All about Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhardt

Today is the 1st of November, 1928, All Saint’s Day, late in the evening. The Reinhardt family shares this holiday with the souls of the deceased, particularly with a young one, only lately deceased, for whom the caravan has been decorated with artificial flowers. Young Django Reinhardt is returning from a concert, most probably preoccupied by an offer by Jack Holton, the English master of symphonic jazz, to move to him to England and play in his orchestra. Fate, however, had decreed otherwise.

DjangosHand.jpg - 21905 BytesHe lights the candles, and with them the flowers, and immediately the whole caravan catches fire; the family is glad to escape with their lives. For the young, promising musician, this incident is a catastrophe. His left leg is badly burnt, it will later have to be operated on, but what is worse, two fingers of his left hand remain unable to function, which is to lose the basis of existence for, let’s say, a goldsmith or a musician.

But not Django Reinhardt. A fanatic love of music had already rooted in him, and a present – a guitar which should support his therapy – makes it break out. Notwithstanding his handicap, an inner need to express himself via music makes him return in all his virtuosity within one and a half years, equipped with additional, original means of expression. His new technique arouses amazement and curiosity with a whole generation of guitarists and musical researchers. It is difficult to judge the role of his handicap in building this still significant– mainly among the Roma – school.

Evidence of his pronounced solo character can be found also in the time before his accident; it can be heard in every single recording. He never subordinates himself to fashionable styles, resounding from juke boxes and bars at a particular time, but still does not lose the ability to play consonantly in a team. The famous American jazz saxophonist Benny Carter once said that Django Reinhardt simply was not able to play off key. Also on a general level, America is in ecstasies about him; his jazz quintet is the only European one to be featured in CBS’ documentary series on jazz. Some even consider him as the first European jazz musician with supra-regional influence.

The instrumentalization of Django’s proper ensemble, the "Quintette du Hot Club de France" is also extraordinary. The violin is at that time a very unusual jazz instrument, and the combination with the guitar is practically unique, as is the lack of any kind of percussion, rejected as being too monotonous. It also disturbs because it is usually played the whole time through. Even the best drummers of that time were not able to dispel these conceptual reservations. The melodic emphasis, in most ensembles constituted by trumpet or saxophone, has to be replaced by the imaginativeness of the brilliant soloist Django Reinhardt playing the guitar and Stéphane Grappelli playing the violin.

After the war, he is not fascinated by the new jazz styles which had developed outside of occupied France, but this is by no means a sign of exhausted creativity. That can be seen by the enthusiasm and virtuosity with which he takes up the electric guitar. His musical genius is finally revealed when he, in the 1950ies, effortlessly gains the upper hand over younger musicians after a long absence from the musical scene by quick passages or by casually played complex harmonies which are too difficult for the other musicians.

The common denominator of his eccentric demeanor in everyday life and his musical creativity may be his inability to see what is common, what is right and proper, how to play, in short, what is "normal". Obviously, he has never gone beyond the limits on purpose, he just did not perceive them at all. This was his way to play the "unplayable".

ROMBASE © by Peter Wagner

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