Django Reinhardt: His Enduring Legacy
by David McCarty
Almost 50 years after his death, the amazing flatpicked acoustic guitar music of Django Reinhardt still captivates audiences and inspires musicians worldwide. The world’s first true jazz guitar hero, Reinhardt and his cohort, violinist Stephane Grappelli, created the first jazz music based outside the African-American musical tradition. The infectious, often-manic swing music they created in the mid-1930s combined jazz, American pop tunes, the manouche Gypsy music of Django’s boyhood, and more into a style as distinct and unique as Bill Monroe’s distillation of bluegrass music from his musical mountain roots. Although not what many people would consider a true flatpicking style guitarist, Django was undoubtedly the most influential musician ever to play acoustic steel-string guitar with a flatpick. He influenced jazz guitar enormously and helped pave the path for giants such as Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery. Blues, rock and country guitarists from Chet Atkins to Jimi Hendrix to Les Paul freely acknowledged their debt to Reinhardt’s genius.
Among flatpickers, Doc Watson and Clarence White cited Django as a big influence; indeed, many of Clarence’s signature licks derive from Django’s intricate syncopations, arpeggio runs, and frequent use of open strings to create what we flatpickers now call “floaties.” In the 1970s, mandolinist David Grisman, working closely with flatpicking icon Tony Rice, created his own style of “dawg music” that incorporated much of Django’s swing innovations with bluegrass and other styles. Indeed, Grisman and Rice even recorded the Reinhardt/Grappelli standard.
Today, the gypsy swing sound pioneered by Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelli, and le Quintette du Hot Club de France reverberates around the globe. Hot Club-style bands perform and record Gypsy jazz throughout North America, Europe, Scandinavia, Japan, and elsewhere. Aspiring Gypsy jazz players now have a wealth of instructional material enlightening them on the basic concepts and repertoire of the style. Numerous luthiers today recreate the great Selmer guitars used by Reinhardt and his cohorts, reproducing their plinky, nasal-toned lead sound and percussive rhythm guitar honk, just as luthiers lovingly craft faithful replicas of the great Martin and Gibson flattops of the 1930s and ‘40s. At the annual Gypsy jazz music festival in Samois sur Seine, the small town outside Paris where Reinhardt retired until his untimely death in 1953, Gypsy swing musicians of all stripes convene in a scene that would be familiar to longtime Winfield denizens as they sit ‘round smoky campfires, pass bottles of cognac and brandy, and play wild Gypsy melodies at breakfinger tempos till dawn.
All this from an illiterate man born into a tribe of social and economic outcasts who had to relearn how to play guitar after a disastrous fire left him with the full use of only two fingers and the thumb on his fretting hand. Born in January 1910 in Liverchies Belgium, Jean Baptiste Reinhardt lived the true Gypsy life, traveling around Europe by caravan in a rootless existence. Music served as the lifeblood of his community. Nearly everyone played or sang or danced, and young Gypsies were surrounded by strong examples of great musicianship. Django, though, was seen as special right from the start. Taller, more imposing and intelligent than his peers, he showed astonishing musical proficiency from a young age. By 12, he was a featured player on banjo-guitar, backing up the violinists and accordionists of the region on the popular music of the day, mostly tangos and waltzes. By the time he was 18, he’d begun recording, starting a career that would include hundreds of sessions and as many as 1,000 recorded pieces at the time of his death. His future as a successful commercial musician seemed assured.
But on the fateful night of November 2, 1928, Django returned home after playing in Paris and entered the wooden caravan wagon he occupied with his wife, who made artificial flowers from highly flammable celluloid. During the night, a flame ignited the combustible materials, engulfing the wagon in flames almost immediately. Django dragged himself and his wife through the fire to safety, but suffered extensive burns all over his left hand and other areas. Taken to a nearby hospital, the doctors told Django his only choice was amputation, but the strong-willed Gypsy with a deep distrust of gadjo doctors refused stubbornly. He fled the hospital and sought help from a Gypsy healer to mend his burns. Scar tissue forced his third and fourth fingers into a permanent hook, making them useless except to finger the upper notes of some chords on the E and B strings. For a year and a half, he fought every day to stretch burned tissues, rebuild calluses and restore muscle memory to his hand and recuperate from his other injuries.
As he recovered, he slowly resumed his musical career playing with his brother Joseph and his cousins in the bars and cafes of rural France. Around this time, he also received his first exposure to American jazz music, hearing imported 78 rpm records of Louis Armstrong, violinist Joe Venuti, and others. Possessing an exceptionally keen ear and quick musical mind, Django usually could hear a tune once and repeat it immediately back on his guitar. Excited by the new sounds, he began incorporating the music he heard from American artists into his own playing,
But by the early 1930s, jazz was becoming the popular music of witty, sophisticated, urbane Paris. American jazz musicians, who received a less-than-regal treatment at home, traveled to France where music fans showered them with accolades. One center of this new musical phenomenon was the famous Hot Club of France, and Django was drawn to the emerging scene like a moth to a Gypsy candle flame. Another musician, one as different as could be, also felt the compelling pull of jazz. Stephane Grappelli was everything Django could never be: well-educated, literate and sophisticated. But Grappelli proved to be the perfect foil for the mercurial, undependable guitarist. Together, they would start a revolution still reverberating today.>/p>
At the center was the Hot Club, which was not, in fact, a bar or night club, but an association of jazz aficionados eager to promote this wild new music to a Parisian audience. Led by impresario Pierre Nourry, the Hot Club existed as a series of hot jam sessions that included the hottest jazz musicians in France at that time. Originally built around a “house band” of American musicians led by pianist Freddy Johnson, Nourry’s Hot Club of France was thrown off course when Johnson decided to return to Harlem. Already familiar with Reinhardt’s genius on guitar, Nourry brought the young musician into the recording studio to lay down three tunes. Copies were sent to leading jazz critics in Europe and to John Hammond (who had discovered Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Billie Holliday, among others). The reception, however, proved negative to the unique new string-based jazz music.
Despite the setback, Django and his mates still found work in Paris. Bassist Louis Volas, who had played for years with Django, had put together a 14-piece house band for a hotel ballroom in Paris that included Django and Joseph Reinhardt, as well as Grappelli. The two future superstars had encountered one another at times, but had never had the opportunity to play together before.
One day, when Grappelli was backstage with Reinhardt, the duo began improvising on the pop standard “Dinah,” with spectacular results. Soon they were performing as a full quintet, but discovered a serious bias against their music. Without any American musicians in the band, many French fans refused to accept their music as true jazz; fans of traditional music found their hard-swinging, harmonically complex arrangements too modern and discordant. Still, Nourry pressed his vision of a successful European jazz act, eventually landing them a recording deal with the Ultraphone label. In December of 1934, the group arrived at a recording studio with producer Charles Delauney, who would go on to write the definitive Django biography in later years. Django, irrepressibly late as always, showed up with just 90 minutes of studio time left for the session. Hastily tuning and preparing, the group launched into their best material, including “Dinah,” “Tiger Rag,” “Lady Be Good,” and others. Despite its hasty preparation, the record proved a sensation. Two months later, the band, now officially known as the Quintette of the Hot Club of France, opened for American jazz star Coleman Hawkins and practically stole the show. Django’s Gypsy jazz had arrived.
The group succeeded beyond even Nourry’s expectations, creating a sensational form of jazz music never heard before. The Quintette toured Europe, England, and elsewhere, igniting guitarists and jazz fans into a frenzy at every stop. No one had ever imagined acoustic guitar could be so forceful and incendiary before. In addition to his obvious skills as an improvising guitarist, Reinhardt also proved himself a consummate composer. He and Grappelli crafted dozens of serenely swinging melodies that the group quickly recorded. Until 1939, the Quintette was the toast of Europe, playing to royalty and selling its albums even in far-away America, the home of jazz.
But the coming of the war caused a split that was never healed, with Grappelli escaping to England to flee Nazi tyranny and Django staying behind in Paris. Although the Gypsies were systematically persecuted and exterminated in the notorious Nazi death camps, Reinhardt’s genius was so great even his captors treated him as a star and allowed him the freedom to play and record during the war. At war’s end, the two musicians reunited, but the magical spirit between them had dimmed. Grappelli, by most accounts, wanted to continue playing the smooth swing style that so suited his silky, legato violin improvisations, but Django had other ideas. Exposed to American bebop during his only trip to the United States in 1947 to tour with Duke Ellington, he had become increasingly fascinated with the intricate, demanding improvisations and restless, unpredictable chord changes pioneered by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and other top American jazz musicians.
A true artist driven by a restless need to create new sounds, Django rebelled at the restraints placed on him by fans, club owners and record companies who only wanted to hear the “old” Django. He experimented with electric guitar, bringing his unique sense of syncopation and phrasing to that instrument. But eventually, he retired to a rented house in Samois sur Seine, a little town 30 miles south of Paris where he lived out his days playing billiards, fly fishing, and playing music mostly for his own amusement. He made his final recordings in March 1953. Two months later, he left home to visit the local tavern and suffered what later was determined to be a brain hemorrhage. His friends carried him to a nearby hospital, but he died. One of the greatest of all lights in improvisational music, a genius every bit the equal of jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Wes Montgomery, was gone.
Some writers have argued that Django’s physical handicap actually made him a better guitarist than had he the use of all four fingers on his fretting hand. As John Hartford proved when he sang, “It’s just my style and style is based on limitation,” there’s probably more than a grain of truth to this theory. Unable to play the linear, scale-driven lines that fall all too easily under the fingers of most guitarists, Django’s limited mobility forced him to view the fingerboard more vertically than horizontally. Blessed with exceptionally large hands and long fingers (one famous photo shows him fretting the high E through A strings of his guitar at the 14th fret with his middle finger from the second knuckle down), he had the strength and stretch to make wide intervals with just his first two fingers. He invented the use of octave runs as a soloing device on guitar, another example of taking his two-fingered limitation and making it a musical asset. Moving beyond that, he frequently used double stop runs in colorful intervals to generate tonal tension and resolution in his solos. Django literally developed a new vocabulary for lead guitar, making wide interval jumps across the strings as often as he moved up and down the strings individually. When he did remain on one string, it was typically for a blistering chromatic run that might start on the first fret and run all the way up to the 13th fret. Always aware of the slightest nuance of tone, Django honed each note perfectly, often incorporating a beautifully modulated finger vibrato or a skillfully executed blues bend or slur to add emotional strength to his playing. As the Django repertoire books written by guitarist Robin Nolan show clearly, most of Django’s chord positions were simple three note chords, but his musical genius enabled him to create diminished, suspended and augmented chords that beautifully fit the melodies he played by adding open string notes as needed. Although a total illiterate musically who couldn’t name any chords, he always knew what chord formation he needed to create the musical effect he desired, either a sweet, lush chord or a jarring, angular punctuation chord, to set the mood.
A tireless worker, he endlessly developed a trailblazing right hand technique, as well. Django was the first to frequently utilize what is now called sweep picking, where a run is played with the pick pushing through three or more strings sequentially with either a down or upstroke. His tremolo rivaled that of the great Italian mandolin virtuosi, a skill that he utilized on full chords and well as individual notes to great effect. Django preferred the thickest, stiffest picks he could find, generally using natural tortoise shell. But he never let his equipment dominate his creative skills. Delauney’s book, for instance, cites one example where he showed up for a gig without a pick and proceeded to break off the tooth of a comb and used that as a substitute plectrum for the night!
Unlike other greats such as Charlie Christian who were tragically under-recorded, Django left an astounding recorded legacy. Sources attribute anywhere from 750 to 1,000 recorded tunes to him. Sorting through that morass of material is nearly impossible, with many popular tunes like “Dinah” being recorded on many sessions with different backup musicians. In addition, many record labels have issued and reissued numerous Django “collections,” making it difficult to avoid duplication in a collection. One great place for the neophyte to start is the five-CD set from JSP Records. Incorporating all the Quintette’s recordings chronologically from 1934 through 1937, this set includes 124 cuts covering such great Hot Club original tunes as “Blue Drag,” “Djangology,” “Daphne,” “HCQ Strut,” “Appel Direct,” “Swing ’39,” “Oriental Shuffle,” “Swing Guitars,” “Sweet Chorus,” “Tears” and “Mystery Pacific” as well as dozens of jazz standards like “Limehouse Blues,” “Avalon,” “Sweet Georgia Brown” and many more. Amazon.com sells this great set for around $25—a total bargain. With so many great CDs out there, it’s impossible to narrow down too many other selections. One of the great pleasures of Django is searching out unusual recordings and finding rare gems, such as his appearance with the Air Force’s American Swing Big Band, captured on the CD Swing Guitar (Jass Records J-CD 628). Hear Django riff through “Moten Swing” with a full big band behind him for a great example of the man’s versatility and command.
Django’s Impact on Flatpickers
As previously stated, even the earliest flatpickers like Doc Watson and especially Clarence White drew inspiration from Django’s recordings. In many ways, Gypsy jazz is Europe’s equivalent folk music to bluegrass: both have an unrivaled energy and vitality and utilize strong improvisational skills over relatively simple, repeated chord changes. Among modern players, Django’s influence is easily seen. Bryan Sutton has been deeply bitten by the Django bug, as his version of Django’s immortal “Minor Swing” on the Ready To Go CD shows. Other modern flatpickers, including Jack Lawrence, Curtis Jones, David Grier, Roy Curry, Jeff Autry, Robert Shafer, and others all show the Gypsy touch in their approach to flatpicking.
Learning Django’s Style
With the worldwide revival of Gypsy-style jazz guitar, many fine instruction pieces now make Django’s guitar style much more accessible and open to aspiring flatpickers. Three great video tapes are available. Paul Mehling, leader of the Quintet of the Hot Club of San Francisco (and profiled elsewhere in this issue), has a fantastic two-tape series on Homespun Tapes, Django-style Gypsy Jazz Guitar. The first tape covers the intricate rhythm guitar style, including Django’s highly expressive right hand strumming patterns and his fluid chord changes. Tape Two covers lead guitar in the style of Django, artfully converting his two-fingered leads into patterns more suitable for four-fingered guitarists. When it comes to learning this thrilling style of guitar playing, in my opinion, Mehling’s series is the best instruction material available. Paul tells me he’s hoping to persuade Homespun to let him record a third tape focusing on Django’s incredible right hand technique.
Two other videos deserve attention, as well. Ian Cruickshank has studied Django’s guitar style for decades, and has produced several outstanding books described below. His video for Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, Gypsy Jazz Guitar, packs a tremendous amount of material into a single 55 minute VHS tape. Cruickshank boils down Django’s style through intense analysis, and his experience playing firsthand with the Gypsies who learned this style from Django directly gives this video tremendous credibility and authenticity.
Similar strengths are found in Romane: The Gypsy Sound, on Bransong Video. Although this is primarily a performance video by Romane, a classically trained French guitarist who has become one of the world’s leading exponents of the Gypsy jazz style, there’s also an excellent instruction section and accompanying tab book covering many essential elements of Django’s sound and style.
In print, Cruickshank’s great The Guitar Style of Django Reinhardt and the Gypsies was the first book to delve into the true heart of Django’s guitar style. Although nowhere near as comprehensive as the Mehling series or Cruickshank’s own video, the book still offers a good introduction. More recently, Robin Nolan and Paul Meader have produced a wonderful series of books that teach the Gypsy jazz repertoire, rather than focus solely on the guitar techniques used to play this fascinating style. The Nolan books also include play-along CDs where the student can hear Nolan play the melody one time through, then have his trio play backup while you solo along. The tunes reflect all the great Hot Club standards, including “Minor Swing,” “Djangology,” “Dark Eyes,” “Swing 42” and many more. Check out Robin’s website (www.robinnolantrio.com) for his books and his equally excellent CDs.
Romane has a good book on Mel Bay Publications, Romane – Gypsy Jazz Guitar. Mel Bay has also recently published Stan Ayeroff’s new comprehensive study of Django’s guitar style called The Music of Django Reinhardt. Other transcription books include: Django Reinhardt Anthology by Mike Peters, The Genius of Django Reinhardt published by the Goodman Group, and A Treasury of Django Reinhardt Guitar Solos, also published by Goodman.