A Tango with Django

A few words today in celebration of the great instrumentalist Django Reinhardt (Jean Reinhardt, 1910-1953). Not only has the word “legend” been overused in show business, so has the phrase “the word legend has been overused in show business.” The word seldom literally applies, but it does in Reinhardt’s case. He’s the sort of semi-mythical character that stories are told about, not just in print, but orally. And not just among musicians, but among anyone who’s ever heard about him. He’s like the European equivalent of Robert Johnson (who was said to have sold his soul to the devil) or B.B. King (who once ran into a burning building to retrieve his guitar). In the old days you might have described him as “the two fingered Gypsy guitarist”, though we’ll need to walk that description back and finesse it for a couple of reasons. Reinhardt is also, as far as I know, the most famous of all European jazz musicians. (You can attempt to fight me on that, but I won’t fight back. He’s certainly the one I know about best).

Now to finesse. First, we never say “Gypsy” any more. It’s considered pejorative by the people themselves. They prefer Roma or Romany or Romani or various other names and variations, and this has been official since an international congress of the leaders of this scattered people in 1971. Some think the term “Gypsy” may have originated in a misconception that this iterant populace migrated to Europe from Egypt. At any rate, as evidenced by the verb “to Gyp”, it insults the people it refers to. Linguistics and DNA told us decades ago that the Roma were originally from Northwest India. In Medieval times, a group of them began to head north, through Persia (Iran), Asia Minor (Turkey), the Balkans, and then the rest of Europe. Unlike the Jewish people, who came to Europe in a similar manner from the Levant, the Romany never abandoned a nomadic lifestyle, most probably because they weren’t allowed to by suspicious and prejudiced locals. Hence they kept traveling, their most widely agreed-upon cultural trait. They move their communities in caravans: wagons in the old days, motorized campers today. This modus operandi was later adopted by circuses, and since the Roma are often professional performers themselves, famed especially for their music and dancing, one romantically links the two (at least I do!). I wrote about them a little in this context in No Applause. And there is a dedicated post on their history and culture here.

While born in Belgium, Reinhardt spent most of his time in Romany camps around the outside of Paris. Before Reinhart, as far as I can tell, “Django” was not a name. It is thought that it is either a play on his given name (i.e. Jean-go), or a play on the Roma phrase for “I wake up”. Thus, the famous mythical hero of movies westerns from Corbucci to Tarrantino, owes his name to the musician. Reinhardt’s father played piano; his mother was a dancer (shades of Esmerelda!) From a young age, Django played a banjo/guitar hybrid. There’s even a photo of him with that instrument!

Reinhardt was already becoming well known for his facility upon the instrument through his performances in Paris cafes when, at the age of 17, he was badly burnt in a fire and permanently lost the full use of the two outer fingers of his left hand. So, we should amend “two finger” right? It was more accurate to say that he was EIGHT fingered. But I called him two-fingered for a specific reason. A right handed string player forms chords with his left hand. Losing two of those four fingers leaves…two. And those are CRUCIAL fingers. Now all of his chords would be what we call “double stops” — two note chords. He could play melodies, improvised leads, or an interesting harmony line, but he could no longer just strum all the strings rhythmically, as is often done with string instruments. In Reinhardt’s case it was not a handicap. As with one-legged tap dancer Peg Leg Bates, or the left handed Ringo Starr who plays a right handed drum kit, the artist figures out workarounds that make them more interesting musicians. And since Reinhardt was already great, he became even greater. As the 20s turned into the 30s, he discovered jazz, and jazz guitarists like Eddie Lang, whom he began to emulate and expand upon with his own percussive style. It was his brother Joseph, himself a guitarist, who bought him his first guitar. With Joseph, Stéphane Grappelli, Louis Vola, and Roger Chaput, he formed the Quintette du Hot Club de Paris in 1934. That distinctive sound, that lively, plucked acoustic guitar in a hot jazz setting that you may stumble across from time to time (popular on movie soundtracks, for example) is usually Reinhardt, or someone imitating him. (Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown is a kind of love poem to him).

Reinhardt came along too late for American vaudeville, but he did tour the States and he played with many famous American musicians and singers, including Duke Ellington, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Adelaide Hall, and Louis Armstrong. of his over 900 recordings, his best known tune might be “Nuages”, first recorded in 1940. Then in 1953, having survived both the fire, and the Nazis (who put Roma in concentration camps and exterminated many), without warning, Django Reinhardt dropped dead of a stroke at age 43. It only burnished his legend.

In 1954 the Modern Jazz Quartet, recorded their tribute tune “Django”. And his style of music has become known as “Gypsy Jazz”, because old habits die hard.

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