All about Django Reinhardt

Django, Musician and Artist

For a member of a European majority population, Django’s way to music may seem unusual, but for many members of the Roma minority it is almost inevitable. For them, playing for the Gadže, that is the Non-Roma, whether French, Belgians or Germans, for money, for a dinner, for a basket full of food, for alcohol or tobacco is a tradition. Also, the methods of learning were very different. Django has never stood in front of a music stand, playing one étude after the other, but he grasped music from an early age on, by listening and repeating, and very soon by standing in for relatives at performances.

But he does not get his education just like that, incidentally, thanks to his origin; he imposes hard work upon himself, always wanting to keep pace, never to humiliate himself, always wanting to prove himself. Thus, to a large extent, his virtuosity was not handed to him on a plate, thanks to his ethnic origin, but arises form a strong will, and untiring, hard work with the instrument. As an adult, things change, and he is a source of inspiration for his family, for examle for his brother Joseph, and his couins Eugene Vées and Joseph "Piton" Reinhardt, who then replaces him quite often – without loss for the audience.

The young Django threads his way into the lively dance scene of Paris in the 1920ies. He becomes particularly involved in the valse manouche, so to speak the "gypsy waltz", at the so-called "Musette balls", later in the one-step and foxtrot. He does not have to prove his skill in playing the violin, and later the banjo, it is enough to refer to several competitions where he won first prize. At the same time, the guitar appears on the scene, which for him easily ties on to the banjo. As a diversion, he makes miniature models of caravans.

During their visit in Paris, the Reinhardt family, apparently together with other families, stopped off in certain quarters, "zones", on the outskirts of Paris, like at Porte d’Italie, or Porte de Clichy, both barren uneconomic no man’s land with coal deposits, wooden huts, and the cravans of the Manouche. [Roma Groups]

In the time after the accident, jazz appears on the musical scene. Thanks to the painter Émile Savitry’s connections, the "Hot Club de France", in Paris, offers him an engagement for recordings with the company Ultraphone, and later also for evening shows. There, he intensifies his musical relationship to violinist and autodidact Stéphane Grappelli, whose influence on Django Reinhardt can not be overestimated. Playing together with the academically trained talent is a challenge for him. At first, they play incidental music for silent films together, but then jazz won’t go out of Grappelli’s mind, and he buys himself a gramophone and learns to play the piano.

Reinhardt and Grappelli, oral tradition and conservatory education, flashy and courtly, and additionally the inner tension between these two full-blooded jazz musicians are at the center of the famous "Quintette du Hot Club de France". The club’s manager, Charles Delauney, puts together the first version of the Quintette in 1934. Most of the time, they performed together with bass guitarist Louis Vola, originally an accordion player, and the guitarists Roger Chaput and Joseph Reinhardt, Django’s brother, unless one of them was replaced by a high-ranking guitarist like Baro Ferret.

A jazz session is, like normal concerts, based on a repertoire of musical themes, but these are only the common elements that help the musicians to communicate. On such a basis, they can perfectly well play improvisations on the basic themes for forty minutes. This arrangement works beyond linguistic boundaries; playing together with an American jazz musician poses no problems. Additionally, Django Reinhardt’s capacity for understanding is praised by everybody; they quickly learn that it is not necessary to be afraid of a public concert without previous rehearsal. Right from the start, the souls of the musicians are in accord with each other. On a certain level, Django feels to be in accord with Johann Sebastian Bach, who differs only in so far as the latter set down his ideas on paper.

Thanks to his reputation, Django Reinhardt and the leading lights of the American jazz scene, Louis Armstrong, Eddie Smith, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, or Duke Ellington, sought each other during their concert tours in Europe and America. During their joint sessions in studios and concert halls, unique works of art came into being; they cannot even be disturbed by the fact that the Bohemian Django leaves his guitar at home, believing that he will find one there. He does, but it is an electric one.

During the war, his artistic creations are prolific. He rarely records in the studio, but in the evening he has more than enough gigs – jazz being considered a form of protest against the occupying forces’ regime. He founds his own club, "La Roulette", later called "Chez Django Reinhardt". He tours Belgium, the Provence, which is not occupied, and Algeria. His wish – an own jazz orchestra, – "Django’s Music" – comes true. Its members unfortunately do not have a permanent position, and go their own way after the war. On the basis of texts by the French poet Jean Cocteau he composes the opera "Le manoir de mes reves", but it is never performed. He also impresses the experts with an organ mass which he had composed in 1944 in honor of the French Roma’s – Manouche – holy place of pilgrimage, St.-Maries-de-la-mer, on the Riviera.

After the war, he would like to revive the famous Quintette, but he fails to do so, both with the original violin player Grappelli and with his new friend, the talented clarinetist Hubert Rostaing. Also, the new jazz which had developed outside of the area occupied by the Germans is not quite to his liking – it is as if an insurmountable wall had been erected between the two sides of the front. The times, also, do not favor jazz anymore, and not even the famous jazz ensembles of the pre-war period can easily get engagements. To a limited degree, Django lets himself be influenced by bebop, but he gets his inspiration mainly from the electric guitar, which opens up new space for experiments.

At the same time, he discovers a new passion which brings him into contact with his brother Joseph, fellow musician Roger Chaput, and his friend Amédée Pianfetti: painting, and particularly landscapes and – very uncommon for a Rom – nudes. The painting of landscapes arises from his love of nature. His interest is aroused to such an extent that some visitors find his guitar covered with a thick layer of dust, and journalist are laconically told not to talk about music, as he was painting. But he always continued to play, e.g. the piano for a change.

ROMBASE © by Peter Wagner

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