Wednesday, May 16, 2012

May 16: Gypsy jazz guitar virtuoso"Django" Reinhardt died on this date in 1953...

... he was 43 years-old when he passed away.

Jean "Django" was a pioneering virtuoso jazz guitarist and composer. Born into a family of Romani gypsies Reinhardt invented an entirely new style of jazz guitar technique - sometimes called 'hot' jazz guitar - that is now a living musical tradition within French gypsy culture.

Born in Liberchies, Pont-à-Celles, Belgium, Reinhardt's nickname "Django" is Romani for "I awake." He spent most of his youth in Romani (Gypsy) encampments close to Paris, playing banjo, guitar and violin from an early age. His family made cane furniture for a living, but included several keen amateur musicians.

With violinist Stéphane Grappelli, he co-founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France. Reinhardt's most popular compositions have become jazz standards, including "Minor Swing," "Daphne," "Belleville," "Djangology," "Swing '42" and "Nuages" (French for "Clouds").

He started first on the violin and eventually moved on to a banjo-guitar that had been given to him as a gift. His first known recordings (in 1928) were of him playing the banjo. During this period he was influenced by two older gypsy musicians, the banjoist Gusti Mahla and the guitarist Jean "Poulette" Castro.

Since he was able to make a living in music from his early teens onwards, he received little formal education. When he was 18, Reinhardt was injured in a fire that ravaged the caravan he shared with his first wife. They were very poor, and to supplement their income Bella made imitation flowers out of celluloid and paper. Consequently, their home was full of this highly flammable material.

Returning from a performance late one night, Reinhardt apparently knocked over a candle on his way to bed. While his family and neighbors were quick to pull him to safety, he received first- and second-degree burns over half his body. His right leg was paralysed and the third and fourth fingers of his left hand were badly burned. Doctors believed that he would never play guitar again and intended to amputate one of his legs. Reinhardt refused to have the surgery and left the hospital after a short time; he was able to walk within a year with the aid of a cane.

His brother Joseph Reinhardt, an accomplished guitarist himself, bought Django a new guitar. With rehabilitation and practice he relearned his craft in a completely new way, even as his third and fourth fingers remained partially paralysed. He played all of his guitar solos with only two fingers, and used the two injured digits only for chord work.

The period between 1929 and 1933 were critical years for Reinhardt's musical development. He abandoned the banjo-guitar and focused exclusively on guitar. During this period, he met Stéphane Grappelli, a young Parisian violinist with very similar musical interests; the two of then would jam for hours with a group of other like-minded musicians.

In 1934, Reinhardt and Grappelli were invited to form the "Quintette du Hot Club de France" with Reinhardt's brother Joseph and Roger Chaput on guitar, and Louis Vola on bass. Occasionally Chaput was replaced by Reinhardt's best friend and fellow Gypsy Pierre "Baro" Ferret. The vocalist Freddy Taylor participated in a few songs, such as "Georgia On My Mind" and "Nagasaki."

(Continued below video and Amazon portals ...)

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Classic Early Recordings in Chronogical Order

Jean Sablon was the first singer to record with him more than 30 songs from 1933. They also used their guitars for percussive sounds instead of actual percussion instruments. (The Quintette du Hot Club de France was one of the few well-known jazz ensembles composed only of string instruments.)

In Paris in March 1933 Reinhardt recorded two takes each of "Parce que je vous aime" and "Si, j'aime Suzy," vocal numbers with lots of guitar fills and guitar support, using three guitarists along with an accordion lead, violin, and bass. In August of the following year recordings were also made with more than one guitar (Joseph Reinhardt, Roger Chaput, and Django), including the first recording by the Quintette. Most of these recordings featured a wide variety of horns, often in multiples, piano, and other instruments.

Reinhardt also played and recorded with many American jazz musicians such as Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Rex Stewart (who later stayed in Paris), and a jam-session and radio performance with Louis Armstrong. Later in his career he played with Dizzy Gillespie in France.

In Rome in 1949, Reinhardt recruited three Italian jazz players and recorded his final (double) album, "Djangology." He was once again united with Grappelli, and returned to his acoustic Selmer-Maccaferri. The recording was discovered and issued for the first time in the late 1950s.

In 1951, he retired to Samois-sur-Seine, near Fontainebleau, where he lived until his death. He continued to play in Paris jazz clubs and began playing electric guitar, despite his initial hesitation towards the instrument. His final recordings made in the last few months of his life show him moving in a new musical direction; he had assimilated bebop and fused it with his own melodic style.

While walking from the Avon train station after playing in a Paris club he collapsed outside his house from a brain hemorrhage. It was a Saturday and it took a full day for a doctor to arrive  and Reinhardt was declared dead on arrival at the hospital in Fontainebleau at age 43.


Many guitar players, and musicians, have expressed admiration for Django Reinhardt, or have cited him as a major influence. These include British rock guitarists Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and Eric Clapton, all three of whom are regularly listed by publications such as Rolling Stone or Guitar Player Magazine as being within the top 10 greatest or most influential guitar players -often with Reinhardt, himself.

Other notable guitar players influenced by Reinhardt, include Jimmy McCulloch, classical guitarist Julian Bream; country artist Chet Atkins, who placed Reinhardt #1 on a list of the ten most influential guitarists of the 20th century (and himself fifth); Latinrocker Carlos Santana; blues legend B.B. King; Pete Townsend of The Who; Stevie Ray Vaughan; Derek Trucks; Mark Knopfler; Les Paul; Peter Frampton; George Benson; Wes Montgomery among many, many others. Jose Feliciano attributes his unique style, in part, to that Reinhardt. In 2009 he composed an album inspired by those musical influences and entitled it Djangoisms.

The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia and Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi, both of whom lost fingers in (separate) accidents, were particularly inspired by Django's ability to become an accomplished guitar player/musician, despite the diminished use of his own permanently injured hand, following an accident.

Some musicians, inspired by Reinhardt, have paid tribute to him by invoking his name in their own work or personal life. Jimi Hendrix is said to have conceived of, or used, the name Band of Gypsys because of Reinhardt's music. Jazz trio The Lost Fingers named themselves after Reinhardt's injured fingers.


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