On Jan 24th 1910, in a traveling gypsy camp in Belgium, Django Reinhardt was born. His father was an itinerent musician, and the wee Django accompanied him on trips throughout France, Italy and North Africa.
By the age of 12, he was a "professional" Parisian musician, who'd made the banjo/guitar his instruments of choice. Playing dancehalls by night, he'd made his first recordings under the moniker Jiango Reinhardt by the time he was in his late teens.
In 1928, at the age of 18, a fire destroyed the caravan he shared with his wife, badly burning his right hand, and severely limiting use of his left hand. During recuperation, he revised his technique and to the surprise of many, continued his career using only two fingers. After hearing sides of not new U.S jazz from contemporaries like Louis Armstrong's Hot Six, and players like Joe Venuti, and guitarist Eddie Lang, he was invigorated to join them in playing "Hot Jazz". His friend, Emile Savitry, who reportedly first introduced Django to jazz said that when Reinhardt heard the uniquely beautiful recordings of these influential artists,
“he took his head in his hands and began to sob.”
In 1934 he and his fellow guitarist brother Joeseph had a gig at the tony Parisain nightspot Le Hot Club, and formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France. Also in the group was violinist Stephane Grappelli joining Louis Vola on bass and Roger Chaput also on guitar.
Django Reinhardt Et Le Quinttte Du Hot Club De France - How High The Moon
Django Reinhardt Et Le Quintette Du Hot Club De France - Sweet Sue
Django Reinhardt Et Le Quinttte Du Hot Club De France - Limehouse Blues
The group were revolutionary in their approach, with a lead guitar backed by two rhythm guitars with Grappeli's violin and the guitars augmenting for the missing percussion parts. Their 78s swept the European continent, and the band began expanding their fan base to include fellow visiting jazz musicians like as Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, and Louis Armstrong who all jammed with the group.
Django Reinhardt ( w/ Coleman Hawkins) - What A Difference a Day Makes (1935)
The Hot Club were part of Paris famed nightlife, particularly in the quarter Saint-Germain. Reinhardt, once he became less hungry & better known, began displaying his eccentricities, such as occasionally skipping gig, or refusing to carry his own instrument.
As WWII began breaking out the group was on tour in the U.K, where the jewish Grappelli stayed and Django decided to return to France. The group continued with clarinetist Hubert Rostaing replacing the violin of Grappelli and toured as far from the Germans as they could. Even though thousands of his beleaguered gypsy people perished under Nazi rule, Django was rumored to be protected by a sympathetic Luftwaffe official Oberlieutenant Dietrich Schultz-Kohn aka Doktor Jazz, who appreciated the gypsy's remarkable talents.
Reinhardt wiled away the war and earned a living, despite Jazz being officially banned in Vichy France under Hitler's despotic rule. Reinhardt was a gambler, drinker, pool player, and ladies man and soon had hooked up with a second wife whom he had a child named Babik in 1944.
After the war, Grappelli and Reinhardt continued their collaboration, culminating in a tour organized by Duke Ellington that ended with a 1946 performance at NYC's Carnegie Hall with Ellington's orchestra.
Despite being feted by critics, the music business itself was not kind to Django, and he grew impatient with the hustles & structures. At one point he was given an endorsement for Selmer guitars, but was forced to play electric which annoyed his old fans. Some say if Django had stayed in the US and learned to speak Anglais his life would have been far different. Yet, he was a gypsy and not prone to taking advice, following orders or schedules.
He stayed stateside for awhile, toured with Ellington a bit, but by 1948 returned to France. He immersed himself back into Gypsy culture, more or less fed up with the record industry's royalty games & lack of financial rewards thrown his way.
His last great recording was released under the title Djangology, featuring Reinhardt back on his acoustic Selmer-Maccaferri guitar. Joining him was Grappelli and the recording was true to his classic form.
After moving to a small riverside town outside of Paris, he died suddenly on the 16th May 1953 when Reinhardt suffered a massive brain hemmoredge and was pronounced dead.
For many years now, the town he lived in Samois du Seine has played tribute to this Romany hero each year with a music festival in his honor, and his music has brought joy to many millions over the years.
His legacy continues to be recalled for new generations in movies, including recent soundtrack uses in films like Chocolat, Sweet and Lowdown, The Aviator, The Matrix Revolutions, The Pallbearer, The Sopranos, and Gataca to name but a few.
Here is a brief and rare clip of Reinhardt playing from a French film from 1951, with some additional downloadable mp3 tracks below...
Django Reinhardt - Claire De Lune
Django Reinhardt - Three Little Words
Django Reinhardt - C Jam Blues