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.

He 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".

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.

Django, the Rom

No matter how much Django frequented Non-Roma, no matter how expensive his hotel rooms – sometimes he even stayed right at the Champs Elysées -, he always returned to his caravan, in short, he always was a member of the Roma, or – how the group calls itself – the Manouche. In many Romani dialects this term signifies "human" and its members are close relatives of the Sinti. Both groups have considerable differences to other Roma groups in common, but the Roma are one whole as far as common culture, language (Romanes), traditions, values and professions are concerned, a whole that has been native to the European continent for centuries.

The Manouche mainly settle in the French-speaking and the adjacent Flemish-Dutch area, that is France, Belium, and the Netherlands. Contrary to other groups of Roma they are still to a large extent itinerant, which is even more notable as their equally itinerant Sinti"brothers" have been murdered almost completely, and as traveling about was prevented in the communist countries of Central and Easter Europe by brutal reprisals.

The direction of influence between the Roma’s interpretation of "white" music on the one hand, and the influence of the Roma’s way to play on Non-Roma composers on the other cannot be determined. Roma musicians from Romania and Hungary influenced composers from the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy in the 19th century, such as, for instance, Liszt and Haydn. [The music of the Roma in Hungary] Roma from these areas who were living in Paris during the 1920ies performed – completely different from the Manouche – this music in their way. But not only the new immigrants, also the Manouche – this music in their way. But not only the new immigrants, also the Manouche which had been living in France for a long time, liked this musical genre. Gusti Malha and Mattéo Garcia, both members of the Calé (Kalé), that are the "Spanish Roma", were pioneers of this music. As examples of Manouche families of musicians in whose repertoire the valse manoushe can be found, Django Reinhardt’s family, the Vées family, relatives of the Reinhardts, and the Ferret family can be cited – Django owing the latter family a loyal member of the "Quintette du Hot Club de France", Baro Ferret.

It is quite paradoxical to talk about Django as one of the first really successful white jazz musicians, and then to be made aware of his origin; similarly, quite a few "typical" museum exhibits in local museums come, in truth, from the Roma.

He himself did not attach great value to his origin. On tour, during breaks, while playing billiards, he probably was French. When talking at home to his parents, or when he had difficulties in expressing himself in French when talking to intellectuals, he might have felt a Rom. And how did he feel when he held his guitar in the left, and the plectrum in the right hand?

Django’s Personality

Those character traits that were praised in public life, were cursed by many in private life. Living the life of a Bohemian was part of being an artist, for that it was not necessary to be a Rom. Still, improvisation is difficult for those who are accustomed to certain rules. For the audience, his fellow musicians, the organizers – in a small, remote club or in New York’s famous Carnegie Hall – who expected him at eight, and he arrived at nine. Or instead of him, a so-called cousin. Or he arrives, only to disappear again from the stage shortly after. To a game of cards, to friends, to making music. According to Hubert Rostaing, the best way to hear Django Reinhardt was to wait after the concert on the other side of the street – there you could probably hear him. Also later, artistic events played an important role for him. During a tour of the United Stated, he suddenly demanded to play together with Dizzy Gillespie, not wanting to hear that the latter was living at quite a distance.

Also his family had reason to complain. Already at an early age, his mother had to wait for him at the concert’s exit, in order to secure the family’s fee. We do not know how Django’s wife dealt with this later on.

Clothes were also very important to him, but again not in the way that was expected. One time, he would appear dressed like a dandy, then he would defend his bright red shoes by declaring that red and black went together well.

His immediate surrounding had to get accustomed to his pride, and it took quite an effort to make good the "insult" when the Quintette was announced in the United States as "Stéphane Grappelli and the Hot Four". Django’s colleagues also had to accept that he would travel first class and they third on returning from a trip to Italy, and that he did not even greet them on the train. They had had to lend him the money for the fare beforehand, because he had gambled away his fee.

When performing with the "Ersatz"-Quintette which he had put together with Hubert Rostaing during the war, he was yet more dominant. It was always he who told them what to play, he beat time, and as soon as he started tapping his foot, the Quintette immediately had to obey, without the slightest hesitation.

Django and His Time & Sphere

Django’s youth takes place in the Manouche's holy sphere, the family circle. He got his first insight into the world of the Gadže through the teenagers who danced on the occasion of the Musette – balls in the 1920ies, where gypsies were in demand. Hungarians, Romanians or Manouche, that did not make a difference. Even if he had contact with immigrated Roma, it is not clear which language they used to communicate. The immigrants probably spoke little French, and also the Manouche’s Romanes was strange to them.

In the time after his accident and the one and a half year break, Paris was a fertile ground. The music styles of the 20ies, like "gypsy music", the musette, and Russian folklore, were beginning to fade. The guitar had replaced the banjo, and jazz had matured, and thus offered him space for improvisation and, consequently, space for his virtuosity. The nature of these changes are reflected in the wishes of the club audience: suddenly they wanted to listen, and did not want to dance anymore. For the birth of jazz, a vast number of groups of immigrants to America, the land of promises, had been godfathers, not only blacks, but also emigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, among them certainly Roma, but also Jews from this region.

Paris, at that time stronghold of all artistic activity, not only music, definitely also played an important role in Django’s international success. Today, we remember the chansons from the heydays, but jazz was second to none. Moreover, that city held the World’s Fair in 1937.

At that time, the jazz industry’s structure changed drastically in the United States. First, jazz in general lost some of its importance, and secondly, it was more or less completely in the hands of a few very dominant musicians who are in a class of their own, like Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong.

This époque of Django’s Quintette ended with a clear cut by the outbreak of World War II. Immediately, Django returns home from his England tour; contrary to Grappelli who decides to stay. At first, Django flees from the occupants to the South of France, not occupied, but soon returns to Paris. Later, he tries again to flee, this time to neutral Switzerland, in order to avoid an impending tour in Germany. The Swiss border guards, however, expel him because his application for political asylum was denied, but luckily nothing bad happens to him, allegedly also because he appeased the guards with his play.

For jazz, the occupation can be seen as fertile ground. Jazz has the taste of freedom, of memories of the time before the occupation. Many events have a touch of prohibition about them, everybody ready to break up the session and restore the atmosphere of an “innocent” concert. This style also attracts some members of the occupying forces, and soon rumors of Gestapo members sitting next to British Secret Service men can be heard. Django’s continuing success earns him a high standing with Paris’ Haute Volée.

His musical isolation during the war is felt most strongly by visitors immediately after the war. Even if they managed to ask their way to him, the communication failed both linguistically and musically. By the Americans, however, he is always received warmly, and he has to be very late to get a negative press at all.

A joint venture with Stéphane Grappelli shortly after the war is not allowed publication: the newly recorded Marseillaise, the French National Anthem. "But we had put our hearts into it!" (St. Grappelli).

Jean Baptiste Reinhardt – the Man

On the 23rd of January, 1910, Manouche, traveling in Liberchies (Belgium), the mother Laurence "Négro" Reinhardt, and the father Jean-Baptiste Eugene Weiss, in French Vées, give birth to their son Jean-Baptiste Reinhardt. Their traveling life makes it impossible for him to go to school, and he does not learn to read and write. Later, he teaches himself, in order to be able to write autographs and sign contracts. The father, a violinist, is the band leader of a "gypsy band", already at that time including guitars, and he performs in various hotels in Paris. Jean-Baptiste’s sister Sarah Tsango plays the piano, his brother Joseph "Nin-Nin" plays the guitar, and Jean-Baptiste "Django" plays the violin, later also the banjo and the guitar.

In 1928, on the 1st of November, he is injured on his leg and hand, but nevertheless becomes one of the most important jazz musicians of his time, known particularly for his own technique of playing the guitar. He is mainly famous for his ensemble "Quintette du Hot Club de France".

At first, he lives on his family’s campsite with his wife Bella and their son, in 1943 he marries his partner of many years, Sophie "Naguine" Ziegler and they raise their son, born one year after the marriage, together. In 1952 he withdraws from the music business, and on May 16th, 1953, he unexpectedly dies in Fontainebleu because of an heart attack.

In his free time, he played cards and games of chance, went fishing and - what else - made music. His success at games of chance was similar to his success in music. Singer and guitarist Georges Ulmer remembers: "Django is the greatest gambler. Any game, he watches awhile, slowly starts, and in no time, he’ s in it." Together with his brother Joseph they are an invincible team. Is it possible that music and games of chance have some fundamental feature in common?

He is described as an untamed, impulsive and generous person, with a penchant for billiards and games of chance. This passion for gambling and his zest did not leave time for sleep. He developed his own style from various contemporary music trends, without taking fashion very much in account. Subsequent generations of jazz guitarists, and guitarist in general, will have problems to avoid his technical and artistic heritage.

For more information on Django Reinhardt

Du Peuty, Philippe / Odi, Joelle (1997) Django Reinhardt. Paris.
Spautz, Roger (1983) Django Reinhardt. Mythos und Realität. Luxemburg.
Williams, Patrick (1991) Django Reinhardt. Paris.
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Django Reinhardt (1910-1953)
Django Reinhardt (1910-1953)