This installment features the only artist in this week-long mini series to hail from outside of the USA. But boy, did he leave his mark on jazz, with an influence that stretches far beyond the guitar…
Jean ‘Django’ Reinhardt was born in a Romany Gypsy camp in Belgium, 1910, moving to Paris with his family as a youth. He was reportedly something of a child prodigy within his community, capable of playing back melodies flawlessly after only one hearing. He first discovered jazz via a Louis Armstrong recording as a teenager. On hearing the record in question, the young Reinhardt reportedly cried out “my brother!” and thus, it seems he had found his musical path from that day onward.
One amazing thing about Reinhardt is how he relearned his entire fingering technique, following a fire in his caravan when he was eighteen. The blaze left him with a permanently damaged left hand; his ring and little fingers were partially fused together. As a result, Reinhardt’s entire career – all those lightening-fast single note runs – we’re performed using only two fingers (although he would sometimes incorporate his fused ring finger for chords). In overcoming an injury which, for many, would have made guitar playing a write-off, Reinhardt demonstrates the combined power of will, alongside the power of music.
Reinhardt’s most famous music was made the Quintette du Hot Club de France, a five piece band of three guitars (two rhythm, plus Reinhardt on lead), bass and one violin. Three spots the Quintette’s lineup were fairly fluid over the years, but one mainstay was violinist Stéphane Grappelli. It is his duets with Grappelli which have mesmerized listeners for almost a century. Their style of ‘Gypsy Jazz’ remains synonymous with Paris to this day, although the Quintette were only a working musical entity until between 1934-1938, when World War II put an end to their activities.
After the war, Reinhardt toured the USA and was a featured guest with larger ensembles such as The Duke Ellington Orchestra. He died of a brain hemorrhage in 1953,at the age of forty-three, leaving behind a vast musical legacy that still influences musicians to this day.
I’m terms of recordings, anything by the Quintette du Hot Club de France is a great starting point; plenty of reissued albums and compilations exist of this group. However, there aren’t many video recordings of Reinhardt’s playing, so what little footage we do have is worth seeking out. For this post, I shall suggest this short documentary film which features a minute or two highlighting Reinhardt’s unorthodox, yet necessary, technique.
You can hear Django’s style of gypsy jazz playing in the most unexpected of places. However, it remains largely synonymous with France, and Paris in particular. The style retains a loyal following to this day. It amazed me to learn that no less a guitar player than Hank Marvin, the legendary British rock’n’roll pioneer, devotes himself to playing gypsy jazz, now that The Shadows have finally hung up their Stratocasters! It’s somehow fitting that both guitarists have had an immeasurable influence on the instrument, and now one devotes his time to studying the other – but more on him in another article, later in this series!
As always, do get in touch with your thoughts and suggestions for future posts…