Django Reinhardt (23 January 1910 – 16 May 1953) was a Belgian-born Romani-French jazz guitarist and composer….who is regarded as one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century.….and was the first jazz talent to emerge from Europe….and remains the most significant….who with violinist Stéphane Grappelli, formed the Paris-based Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934. The group was among the first to play jazz that featured the guitar as a lead instrument. Reinhardt recorded in France with many visiting American musicians, including Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter….and briefly toured the United States with Duke Ellington’s orchestra in 1946.
Before he had a chance to start with the band, however, Reinhardt nearly died….when on the night of November 2, 1928 while he was going to bed in the wagon that he and his wife shared in the caravan of Gypsies that they traveled with….after apparently knocking over a candle….which ignited the extremely flammable celluloid that his wife used to make artificial flowers….as the wagon was quickly engulfed in flames…..and although the couple escaped, Reinhardt suffered extensive burns over half his body. During his 18 month hospitalization, doctors apparently recommended amputation for his badly damaged right leg….but Reinhardt refused the surgery and was eventually able to walk with the aid of a cane.
More crucial to his music, the third finger (ring finger) and fourth finger (pinky) of Reinhardt’s left hand were badly burned….as doctors believed that he would never play guitar again….to which Reinhardt applied himself intensely to relearning his craft, however, making use of a new guitar bought for him by his brother, Joseph Reinhardt….who was also an accomplished guitarist. While he never regained the use of those two fingers, he did regained his musical mastery by focusing on his left index and middle fingers, using the two injured fingers only for chord work.
During the years after the fire, Reinhardt was rehabilitating and experimenting on the guitar that his brother had given him. After having played a broad spectrum of music, he was introduced to American jazz by an acquaintance, Émile Savitry….whose record collection included such musical luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang. Hearing their music apparently triggered in Reinhardt a vision and goal of becoming a jazz professional….and while developing his interest in jazz, Reinhardt met Stéphane Grappelli, a young violinist with similar musical interests. He and Grappelli would frequently jam together, accompanied by a loose circle of other musicians….when Reinhardt would acquire his first Selmer guitar in the mid-1930s.
Reinhardt is regarded as one of the greatest guitar players of all time….while being the first important European jazz musician to make a major contribution with jazz guitar…..who during his career he wrote nearly 100 songs, according to jazz guitarist Frank Vignola. While using a Selmer Guitar in the mid-1930s, his style took on new volume and expressiveness….and despite his physical disability….he played mainly using his index and middle fingers….which allowed him to invent a distinctive style of jazz guitar.
For about a decade after Reinhardt’s death at age 43, interest in his musical style was minimal…..but In the 1950’s, bebop superseded swing in jazz….and rock and roll took off….as electric instruments became dominant in popular music. Since the mid-1960’s, there has been a revival of interest in Reinhardt’s music….which extended into the 21st century, with annual festivals and periodic tribute concerts…..as evidenced by this 1982 Austin City Limits tribure. His devotees included classical guitarist Julian Bream and country guitarist Chet Atkins….who considered Django as one of the ten greatest guitarists of the twentieth century.
The Allman Brothers Band song “Jessica” was written by Dickey Betts in tribute to Reinhardt. Woody Allen’s 1999 film Sweet and Lowdown is a story of a Django Reinhardt-like character….which actually mentions Reinhardt….and includes actual recordings in the film. “Django was the definitive genius on the guitar, and the depth of his gift was so spectacular,” says Allen. Jazz guitarists in the U.S., such as Charlie Byrd and Wes Montgomery, were influenced by his style. In fact, Byrd, who lived from 1925 to 1999, said that Reinhardt was his primary influence. Guitarist Mike Peters notes that “the word ‘genius’ is bantered about too much. But in jazz, Louis Armstrong was a genius, Duke Ellington was another one and Reinhardt was also.” ….and Grisman adds….“As far as I’m concerned, no one since has come anywhere close to Django Reinhardt as an improviser or technician.”
Thanks to Django Reinhardt, the popularity of gypsy jazz has generated an increasing number of festivals….such as the Festival Django Reinhardt ….which is held every last weekend of June since 1983 in Samois-sur-Seine (France)….with various other DjangoFests held throughout Europe and the US….along with an annual camp for Gypsy jazz musicians and aficionados.