Wednesday, 25 April 2012

JAZZ ICONS #2: Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhardt Vol. 2, Dial EP, c. 1943

But when it came to describing for them who had never heard it the poignant fleeting exquisitely delicate melody of that guitar, memory always faltered.  There was no way to describe them that.  You had to hear that, the steady, swinging, never wavering beat with the two-or-three-chord haunting minor riffs at the ends of phrases, each containing the whole feel and pattern of the joyously unhappy tragedy of this earth (and of that other earth).  And always over it all the one picked single string of the melody following infallibly the beat, weaving in and out around it with the hard-driven swiftly-run arpeggios, always moving, never hesitating, never getting lost and having to pause to get back on, shifting suddenly from the set light-accent of the melancholy jazz beat to the sharp erratic-explosive gypsy rhythm that cried over life while laughing at it, too fast for the ear to follow, too original for the mind to anticipate, too intricate for the memory to remember.  Andy was not a jazzman, but Andy knew guitars.  The American Eddy Lang was good, but Django the Frenchman was untouchable, like God.
From Here To Eternity (1951)

The music of Django Reinhardt has been called 'impossible to describe,' but James Jones did a very good job, I've always thought, of defining what makes it so bewitchingly unique.  No one has ever played the guitar in quite the way that Django played the guitar.  Like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan and only a handful of other jazz musicians who came before and after him, Django's style was immediately identifiable and exclusively his own.  Even people who claim to hate jazz will smile and tap their foot if you play them a track by the Quintette du Hot Club de France, the all-acoustic string band he co-founded with violinist Stéphane Grappelli in 1934. 

Nagasaki (1936)

Although he spent most of his life in France, Jean Baptiste 'Django' Reinhardt was actually born in Belgium, near a small village called Liberchies in the caravan belonging to his unmarried Manouche (or 'gypsy') mother.  He grew up in this caravan, travelling the roads of France (and briefly of Italy and Algeria during WWI) with the woman that everyone called 'Négros' and his younger brother Joseph (who would one day join him as second guitarist in the Quintette du Hot Club de France).  Although he learned to play the banjo, the guitar and the violin at an early age, he never attended school and didn't learn to read and write until he became an adult.  By the age of thirteen he was such a proficient musician that he was able to support himself by playing the banjo, accompanying gypsy accordionist Guérino every night in a club on the Rue Monge in Paris, where his extended Manouche family had now decided to park its caravans more or less permanently.  His technique dazzled everyone who heard him and he was soon being asked to accompany other Manouche musicians in various Parisian nightclubs and cabarets, his mother dutifully coming to collect him and his pay after each performance to ensure he wouldn't gamble it away.  It was with one of these same Manouche musicians –– a cabaret singer named Chabel –– that he allegedly made his debut recording some time in 1924.  He was then fourteen years old.
DJANGO REINHARDT (name misspelled), 1930s
Four years later he appeared on another record by accordionist Jean Vaissade, playing banjo again with his name misspelled as 'Jiango Renard.'  (The nickname 'Django' supposedly means something like 'I am here' in the Manouche dialect his family spoke.)  A few months after this, in November 1928, he was seriously injured in a fire that started in his caravan when a still-burning candle came into contact with some celluloid flowers.  His pregnant wife, who was in the caravan with him at the time, managed to escape the ensuing blaze with minor injuries, but Django sustained terrible burns to his right leg as well as to the third and fourth fingers of his left hand.  He spent eighteen months in a nursing home recovering from his injuries and re-teaching himself to play the guitar, developing an entirely new style of fingering that would still allow him to play lightning-fast arpeggios on the instrument using only his first and second fingers.  Amazingly, he was able to return to the recording studio in 1931, this time as a member of Louis Vola's orchestra.   

In 1932 (or perhaps a little earlier, no one can seem to agree on the exact date) he met classically-trained violinist Stéphane Grappelli, a consummate professional who was, emotionally and professionally, his exact opposite.  But they shared a love for the new American music called jazz and jammed together many times at a new Paris club called 'Le Hot Club de France.'  When the manager of the club wanted to put an all-French band together to perform regularly at the venue, the first musicians he thought of hiring were Reinhardt and his elegant friend Grappelli.  The Quintette's first recordings – test pressings that were never released – were rejected by their would-be record label Odéon because they were deemed 'too modern.'  Jazz was still considered to be 'a clamorous foreign noise' in France at this time and they struggled to find another record company willing to offer them a contract.  Finally they found the tiny Ultraphone label and recorded their debut single –– a version of the 1920s standard Dinah backed by George Gershwin's Lady Be Good for it in December 1933.  The record was an instant success, even earning rave reviews from critics who had previously expressed nothing but contempt for this 'noisy' new music.


Nuages (1937) 

The success of the Quintette – more recordings, shows in England and in most major cities in western Europe –– never really changed Django, who would often forget or simply not bother to turn up for concerts if he was busy fishing, playing cards or involved in a particularly enthralling game of billiards.  This behaviour angered concert promoters and frustrated Grappelli, who tried his best to work round it for the music's sake but often found himself at odds with his friend due his wandering ways and sometimes costly lack of professionalism.  The Quintette nevertheless continued to record and tour and was appearing in England when World War Two broke out in September 1939.  Django's decision to return to France was a courageous one, given that Hitler's 'Final Solution' included the extermination of the entire gypsy race along with Jews, homosexuals and anyone else it deemed to be of 'impure blood.'  

Grappelli did not return to France with the rest of the band, meaning that the two friends did not play together again until 1946.  Django continued to perform and record throughout the war as frequently as possible, adding the clarinet of Hubert Rostaing to his band to replace Grappelli's missing violinIn 1943, three years into the Occupation of France, Django was arrested as a suspected spy while attempting to cross the border into Switzerland.  He was only saved from being sent to the gas chamber by a sympathetic German officer who luckily happened to be a jazz fan and wouldn't hear of anyone as talented as he was being sent to die in Auschwitz.  


In A Sentimental Mood (1937)


The post-war years saw Django visit America for the first time, playing electric guitar with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in what some critics believed was an attempt to 'modernize' his sound.  The Ellington experiment failed –– although he was thrilled to be playing with Ellington, he only got to perform at the end of the maestro's concerts, accompanied only by him on piano and never by his complete orchestra – and when the offers he kept expecting to receive to play in California were not forthcoming, he gladly returned to France, where he was reunited with Grappelli and began sporadically performing and recording again as a member of their re-formed Quintette.  He also took up painting, telling people that he preferred creating pictures to playing music, and bought his first house, built on waste ground in one of the outlying suburbs of Paris, that his Manouche relatives quickly moved into and reduced to rubble virtually overnight.  


Honeysuckle Rose (1946)
DJANGO REINHARDT [electric guitar)
accompanied by

By 1950 his career seemed to be in decline.  Regular bookings became harder to find as what was seen as the 'quaint' jazz of the 1930s was pushed aside in favour of the new harder-edged 'be-bop' sound pioneered by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie (musicians he admired and unfortunately failed to meet while visiting New York).  Django went into semi-retirement, spending his time painting and fishing while he and his wife lived quietly in their old caravan near the town of Samois-sur-Seine.  During a tour of Switzerland in 1953, he began to complain of headaches, not realizing that they were the early warning signs of the stroke that would end his life on 16 May 1953.  The jazz world was devastated, unable to believe it had lost its first authentic non-American genius at the age of forty-three.  He was survived by his sons Lousson and Babik, talented guitarists in their own right who shared his gift for composing original music that seamlessly blended elements of classical, jazz and gypsy styles.  His two grandsons also became guitarists, continuing what has obviously become a proud family tradition.   Stéphane Grappelli continued to play well into his eighties (he lived until 1997) and always insisted that an empty chair be placed on stage each night wherever he performed.  When asked why, he would always reply 'For Django.'    

Click HERE to listen to more great music by DJANGO REINHARDT.  If you'd like to know more about what's now called 'Gypsy Jazz,' you can click HERE to visit the UK website The Django Reinhardt Swing Page which features links to various performers, festivals, and workshops all around the world.  

The standard (if dated) biography is Django Reinhardt by his friend and former business associate CHARLES DELAUNAY.  It was last reprinted by the DaCapo Press in 1993 and remains widely available.  The WOODY ALLEN film Sweet and Lowdown, starring SEAN PENN as an eccentric 1930s jazz guitarist named 'Emmet Ray' who's obsessed with Django, was released in 1999 and can also be obtained as a Region 1 US DVD.    

Special thanks to everyone who takes the time to upload music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere.  

You might also enjoy: 
JAZZ ICONS #1: Lester Young  
JAZZ ICONS #4: Jack Teagarden  
JAZZ ICONS #5: Sarah Vaughan   

No comments:

Post a Comment