Friday, January 1, 2010
How Django Reinhardt got the whole world on a string
An injury in a fire could have ended Django Reinhardt's career. Instead, he reinvented the jazz guitar and became a legend.
Garth Cartwright celebrates the Gypsy king's centenary
Friday January 1 2010
A hundred years ago this month, a child was born in a Gypsy caravan at a Belgian crossroads. The baby was christened "Jean", but to his people he was always Django, from a Romany verb meaning: "I awake." Never was a name more aptly given: a century on and Django Reinhardt remains the greatest jazz musician Europe ever produced and the most celebrated icon of the Gypsies. That he was able to revolutionise guitar playing with only two functioning fingers on his left hand ? he lost the others in a fire ? only adds to his legend.
In fact, Reinhardt was the stuff of legend. Jeff Beck, a guitarist with more than a passing acquaintance with dazzling technique, called him "by far the most astonishing guitar player ever ? Django was quite superhuman, there's nothing normal about him as a person or a player."
Pretty much every guitar maestro has paid homage: BB King, Julian Bream, Hank Marvin, Robert Fripp and Carlos Santana are all fans; Jimi Hendrix formed his Band of Gypsies in honour of Reinhardt. As his music continues to inspire, so too does his image: the combination of his pencil moustache, cravat and fine tailoring worn in a raffish manner remains a bohemian favourite.
Michael Dregni, whose 2004 biography Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend was a US bestseller, says interest in the guitarist has risen in recent years. "Perhaps as a response to our troubled times, the joy in Django's jazz resonates," Dregni says. "In his simple swing-guitar playing people hear a sort of musical truth, stripped down to the basics of beautiful melody and dashing playing. His sound remains fresh and new, while conjuring up Jazz Age Paris."
The Reinhardt family were nomadic, travelling as far afield as Algeria. Django's father was a basket weaver, juggler and gifted multi-instrumentalist, his mother a superb dancer. Opening out the back of their caravan (known as a vurdon), the couple would entertain the villages they travelled through, earning money, gifts and goodwill. When his father deserted his young family Django's mother kept the vurdon on the road, using the outskirts of Paris as a base during winter. She wove baskets and fashioned jewellery from bronze shell casings Django and his younger brother Joseph, known as Nin Nin, recovered at the battlefields of the first world war.
Though he was twice enrolled in school, Reinhardt never received a formal education, instead swearing by the Romany proverb "He who travels, learns". His father, his uncle and the rest of the Gypsies he travelled with taught him the violin, the most practical of Gypsy instruments ? portable and adaptable ? and by the age of seven he was sitting in with his father's dance band. At 12 he was given a banjo by a fellow Gypsy musician. Self-taught, he began working Paris's rowdy dancehalls only months later. Here he joined in playing musette, a sound that blended French folk flavours with tango, polka, waltzes and the new American style, jazz. All who heard Django play agreed: the Gypsy kid was a prodigy.
Reinhardt became a word-of-mouth sensation on the Parisian underground, and in October 1928, the English band leader Jack Hylton ? whose light jazz orchestra were Europe's most popular ? came to a rough dancehall in Paris's Belleville quarter to hear the teenager for himself. Hylton offered Reinhardt a job on the spot, but that same night the caravan where he lived with his pregnant wife caught fire, leaving him badly injured and facing the propsect of never playing again. Joseph gave him a guitar to play while he was bedridden, and as he convalesced, Reinhardt invented a technique to suit a left hand with two ruined fingers. Fashioning new chords using a minimum of notes, Reinhardt pushed his paralysed fingers to grip the guitar while he worked out fingerings that could be played vertically as opposed to horizontally ? literally rewriting what could be played on guitar.
Healed, Reinhardt found he had lost his wife, his job, his caravan and Hylton's interest. He returned to busking, and in 1931 on the streets of Toulon, he and Joseph caught the attention of the painter Emile Savitry. Savitry was astounded by their ability and became their patron, helping to establish the men on the Paris scene, where Reinhardt was once again a sensation.
In summer 1934, the defining relationship of Reinhardt's professional life was formed when he met St?phane Grappelli, a French-Italian violinist also enamoured with American jazz. They formed le Quintette du Hot Club de France, and pioneered jazz played on strings (as opposed to the American style, with horns). Their status was recognised by visiting American jazz musicians, who appreciated the Hot Club's talents ? both Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins performed with them.
Before Reinhardt, the guitar was largely a rhythm instrument. He explored all its melodic possibilities, reinventing US jazz tunes, pop songs, classical melodies, Russian waltzes and Romany folk tunes in a frantic, dynamic attack that blended everything into what is now referred to as "Gypsy Swing" ? this was hot music made for dancing.
Reinhardt and Grappelli's partnership was ended by the war. The Hot Club were in London when war broke out: Grappelli chose to stay, Reinhardt returned to Paris, where he survived a colourful six years. Perhaps it was fitting that, after he had survived so much, Reinhardt's own suspicious nature should bring about his untimely death in 1953. Having refused to see a doctor for persistent headaches, he suffered a fatal stroke aged 43.
His legend survives, however, with Django festivals held every May in Belgium, every June in France and annually across four different locations in the US. But the International Gypsy Swing Guitar Festival ? which takes place later this month in London ? is the first serious UK attempt to celebrate his legacy. The nine-day festival promises not just the best of Django, but the best Gypsy guitarists playing today.
"There's a very strong tradition of Gypsy guitarists in France, Belgium and Holland, and what I find interesting is how they tend to approach Django, how they stamp their own personality on this music, how they push the sound forward, keep it a living part of their culture," says Sylvia Rushbrooke of the Quecumbar, which is hosting the festival.
'Music is really the only thing many Gypsy families have left, as other traditional areas of employment ? horse trading, basket making ? have faded," she says. "The little boys start learning to play aged six or seven. They almost never learn to read music, it's all by ear. Few women play simply because they never get the chance to sit around for six or seven hours a day practising. Gypsy culture remains very patriarchal.
"Gypsy swing is a very joyous music. Dynamic and powerful. It uplifts people," she says.
There's no sign of the legend of Django diminishing just yet. Dregni's biography has been optioned by Hollywood, with Johnny Depp lined up to play Reinhardt. What a film it might make: the guitar genius who gambled all he earned, eschewed responsibility, preferred caravans to mansions, lived only for the moment and never stopped innovating. Depp modelled his guitar-playing Gypsy in Chocolat on Django, but it's hard to imagine the American narcissus conveying Reinhardt's unstoppable exuberance. Not that this matters: the music conveys the man's magic. Happy 100th, Django!
The Django Reinhardt festival is at Le QuecumBar, London, 17?25 January. Details: www.quecumbar.co.uk
Posted by Morgan at 11:33 AM