Back when I was initially taking guitar lessons (20 B.C. or so), I wanted to learn all the three-chord rock n’ roll I could stand. My guitar teacher had other ideas. He wanted me to learn about Barney Kessel, Joe Pass, and all those jazz guys. And especially about a guy named Django Reinhardt….
Jean “Django” Reinhardt was a Frenchman born in Belgium in 1910. His ethnicity was Romani, often referred to as gypsy. (Europeans believed they came from Egypt.) At an early age, he started playing guitar and violin. By the time he was 15, he was good enough to make a living playing guitar. Soon after, he started making recordings and his reputation grew, at least in Europe.
When he was eighteen, Reinhardt was nearly killed when his caravan caught fire. He was badly burned and – worse for him as a professional musician – he permanently lost the use of the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand. Overcoming all the odds, he taught himself to play using only his thumb and two fingers.
During the Twenties and Thirties, he and one of his distant cousins, Sophie Ziegler (whom he later married), traveled throughout France, with Django playing small clubs. Until this time he had also been playing the banjo. But somewhere during this time period, he started focusing exclusively on guitar, famously favoring the Selmer line. It wasn’t until Django heard Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington that he realized he wanted to be a jazz musician.
Nineteen-thirty-four turned out to be a fortuitous year for Django. Commissioned along with other musicians to play the Hotel Claridge in Paris (still there), he met violinist Stéphane Grappelli. Joined by Roger Chaput on guitar, Louis Vola on bass and Django’s brother Joseph on guitar, they formed Quintette du Hot Club de France. (So-named for the Hot Club de France, a somewhat purist jazz society that functions to this day.)
The quintet soon came to the attention of a small label called Ultraphone. Some of the early sides they recorded were tunes such as, “Dinah,” “Tiger Rag,” and the Gershwin’s “Oh Lady Be Good,” and “I Got Rhythm.”
The band’s style of swing jazz or “gypsy jazz” quickly became popular in Europe. (One can hardly imagine a Woody Allen movie without either New Orleans jazz or Quintet-era swing. In fact, Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown is about a 1930’s guitarist who worships Django. “Django was the definitive genius on the guitar, and the depth of his gift was so spectacular,” says Allen, a clarinetist himself.)
It’s funny, but just as much as I like listening to the solos, I find I enjoy that rigid guitar rhythm as well. I saw this interesting write-up in Wikipedia:
“Rhythm guitar in gypsy jazz uses a special form of strumming known as “la pompe”, i.e. “the pump”. This form of percussive rhythm is similar to the “boom-chick” in bluegrass styles. It is what gives the music its fast swinging feeling, as it emphasizes beats two and four, a vital feature of swing. This pattern is usually played in unison by two or more guitarists in the rhythm section.“
They recorded dozens of songs for a variety of labels. You can see a listing here as well as a recitation of band members beyond the original five.
Here’s a tasty little Fats Waller song, “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Waller was an early twentieth-century pianist who did much to popularize the “stride” style of piano:
The band continued touring, winding up in London in 1939, where they were actually playing when England declared war on Germany. Django returned to France while Grappelli remained in England. By some miracle, Django escaped the fate of many of his people who were rounded up and sent to Nazi concentration camps.
On returning to France, Django composed his most famous song, “Nuages.” The song was so popular, it became a de facto national anthem when “La Marseillaise,” was banned by the Vichy government:
Django continued using the Quintet name, sometimes actually employing more than five players. He went to America, playing a few shows with his idol, Duke Ellington. Grappelli continued on in London, playing with a variety of musicians. He and Django reunited in 1946 and played for a few more years. Effectively the Quintet was a spent force by 1948-1949.
Grappelli played with almost everyone you can think of from Paul Simon to Yehudi Menuhin, to … Pink Floyd? According to Wikipedia: “Grappelli recorded a solo for the title track of Wish You Were Here.
This was made almost inaudible in the mix, and so the violinist was not credited, according to Roger Waters as it would be “a bit of an insult”. A remastered version, with Grappelli’s contribution fully audible, can be found on the 2011 Experience and Immersion editions of Wish You Were Here.”
For the curious, here it is. (YouTube only, can’t find on Spotify.) I wouldn’t call it Stéphane’s greatest solo. But who cares? Just the idea that a 1930’s swing jazz musician from a completely different era is playing with a prog-rock band is enough to blow my mind.
In 1953, at the age of 43 years old, Django Reinhardt collapsed and died of a brain hemorrhage in Samois-Sur-Seine, France where he had been living. Stéphane Grappelli died in 1997 at the age of 89.
Django Reinhardt is considered, quite simply, one of the greatest and most influential guitarists, jazz or otherwise, who ever lived. There is almost no guitarist who has not paid tribute to him or that he has not influenced. Country guitarist Chet Atkins considered him one of the greatest of all time. Jeff Beck described Reinhardt as “by far the most astonishing guitar player ever” and “quite superhuman.”
Rumor has it that Hendrix named Band of Gypsys for him but I cannot corroborate this. Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers wrote the song “Jessica” as a tribute to Reinhardt in that it was designed to be played using only two fingers on the left hand.
The Quintet of the Hot Club of France is considered one of the most influential jazz units ever. To this day there are bands and hot clubs all over the world that play “gypsy jazz.” And there are several festivals devoted to Django, most notably the Festival Django Reinhardt in Samois-Sur-Seine, about 75 km south of Paris.
Remember – it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.