|Birth name||Jean Baptiste Reinhardt|
|Born||January 23, 1910 in Liberchies, Pont-à-Celles, Belgium|
|Died||May 16, 1953 in Fontainebleau, France|
Jean Baptiste "Django" Reinhardt (January 23, 1910 – May 16, 1953), the legendary gypsy jazz guitarist, is one of the most innovational European musicians of the twentieth century, having contributed to the transformation of early straight jazz into "hot jazz" with his masterful improvisational skills and long, dancing arpeggios.
Born into and raised along the caravan trail traveled by a tribe of French gypsies, or Manouches, Reinhardt developed a taste for music early on under the influence of a nomadic culture that was a rich melee of world music tastes. Django would later incorporate his unique musical upbringing into the already thriving jazz scene, introducing to the world an interpretation of the genre which still holds present sway. Today, there is no other jazz musician who has a whole genre developed in his wake. Django remains a cultural hero to maverick guitarists world-round who play his music as homage to the legendary architect of the "gypsy jazz" sound.
Born in Liberchies, Pont-à-Celles, Belgium, Django's name was taken from the Romany word meaning, "I awake." Reinhardt spent most of his youth in gypsy encampments close to Paris, spending carefree days immersed in music. Gypsies, frequently on the road and often with much time available to fill with the pursuit of art, were perfect conduits for the world music spirit. Django's father was a talented musician and it was from him that he learned his first instrument, the violin, as a young child around camp fires. His mother, also, was a talent in her own right, often performing in song and dance on the tailgate of the caravan.
Django later picked up several more instruments, the banjo, guitar, and a hybrid of the two, called a guitjo, and profited from his rising talent at county fairs and on the streets of nearby towns. In addition, to help support the family, Django earned money by fixing musical instruments and weaving baskets. When he was 14, the young artist began his professional career accompanying the popular accordionist, Guerino, in underworld Parisian dance halls.
Reinhardt's talents and reputation as a musician in the city rose steadily, until, at the age of 18, Django knocked over a candle on his way to bed after returning home late one night after a performance. The fire ravaged the caravan and Django, in addition to losing all of his possessions, was badly injured. With first and second-degree burns covering half of his body, the doctors warned Django that he would never play the guitar again due to his badly burnt left hand, and what more they would have to amputate his paralyzed right leg. Luckily, the young artist recovered unexpectedly well and within a year was able to walk again with the use of a cane.
Even more miraculous was that Django, with a new guitar given to him by his brother Joseph Reinhardt—an accomplished guitarist, as well—fought through painful rehabilitation and non-stop practice to relearn his craft despite his disability. Such a feat would only be possible if Django could form a completely new method of playing developed around the permanently paralyzed third and fourth fingers of his left hand. To accomplish this, Django would use his index and middle fingers to manage the fretboard, while his other two fingers, frozen in the form of a claw, could only occassionaly be used for some chords. It was this new method centered around his deformed hand that in part contributed to Django's unique style full of the wildly choreographed arpeggios that he is famous for now.
With a persistant nature and dedication to his craft, Reinhardt, despite the odds, transitioned from prodigy to rising virtuoso by his early twenties. It was then, in 1932 or 1933, that a friend of his invited him up to his apartment to listen to some records. One song in particular, Louis Armstrong's "Indian Cradle Song," stirred Django to the point that he turned to his friend and muttered in awe, "Achmon, my brother, my brother..." This was Django's first encounter with jazz music, and his impression of it was that it represented incredible freedom. From that day, Reinhardt would play jazz music for the rest of his life.
In 1934, Louis Vola, a local bassist, discovered Joseph and Django Reinhart playing guitars together on a beach at Toulon. Vola invited them to jam with his jazz ensemble, consisting of violinist Stephane Grappelli and guitarist Roger Chaput who was sometimes replaced with Pierre Ferret. This union formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France, a group that quickly rose to fame and helped revolutionize traditional straight jazz with their unexampled, feverous sound. The concept of "lead guitar" (Django) and backing "rhythm guitar" (Joseph Reinhardt/Roger Chaput or Pierre Ferret) was born with this band. They were also famous for using an inventive style of employing their guitars for percussion purposes, as they had no true percussion section.
During this time, Django produced numerous recordings with the quintet in addition to forming other side projects with more conventional instrumentations. This included live sessions and recordings with many American Jazz legends such as Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Rex Stewart, and a jam-session with jazz legend Louis Armstrong. By the early 1940s, Django Reinhardt was considered by many to be Paris' greatest star.
As World War II was declared, the original quintet was on tour in the United Kingdom. Members of the quintet were hesitant to return to France where the Nazis were at work rounding up gypsies. Reinhardt, confident in the knowledge that the Nazis loved jazz music, despite Hitler's ban of the genre, would surely spare his talent. Django returned to Paris at once, leaving behind his wife and band members, and quickly reformed the quintet with Hubert Rostaing on clarinet in place of Grappelli's violin.
Reinhardt survived World War II unscathed, unlike many other Gypsies who perished in concentration camps. This was in part due to the help of a Luftwaffe official named Dietrich Schulz-Köhn, also known as "Doktor Jazz," who deeply admired Reinhardt's music. In 1943, Django married Sophie Ziegler in Salbris, with whom he had a son, Babik Reinhardt, who went on to become a respected guitarist in his own right.
After the war, Reinhardt rejoined Grappelli in the UK and went on to tour the United States in 1946 with Duke Ellington's orchestra as a special guest soloist. There, he had the chance to perform at many of the country's prime venues including Carnegie Hall, performing alongside notable musicians and composers such as Maury Deutsch. Despite Reinhardt's great pride in touring with Ellington, he was never properly integrated into the band, playing only a few tunes at the end of each show with no special arrangements written especially for him.
Additional problems occurred around the dilemma of Django never having learned to tune his own guitar (he had always relied upon his brother Joseph). Allegedly, one night Reinhardt was given, on stage, an untuned guitar to play with and the great musician fumbled for five whole minutes to tune it himself. Another difficulty was that Django, used to playing the Selmer Maccaferri, the guitar that he made famous, was required to play a new amplified model for the American tour. After "going electric," the results were not as well received by fans. Disappointed, Reinhardt returned to France that same year with his dreams of becoming a great American star broken, though this did not keep him from delving deeper into his career and music. One noteworthy gain from the trip to America was that he had left France playing swing, but returned thinking of beebop and modern jazz which would be the new direction he ultimately took.
As Django aged, he would spend the majority of his days re-immersing himself in gypsy life, having found it difficult to adjust to the modern world. He would sometimes show up for concerts without a guitar or amp, or wander off to the park or beach when he was due to perform. On a few occasions he even refused to get out of bed. However, he did continue to compose and entertain audiences, although irregularly, and in 1948 recruited a few Italian jazz players (on bass, piano, and snare drum) along with compatriot Grappelli on violin to record one of his most acclaimed contributions to the jazz world, "Djangology." On this recording, Reinhardt switched back to his old roots, as had been his style prior to the American tour, once again playing the Acoustic Selmer-Maccafferi.
In 1951, he retired to Samois sur Seine, France, near Fontainebleau. He lived there for two years until May 16, 1953, when, while returning from the Avon, Seine-et-Marne train station, he collapsed outside his house from a brain hemorrhage. It took a full day for a doctor to arrive and Django was declared dead on arrival at the hospital in Fontainebleau.
Both in his personal nature and in the nature of his music, Django displayed the character of a dreamer. Despite his exceptional natural talent, during his early career, Reinhardt, unexplicably, could neither read nor write music and was barely literate at all. Moreover, he had general difficulties living amidst the present-day culture. In his apartment, he would sometimes leave water running to mimic the sound of a stream, and he hated electric lights preferring instead lanterns.
Not one to talk much, he was compared to Harpo Marx when on stage, more inclined to speak through his guitar than out his mouth. As well, Reinhardt was known by his band, fans, and managers to be extremely unpredictable. He would often skip sold-out concerts to simply walk to the beach or "smell the dew." He would also periodically vanish for greater lengths, disappearing for a week or two to play at his beloved gypsy campfires. Indeed, Reinhardt was a family man, having been raised amongst the gypsy people who are famous for the alliance of their extended tribe. Django was around his family all the time; when he was not hiding out with them, they would go to where he was. Wherever he stayed, in fact, became an encampment for his extended family.
Django's compositions were sometimes jaunty, sometimes sad. One of his most famous pieces is the melancholic "Nuages," meaning "Clouds," which became the ersatz anthem for the French, invoking the sweeter feelings of the days before the war. His music is a reflection of his serene nature, or at least his nature which compels him to seek serenity, which was most often in the comfort of his past.
Django Reinhardt played by and from his heart, driven to excel in his craft out of his love for it more than his duty to it. He only played when the spirit moved him, and perhaps behaved similarly in many other facets of his life, as well. Due to this nature, Django may have been a bit detached from the world of practicality, more often adrift in the realm of spirit from where his ardent affection for music stemmed from.
Many musicians have expressed admiration for Reinhardt, including guitarist Jimmy McCulloch, classical guitarist Julian Bream; country artist Chet Atkins, who placed Reinhardt #1 on a list of the ten greatest guitarists of the twentieth century; Latin rocker Carlos Santana; blues legend B.B. King; the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia; Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi; Jimi Hendrix; Shawn Lane; Stevie Ray Vaughan; Mark Knopfler; Les Paul; Joe Pass; Peter Frampton; Denny Laine;Jeff Beck; Steve Howe; Charlie Christian; George Benson; Wes Montgomery; Martin Taylor; Tchavolo Schmitt; Stochelo Rosenberg; Biréli Lagrène; John Jorgenson; Michael Angelo Batio; Richard Thompson; Robert Fripp; and Jeff Martin. Willie Nelson wore a Django Reinhardt T-shirt on tour in Europe in 2002, stating in an interview that he admired Django's music and ability. The British guitarist Diz Disley plays in a style based on Reinhardt's technique and he collaborated on numerous projects with Stéphane Grappelli;
Reinhardt also had an influence on other styles and musical genres, including Western Swing, notably in the work of Bob Wills.
Musicians have paid tribute to Reinhardt in many other ways, such as by invoking his name in their own work or personal life. Jimi Hendrix is said to have named one of his bands the Band of Gypsys because of Django's music. A number of musicians named their sons Django in reference to Reinhardt, including David Crosby, former Slade singer Noddy Holder, Jerry Jeff Walker, Richard Durrant, and actors Nana Visitor and Raphael Sbarge. Jazz musician Django Bates was named after him.
Songs written in Reinhardt's honor include "Django," composed by John Lewis, which has become a jazz standard performed by musicians such as Miles Davis. The Modern Jazz Quartet titled one of their albums Django in honor of him. The Allman Brothers Band song Jessica was written by Dickey Betts in tribute to Reinhardt (he wanted to write a song that could be played using only two fingers). This aspect of the artist's work also motivated Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, who was inspired by Reinhardt to keep playing guitar after a factory accident that cost him two fingertips.
In 2005, Django Reinhardt ended on the sixty-sixth place in the election of The Greatest Belgian (De Grootste Belg) in Flanders and on the seventy-sixth place in the Walloon version of the same competition Le plus grand belge.
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