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Audio Rewind: How Django Reinhardt Reimagined the Guitar and Became a Legend

Audio Rewind: How Django Reinhardt Reimagined the Guitar and Became a Legend

Jazz, by and large, is an American tradition. Born from the Black experience in the early 20th-century United States, jazz became a cultural phenomenon—one of the country’s original and most enduring art forms. Very few jazz records were distributed overseas, though, so the pace of the style’s global promulgation was relatively slow, largely reliant on live performance. After World War 1, a handful of American jazz players, like Paul Whiteman and Lonnie Johnson, traveled across the pond to perform, inspiring a number of European musicians to take up the trade.

Most important of these early European adopters was Django Reinhardt, a Belgian-born, French jazz guitarist and composer. To this day he remains one of the most innovative and influential guitar players of all-time, but he gets very little recognition for it. This week he would have had his 107th birthday, had he lived so long, and today we give him his due.

Reinhardt was born in Belgium in 1910 to a family of Manouche Romani descent (Manouche is the term for a Romani person living in France). From a young age he displayed a natural savvy for music, picking up the violin, banjo, and guitar despite having very little formal training. He simply mimicked the hands of seasoned performers. At just 18, Reinhardt began recording and quickly attracted international attention. Jack Hylton, a British bandleader, traveled to France just to hear him and offered him a job on the spot. Reinhardt accepted, but before he could begin playing with Hylton’s band, tragedy struck.

The caravan that housed he and his wife caught fire. He was able to drag both of them from the inferno, but, in doing so, he suffered first- and second-degree burns that covered half his body. One of his legs was paralyzed, as were two of his fingers. Doctors told him two things: first, that they needed to amputate the leg, and second, that he’d never play guitar again. Reinhardt refused the surgery. Within a year, he was walking. His two fingers remained paralyzed, but rather than surrender his fate, he framed the disability as a new perspective. With it, he re-learned the guitar and fashioned an entirely new style in the process.

Paris, where Reinhardt spent much of his youth, was home to a number of Romani guitarists and one of the first distinct styles of European jazz. In the ’30s, the French expanded upon the music of Whiteman, who fused African-American jazz with symphonic music. Europeans at large injected this style with the economic and political woes of the post-war continent, coloring it with a number of local flavors. The most unique hybrid emerged from Reinhardt’s damaged hands. Using just eight fingers, the guitarist conceived what is known today as gypsy jazz, or jazz manouche. It’s a combination of American swing, French dance hall musette, and Eastern European folk, a wandering synthesis reflective of his Romani people’s nomadic tradition.

In 1934, with violinist Stéphane Grappelli, Reinhardt formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France. Reinhardt’s brothers, Joseph and Roger Chaput, played rhythm guitar in the band, and Louis Vola played bass. In this new style, the acoustic guitar emerged as a lead instrument (think about the future implications of this leap to prominence) and the rhythm guitars functioned as a replacement for drums. Reinhardt played lead, and while he was able to use his paralyzed fingers for some chordal support, all of his solos were played with just three fingers—a singular feat in the guitar world (check out the video above).

During World War II, Hitler banned nearly all jazz because he felt it represented a conspiracy to undermine German greatness. Gypsies were also systematically killed during the war, so Reinhardt exerted much effort to escape occupied France. His attempts were foiled, though, and so he remained in the country, playing and composing all the while. He managed to stay safe, and one of his songs, “Nuages,” became an unofficial anthem for the oppressed; a clarion call for liberation in Paris.

After World War II, Reinhardt returned to gypsy life and had a difficult time assimilating to the expectations that accompany celebrity. According to Django Reinhardt, a 1961 biography by Charles Delaunay, the guitarist skipped sold-out shows to “walk to the beach” or “smell the dew.” In this way, he once again challenged societal expectations, especially for a star; he was unconventional, beholden only to his whims—the mark of a true gypsy.

This did little to sully his legacy, though. His Quintette had become the most accomplished European jazz group of the era and it had brought distinguished noteriety to Reinhardt. He was able to tour in the US and play with erstwhile American jazz heroes like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. And even after he died he remained a champion for afflicted musicians. Jerry Garcia and Black Sabbath‘s Tony Iommi, both of whom lost fingers in accidents, were encouraged to pursue the guitar because of Reinhardt’s precedent.

He’s popped up in other places, too. Dickey Betts wrote the Allman Brothers Song, “Jessica,” in tribute to Reinhardt, and Jeff Beck called him “by far the most astonishing guitar player ever” and “quite superhuman.” His superhumanness was portrayed in the opening of the 2003 animated masterpiece, Triplets of Belleville, when a guitarist in his likeness removes his hand from the fretboard mid-song and successfully replaces it with his foot. It’s hyperbole, of course, but it speaks to Reinhardt’s legacy of persistence and innovation. Before he died of a brain hemorrhage in 1953, he recorded more than 900 sides and wrote nearly 100 songs. He is a paragon of making the most in the face of tragedy, and a template for those that choose to eschew the rigors of established style. To the pioneer, Django Reinhardt: happy birthday.

Image: William P. Gottlieb collection at the Library of Congress.

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