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Hail Django, Gypsy of Jazz

Jazz Musician Django Reinhardt

How do you explain a man who was so in love with his guitars he slept with them while being so absent minded he continually left them on trains, in hotels and in automobiles? His love/loss relationship with a series of banjo-guitars, which began at the age of twelve, was but one of the unusual aspects of Django Reinhardt’s personality. With his first instrument, he taught himself how to play by mimicking the fingerings of the musicians he watched. By the time he was thirteen, he started his thirty-year musical career, which brought him a precarious run of lean times interspersed with bouts of fame and fortune

Django’s biographer Charles Delaunay, who makes the point the guitarist hadn’t lived in a house before the age of twenty, called him “a typically primitive, medieval gypsy,” which he would remain throughout his life. Even when he was wealthy enough to afford a mansion, which he bought, he gathered his Romanies around him, and set up camp in the home’s large salon and on the lawn surrounding the house — to the outrage of his neighbors. The gypsy influence is unmistakable in this video clip of him in the film La Route du Bonheur:

Despite this gypsy earthiness and the fact that he could neither read nor write, Django would rub elbows with some of the greatest musicians of his era as he grew to be one of the celebrated few. The first time he heard a Louis Armstrong record, he put his head in his hands and sobbed. Eventually, he had the opportunity to play with Armstrong at the Brick Top in Montmartre, a duet that was witnessed by Stéphane Grappelly, a fellow member of Django’s quintet at the time: “There were no discussions to decide what key they’d play in or what tunes they’d choose. Louis began and Django followed him in the twinkling of an eye. It was a revelation for me, and all of us were entranced.”

What made Django’s genius all the more remarkable is that he played with a handicap after the fingers on his left hand were maimed in a fire, proof of the damage shown in the puckering of the skin on his hand in the image below. Other musicians like Alix Combelle watched in awe as he shone during jam sessions in Paris venues like the Swing Time on Rue Fromentin: “What was so unusual about Django was that he just couldn’t play out of tune or stumble in any way. Music came naturally to him. The right notes and the right chords seemed to fall beneath his fingers in a perfectly natural way.”

Django Reinhardt in Le Bourget.

Christian Livorness was recording a live performance one day when he witnessed a particularly impressive episode of brilliance: “While he was improvising on The Man I Love one of his strings broke; I believe it was the B string. Quite unperturbed, he went on playing as though nothing had happened. It didn’t seem to have the slightest effect on his melodic development.” Django’s career spanned a dramatic shift in taste. Early on, his form of music was considered a cacophony created by a series of discords enjoyed only by savages. Most of his performances during this phase of his career took place on the street, an upturned hat on the ready to receive the coins and bills dropped into it by passersby.

By the 1930s, Europeans were embracing jazz in larger numbers, giving his brand of music an uptick in popularity. By the time he grew tired enough of touring to turn to painting as a hobby, he was playing in luxe venues, and stirring excitement with greater numbers of jazz enthusiasts. He would star in and create soundtracks for a number of films, including the absolutely buoyant animated Belleville Rendez-Vous above. The tour schedule that Django and his quintet maintained was rigorous during their most popular years. Among the countries they toured extensively were England, India, Australia, France and Belgium; and they had gigs in posh resorts in haute destinations like the Côte d’Azur and North Africa.

All of this activity was taking place despite the fact that World War II was raging across Europe. It took the end of the war and the birth of his son to slow him down for a time, the city of Paris providing enough excitement to hold him given there was a glut of American GIs haunting the clubs in the hopes of finding Django playing his music. “We knew very well that the guitarist had many admirers throughout the world, but never had we dreamed that his popularity was so great,” wrote Delaunay. “The modest quarters of the Hot Club de France were too small to contain the bands of enthusiasts who were after autographs.”

When he finally worked out the details for a tour of the US, which he began in 1946, he arrived without any luggage and had not bothered to bring his guitar along because he thought American companies making the instruments would vie for the honor of presenting him with one, which as far from true! Anecdotes like this, which are plentiful in Delaunay’s biography, point out what a quirky character he was. He was horrible with money: during one of his leanest times, he spent almost every penny he had on an imported Stetson. He had strange habits: at one point, he kept a pet monkey in his Paris apartment. And he was an absolute prankster: he spent an entire morning in a London hotel room amusing himself by repeatedly ringing for the maid to see how horrified she looked to find him still half naked in bed and unable to make himself understood because they didn’t speak the same language!

Throughout his life, he would return to a gypsy’s existence from time to time, particularly during lean months. Opportunities were so lacking in Paris in 1941, he sold his flat on Place Pigalle, bought a used Lincoln and a trailer, and took to the open road. When the car, which was constantly breaking down, gave out near Le Bourget, he simply found a campground to call home for a while. Then Italy called, and after a round of unsatisfying engagements in Rome, he moved back to Le Bourget where he joined a gypsy caravan. Gérard Lévêque, who had a devil of a time tracking him down to include him in a recording session during this stint away from society, found him in a shed sawing and plaining boards for a new caravan.

Django Reinhardt.

He describes the setup at the time: “His mother was living in an old Citroën that had been fitted out as a van and beside it was Django’s caravan, a real beauty, I must say!” Being a gypsy was as natural to him as making music, and he would wander and playalmost to the very end. He was touring Switzerland when he began complaining of headaches and told his wife Naguine, “I don’t know what’s the matter with my fingers; I don’t seem to be able to close them properly.” When she told him to go to the doctor, he pushed back, saying, “I’m not seeing any doctors. They’re too handy with the needle!” Choosing to ignore his symptoms, the couple spent a fortnight in Switzerland moving around the country with gypsies they had just met.

Soon after he was back home in France, Django was gaily chatting with the regulars at his favorite café in Samois when he was seized by a stroke that would kill him later that night. He was just 43 years old. Sadly, this proves Delaunay’s declaration that he would remain the primitive gypsy to the end. He had let a mistrust of science and archaic superstitions, which the biographer compared to the mentality of the peasants who fled in terror at the approach of the first railway trains, dictate his life. We can all be grateful, at least, that a lack of maturity didn’t negate such a tremendous talent.

His music lives on in the streets of Paris, like with the band Borsalino I recorded in Place des Vosges during one of my trips. Proof that Django’s brand of jazz is timeless is the fact that young musicians offering a modern take on his music still find it appealing.