Django Reinhardt Biography

Belgian jazz and film-score composer and guitarist Known for his dazzling guitar playing, Reinhardt popularized Gypsy swing, usually played by a small ensemble of lead guitar, violin, several strong percussive rhythm guitars, and a stand-up acoustic bass.

Born: January 23, 1910; Liberchies, Belgium

Died: May 16, 1953; Fontainebleau, France

The Life

Django Jean Baptiste Reinhardt (JAN-goh RINhahrt) was born in a Gypsy caravan that was wintering outside a small Belgian village in 1910. His father, Jean-Eug?ne, was a basket maker, an acrobat, and a musician. His mother, La Belle Laurence "N?gros", was a jeweler and a dancer. Like many itinerant Gypsies, they were also entertainers. Jean-Eug?ne and N?gros were Manouche (French-speaking) Romany Gypsies, a stateless people who had roamed Western Europe and the Mediterranean area, traveling in clan-centered troupes for hundreds of years. Though given the name Jean by a Belgian official-because Gypsies needed a Christian name for registration-Reinhardt was most proud of his Gypsy moniker Django (meaning "I awake"). In spite of all his later international fame and success, Reinhardt remained a Gypsy at heart, maintaining Romany values and practices until he died. Reinhardt showed great musical talent as a child, and he played banjo in Gypsy groups performing in caf?s, bars, and dance halls in central France and Paris when he was twelve. By the time he was eighteen, he was a noted banjo virtuoso, and he was composing (recording at least four of his waltzes). Around 1928, Reinhardt discovered an exotic sound: AfricanAmerican jazz, which was being played in Paris nightclubs, a legacy ofAmerican soldiers who had come to France during World War I. Reinhardt decided this would be his music and the guitar would be his instrument. Tragedy soon struck.

When he entered his caravan trailer after finishing a show, a fire started, and Reinhardt was almost killed. Though he eventually recovered, his left hand was paralyzed by the burns. On his nineteenth birthday, he underwent an operation to save his hand, although it was only a partial success. Reinhardt retained the complete use of only his first two fingers. He had painstakingly to relearn to play the guitar, accommodating for his handicap. Nevertheless, Reinhardt continued to perfect his version of jazz. He did this with the help of some talented collaborators, especially violinist St?phane Grappelli, with whom he played from 1934 until the start of World War II. Though popular in the Parisian nightclubs and cabarets, Reinhardt and Grappelli were superstars in Great Britain. They were on their second English tour whenWorld War II broke out in September, 1939. Grappelli remained in England for the war's duration, while Reinhardt went back to France, enjoying tremendous popularity on the Continent. After the war, Reinhardt's international fame continued to rise as he moved toward the typical big band sounds of the day, and he began playing with American musicians. After a productive recording period in 1947, he became withdrawn and sullen. He retired with his family in 1951. On the morning of May 16, 1953, Reinhardt died while having a cup of tea with friends.

The Music Reinhardt recorded one thousand songs in a career that spanned from 1928 to 1953. More than for his instrumental virtuosity, however, he is best known for blending several musical styles-American jazz, French popular and musette dance music, and Gypsy melodies and ornamentation-into a new art form: Gypsy swing. "Bol?ro". In 1934 Reinhardt and Grappelli formed the defining Gypsy jazz group of the prewar era, the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. Namedfor a Paris jazz nightclub, the group was unusual for its day because it was basically a string band. At a time when American jazz ensembles were dominated by horns, winds, pianos, and drums, this was a jazz group of relative simplicity: guitars, violin, and bass. Reinhardt's solos on his loud Selmer Maccaferri guitar were marked by sweet, lyrical melodies and by sporadic flamboyant improvisations. The intermixing of Grappelli's and Reinhardt's leads were flawless, and the bold rhythm section of two pulsating guitars gave the quintet as much swing as anything heard in Europe until that time.

In 1937 Reinhardt and Grappelli recorded "Bol?ro", an ambitious composition inspired by the Duke Ellington big band and Maurice Ravel's famous classical piece of the same name. It has been called a jazz concerto in miniature, and it was one of the most complex jazz tunes of its day. Reinhardt's flamencolike guitar riffs display his Gypsy roots and his deep expression of the jazz idiom. "Nuages". Though branded as decadent by Germany's Nazi Party, jazz continued to be played in various places in occupied Europe during World War II. This was especially true in the entertainment districts of Paris. In spite of possible persecution because of his Gypsy roots, Reinhardt remained in France throughout the war, and he even opened his own club. At the height of his popularity, Reinhardt was never bothered by the German authorities. He recorded some forty records in spite of wartime shortages. In December, 1940, he recorded "Nuages" (clouds), probably his masterpiece and most well-known song. A beautiful, Impressionistic, and tranquil song-different from the frenzied, almost martial, flavor of much of hot jazz in occupied Europe-it became an immediate hit. "Minor Swing". After the war, in October, 1946, Reinhardt traveled to the United States, where he toured with Ellington and played in New York's Carnegie Hall.

Suffering from disenchantment with America and extreme homesickness, he returned to France in February, 1947. However, he absorbed much of modern American jazz and bebop, making these part of his repertoire. In 1947 and 1949, Reinhardt took all these influences and recorded "Minor Swing", perhaps second only to "Nuages" as a Gypsy jazz signature song. Originally written and recorded with Grappelli and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France in 1937, it is an almost themeless sixteen-bar blues progression, and the soloist has a chance to improvise on the interlocking lines of all the stringed instruments, creating exciting harmonies and rhythms. Musical Legacy Reinhardt composed more than one hundred songs, some of which have now become part of the jazz canon.Hewas one of the first guitarists todemonstrate that the instrument could be a solo voice in a jazz band, rather than just a rhythm accompaniment. He also showed that Europeans could play jazz-and as creatively as Americans, bringing their own influences and sensibilities. In this way, he helped make jazz a truly international music. Indeed, the highest awards given to a European jazz musician-the Golden Django and Eurodjango- are named in his honor. Reinhardt will perhaps best be known for creating a new kind of jazz: Gypsy swing, a tradition that thrives on both sides of the Atlantic.