck a chord in France.

(Soundbite of song, "Nuages")

COLE: "Nuages" or "Clouds" became Django's best-known composition, a bittersweet ode to occupied France.

(Soundbite of song, "Nuages")

COLE: The liberation brought many American jazz musicians to Paris. One of them was the late John Lewis. In a 2000 NPR interview, he remembered having to drag Django away from the Dizzy Gillespie show so the guitarist could make his own gig.

Mr. LEWIS: We would play less American music more than anybody (unintelligible) around people. This man was literally playing himself into (unintelligible) you're going to pay attention to me.

(Soundbite of song, "Nuages")

COLE: That desire to play jazz kept pushing Django. He mastered hot jazz, swing and bebop. By the end of his life, he was experimenting with electric guitar. He's one of the few musicians to create an entire genre in his likeness.

Django 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 years old.

Tom Cole, NPR News.

CORNISH: Celebrate Django Reinhardt's centennial by heading to npr.org for more music and stories from the jazz legend.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

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