Written by Paul Tingen
Django Reinhard has been called “the greatest guitarist who ever lived.” During his heyday, the 1930s and 40s, Reinhardt came up with solo and harmonic innovations on the guitar that had a big impact on modern jazz, blues, country, and rock guitar styles.
Together with violinist Stephane Grappelli, Reinhardt came up with a new, European style of jazz, called gypsy jazz, or manouche jazz—by fusing Dixieland, swing jazz, French traditional music, gypsy music, and more. He was the first to pioneer a form of jazz that centered around the guitar, in sharp contrast to American jazz, which was based around horns, drums and piano.
As if the above accomplishments were not amazing enough, Reinhardt achieved them while having to overcome obstacles that would have been insurmountable to pretty much anyone else. He was born a gypsy, or Romani, as they call themselves, and had to overcome extreme poverty, illiteracy, and anti-Romani prejudice and persecution.
On top of all this, there’s the truly mindboggling fact that Reinhardt was a virtuoso guitar player with severely crippled left-hand ring and little fingers. Half his body, including his left hand, was badly damaged in a fire when he was 18, at a point when he was just beginning to gain international fame as a banjo-guitar player. One leg was so badly burned, doctors wanted to amputate, and they also said he’d never play again.
Reinhardt insisted on keeping his leg, and his playing skills. With great determination he invented a new way of playing the guitar, performing virtuoso solos with just his index and middle fingers. If the video clips did not exist of him playing extremely fast runs up and down the fretboard with two fingers, people would forever doubt the veracity of the two-finger story.
Reinhardt’s amazing re-invention of himself as a guitarist has inspired countless musicians facing physical challenges. Most famously, in 1965, Tony Iommi lost the tips of his middle and ring fingers in an industrial accident. Like Reinhardt, he was told he’d never play again. When Iommi’s factory foreman played him a recording of Reinhardt, and explained that the lightning-fast runs were executed with just two fingers, 17-year old Iommi decided to start playing again.
Without Django Reinhardt, jazz and rock guitar, as well as European jazz in general, would today sound very different. Spiritually, he’s also one of the ancestors of heavy metal, for without Reinhardt, there would have been no Black Sabbath.
Reinhardt was born January 23, 1910, in a Manouche Romani camp in southern Belgium. His father, Jean-Baptiste Weiss, was a violinist, guitarist and a juggler, his mother, Laurence Reinhardt, a dancer. Their son, Jean-Baptiste Reinhardt, nicknamed Django, spent most of his childhood in Romani camps close to Paris. He started playing violin at an early age, and the banjo-guitar, a 6-string banjo with the same tuning as a guitar, at age 12.
At age 14, Reinhardt regularly played bal musette in rough, working-class Parisian dance halls. Many elements of Reinhardt’s later rippling solo phrasing can be traced directly to French dancehall accordion playing.
On June 20, 1928, when he was 18, Reinhardt, made his first recordings, accompanying popular musette accordionist Jean Vaissade. By the second half of that year, Reinhardt’s name was beginning to draw international attention. Jack Hylton,“The Ambassador of British Dance Music,” offered him a job. However, before the young guitarist could join Hylton’s ensemble, disaster struck.
The wagon where Reinhardt and his wife were sleeping caught fire, and he escaped with severe burns over more than half his body, with his right leg and left hand particularly badly affected. Perhaps a guitar given to him by his younger brother Joseph provided the inspiration for Reinhardt’s unbelievable tour-de-force of will-power during this period, as he set about relearning to play the guitar with just two left-hand fingers.
He had to imagine a new approach to playing the guitar. It led to him devising new shapes, new ways to play runs, and to use ultra-thin strings, making it easier to play fast and bend notes. It was the ultimate case of triumph over adversity, clutching victory from the jaws of defeat.
After this episode, he travelled around France, playing in small clubs and barely making a living. In 1931, he had a true “Eureka” moment following a café gig in the south of France, when he heard recordings of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Eddie Lang for the first time. The manouche guitarist’s mind was well and truly blown.
When he returned to Paris that same year, he met French-Italian jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. Grappelli played elegant, legato lines on the violin, in sharp contrast to Reinhardt’s frenetic, rhythmic playing. The two immediately hit it off.
In 1934, an organization called Hot Club de France, whose members worshipped American jazz music, ran into Reinhardt and Grappelli, who had been playing jam sessions. The Hot Club organization encouraged them to form a permanent group, and the result was the Quintette du Hot Club de France, with Grappeli and Reinhardt backed by two more guitarists and a bassist.
The quintet very quickly took France and Europe by storm. Theirs was a sensational new form of jazz, the first to emerge outside of the US. The quintet toured all over Europe, and was particularly popular in the UK. Word of a spectacular group playing a new, “hot” form of jazz, with three guitarists but no drummer, and two amazing soloists, also reached the US.
Most attention went to Reinhardt, because his ingenious solos were flash and exciting, and instantly recognizable. No one had ever imagined that the acoustic guitar could be so powerful and incendiary. Reinhardt’s level of technique was far beyond that of any other guitarist at the time, and a revelation.
By the end of the thirties, the Quintette du Hot Club de France was the most famous music ensemble in Europe. At this point, as so often in Reinhardt’s life, tragedy struck again. The outbreak of the second world war in 1939 meant that Reinhardt’s life was at risk, as the Nazi’s regarded Romani in the same way as Jews.
Reinhardt managed to survive the war courtesy of his fame. At one point he even thrived, opening his own club, experimenting with guitar amplification, and writing a lot of new material. At this point Reinhardt was also drawing inspiration from French classical composers like Debussy, Ravel and Faure.
After the war, Reinhardt joined up again with Grappelli, though their collaboration never quite caught fire as it had done in the 1930. Reinhardt had begun experimenting with bebop influences, and also performed with his own group, Nouveau Quintette, alone, and with various other musicians.
Duke Ellington, who once called Reinhardt “the most creative jazz musician to originate anywhere outside the United States,” invited him on tour with his orchestra, and the guitarist was in the US from October 1946 to February 1947. He performed as a special guest soloist with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, and in many other settings.
On returning from the US, Reinhardt continued to experiment with electric pickups, amplification and bebop influences, and different musical settings. In 1951, he moved to a small town just outside Paris, while still regularly travelling to Paris to perform. On May 16, 1953, he died of a brain hemorrhage. He was only 43.
Despite his early death, and a relatively short career, Reinhardt’s legacy continues to live on. His playing can be found on between 700 and 1000 recordings, many of them of showcasing his playing in all its glory. His legacy can very obviously be found in an entire culture of manouche music and manouche guitar.
However, Reinhardt’s influence reaches far beyond the relatively small manouche world, with countless modern guitarists referencing him and/or being audibly influenced by him, in all genres, including classical, jazz, country, bluegrass, blues, folk, and rock. Today it’s impossible to find a serious guitarist who has not been influenced by Reinhardt, whether directly or indirectly. Every time someone picks up a guitar and plays a solo, the spirit of Django Reinhardt is in the room.
© 2021 Paul Tingen.