Django Reinhardt was one of the most innovative, gifted and extraordinary guitar players ever – and he was unique in his legacy of bringing the guitar front and centre stage in the world of jazz – without feeling the need to include the more traditional instruments such as drums and horns.
Regular readers here will know that I have a particular weakness for anything on the klezmer side of things – particularly a fusion of jazz and so-called gypsy music – and Django is very much about that combination, eventually creating his own special hybrid of the so-called “hot jazz.” Reinhardt’s take was to inject unexpected rhythm, complicated chord formations and his own personal improv often at top speed. I find it fascinating that his music still sounds so different and fresh even after all these years. (Django began way back in the 1920s playing banjo and guitar back-up to some undoubtedly wild-eyed accordionists who would be serving up some high octane fox-trots and rags …) If you like different, swinging, vintage jazz this is it.
The speed at which Django played is made all the more supernatural by two facts: one, he was involved in a fire at the age of 18 and burned his left hand so badly that he was left with only two fingers that he could actually fret notes with and secondly, he did not read music. At all.
The accident forced Reinhardt to devise his own method of playing, a method which allowed him to play at an incredible pace yet without compromising precision, passion or sophistication. (My older brother, himself an accomplished guitarist has been known to occasionally tape his fingers together when he plays in order to comprehend how Django achieved this. Strangely, he doesn’t discuss his findings very freely …)
During the thirties, Django went on to deepen his exploration of the kind of jazz that he was so passionate about (he was very influenced by both Louis Armstrong, Eddie Lang, Charlie Parker) and when he met and found his perfect kindred spirit in arch-violin- improviser Stéphane Grappelli they formed a quintet called Quintette du Hot Club de France or “The Hot Club of France Quintet” and together they made their own special brand of jazz till around 1948. As well as Grappelli, Django was joined by his brother Joseph on rhythm guitar, Roget Chaput (rhythm guitar) and also bassist Louis Vola. Although Django did not actually have a drummer, the group did achieve a comparable sound with the rhythm guitars, whose players would employ a strumming technique called “la pompe” which is performed very rapidly).
Django also toured briefly with Duke Ellington in the forties, when he played electric guitar.
Reinhardt’s career and development as an artist is far too complicated for the short space here – and there is a plethora of material out there to read, he was an interesting and eccentric talent – but the best thing to do is listen!