I’ve always had a bit of an antiquarian sensibility when it comes to music, which can leave me feeling out of step with the times. But these days, it’s a wonderful relief to transport yourself – eyes closed, headphones on – to another era as a brief respite from our present tedium. It’s in that spirit – and in the spirit of this imagination-themed issue – that I’d like to commend to you my favourite musician.
Jean Baptiste Reinhardt was born in Pont-à-Celles, Belgium in 1910, though the name might not be immediately familiar. He went by Django, and folks debate whether that’s a diminutive of Jean, or whether it’s a Gypsy word meaning “I awake.” Either way, Django Reinhardt was a Gypsy. Though a better term would be Roma or Romani, as Gypsy isn’t the preferred term any longer. That said, the style of music Django invented is still referred to as “Gypsy jazz” today.
Musical beacon of hope
Django was a musician from his earliest days, playing traditional Romani folk music, predominantly on a banjo/guitar hybrid. He lived in a caravan with his wife, who had a gig making artificial flowers from celluloid, which, as it turns out, is highly flammable. In November 1928, while readying himself for bed, Django knocked over a candle, and the caravan was quickly engulfed in flames. He was badly burned on most of his body, and spent three months in the hospital. His left hand – his fretting hand – was badly disfigured by the fire, leaving only his index and middle fingers with normal function. Bad news for a guitarist, right?
Apparently not in Django’s case. Django set about re-learning the guitar, integrating all the musical styles that were swirling around Europe at the time. Those Romani folk tunes, but also the work of composers like Debussy, Ravel, Fauré and Satie. And, of course, American swing. The resulting style is absolutely beguiling – moody, romantic, dark and enchanting. With those two functional fingers, Django played with pure felicity. Abetted by his brother Joseph and the violinist Stephane Grappelli, Django formed The Quintet du Hot Club de France, and set up shop in Parisian cafés. He performed throughout WWII, a rather dangerous thing for a Roma musician to do under Nazi rule, yet he persevered, his music a beacon of hope to occupied Paris.
Improv & delight
After the war, when cross-Atlantic travel became possible again, Django came to America at the invitation of Duke Ellington. He was scheduled to play some concerts with the Duke’s big band at Carnegie Hall in November of 1946, but at the curtain call he was nowhere to be found. Ellington, being the consummate professional, diligently played a set with his orchestra. Then another, and then another.
And then a yellow cab pulled up in front of the storied concert hall. Django bounded out, late because he’d run into Edith Piaf’s husband in the street and got to chatting. Someone handed him a guitar. He tuned it up, walked out to the front of the orchestra, played his set, and finally left the stage after six encores and rapturous applause.
After his American jaunt, Django returned to France, bought himself a Lincoln and pulled a caravan to Samois-sur-Seine where he spent days fishing and playing cards, occasionally taking the train to Paris to perform. In May 1953, while walking home from the train station, he suffered a stroke which claimed his life at only 43.
Django left us with about 900 recordings, and most are readily available on the streaming service of your choice. Listen to the daydreamy “Nuages” from 1940, for a taste of that yearning for better days, whether past or future. His 1939 version of the standard “I’ll See You in My Dreams” offers the same, and you’ll encounter one of the finest improvisations in jazz history, too. “Dark Eyes” or “Les Yeux Noirs” is a perfect example of the blend of folk tunes with a hot jazz sensibility. And, if you long for some pure delight, track down his rendition of “Honeysuckle Rose,” from 1946; Django’s on a borrowed electric guitar, seated at the prow of that marvelous Ellington big band. Beautiful.