Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Reinhardt, Django (Jean-Baptiste)

One of the founding fathers of jazz guitar, Django Reinhardt may have been the first European to rival, then surpass, American musicians in both imagination and technique. Reinhardt's best work was done with violinist Stephane Grappelli and the group they founded, La Quintette du Hot Club de France, which was originally inspired by Americans Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti. La Quintette quickly developed its own sound drawn from Django's Gypsy roots, and his "jazz manouche" became enormously influential on both sides of the Atlantic.

Jean-Baptiste Reinhardt on January 23, 1910 in Liberchies, Belgium to Jean-Baptiste and Laurence Reinhardt, the guitarist was called Django at the earliest age by his father in order to distinguish him from others with the common name of “Jean-Baptiste.” The family were of the Roma or Sinti ethnic group, more commonly known as Gypsys or simply "Travellers," which describes the nomadic lifestyle for which they have been known since the Middle Ages. Reinhardt and his younger brother Joseph (b. 1912) were raised in a caravan that travelled about Europe - frequently around Paris - and parts of North Africa.

Two events when Reinhardt was ten years old decisively shaped his future. First, his family settled in a Sinti encampment just outside the southern border of Paris at Porte de Choisy. The relatively stable encampment would soon allow Reinhardt’s professional career to flourish in Paris’s burgeoning music halls (bal-musettes) in the early 20th Century. Second, he received a banjo as a gift from a family member - most commonly credited as an unnamed uncle, though earlier records claim the gift to have been from a cousin, Gabriel. Reinhardt took quickly to the instrument, and began to play violin and guitar as well. By age thirteen, he played well enough to begin performing professionally in Paris, with orchestras, and also busking with his brother Joseph in the city’s streets and markets.

Reinhardt’s earliest recordings date from 1928, and are credited to accordionist Jean Vaissade who had initially heard Reinhardt perform at La Java, a café/concert hall in Paris’s Belleville neighborhood. Reinhardt’s illiteracy unfortunately prevented him from being properly credited on these early recordings, as his name appears misspelled on the label - “Jiango Renard” - and his instrument is misidentified as simply “Banjo.” He was paid 500 francs (~$415 adjusted for inflation) for the session.

A fortuitous encounter with British bandleader Jack Hylton later that year would have established Reinhardt as a member of one of the more well-known European jazz orchestras at the time. Like Vaissade, Hylton first heard Reinhardt perform at La Java, offering him on November 2, 1928 a job as banjoist/guitarist in Hylton’s orchestra. Reinhardt was to accompany Hylton to London the day after. Unfortunately, Reinhardt’s plans were interrupted by a caravan fire late in the evening of November 2. A lit candle was overturned, making contact with celluloid flowers being stored by his common law wife, Florine Mayer (“Bella”). The fire quickly engulfed the young couple’s caravan, and Reinhardt suffered severe burns on his left arm and right leg. These injuries left the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand partially paralyzed.

Reinhardt spent nearly 18 months in recovery, undergoing surgeries to chemically cauterize the wounds suffered in the fire. On January 29, 1929, his brother Joseph presented him with a new guitar as a present, which would be instrumental for Reinhardt’s rehabilitation. Given the limited mobility of his partially paralyzed fingers, Reinhardt developed a left-hand technique using the second and third fingers to fret individual notes, while occasionally employing his less functional fingers to fret barre chords, double-stops, and triple-stops. The style that resulted employed single-line melodies interspersed with parallel barre chords as a rhythmic and melodic device. The resonance of the guitar fit the new style well, and Reinhardt definitively abandoned the banjo soon after.

It was at this time that Reinhardt first encountered American jazz recordings - specifically those of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Fletcher Henderson. He would also meet violinist Stéphane Grappelli in 1931, with whom he would found the ensemble that would become the Quintette du Hot Club de France. This ensemble included at first bassist Louis Vola and Reinhardt’s brother Joseph playing guitar and would later expand, adding Roger Chaput as a third guitarist.

The quintet solidified a style and sound for European jazz, incorporating the influences of Roma and Italian musics heard both in Reinhardt and Grappelli’s youth respectively. This style defied reified conceptions of jazz in that the rhythm section consisted solely of bass and two rhythm guitars. The ensemble achieved prominence throughout the 1930s in France. This rise coincided with that of Hugues Panassié’s Hot Club de France, an association of jazz record collectors and fans that sponsored listening sessions, concerts, tours and contests throughout France. The Hot Club would eventually adopt Reinhardt and Grappelli’s ensemble, offering sponsorship and resources.

The ensemble’s fame increased Reinhardt’s international celebrity, and he soon became a sought-after accompanist for American musicians (Coleman Hawkins, Rex Stewart, and Benny Carter et al.). The year 1939 saw the Quintette embark on their second tour of England. Though well-received, the tour was cut short by the beginning of the second World War. In September 1939, escalating aggression in Poland by the German army resulted in a declaration of war by Great Britain. Reinhardt chose to return to France immediately, while Grappelli remained in England. This ended the tour and effectively ended Reinhardt’s partnership with Grappelli, though the two would perform together periodically after the war. A largely improvised version of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, recorded in at a 1946 recording session for the BBC in London is often cited by biographers as a sign that the six-year separation did not affect the musical chemistry between the two.

Upon his return to Paris in 1939, Reinhardt immediately began playing with a new ensemble. Because of his disability, Reinhardt was not conscripted in the French military, and played in the French capital with musicians in similar situations. As American musicians fled an increasingly hostile Europe, opportunities for European musicians to perform in Paris were abundant. Reinhardt formed an ensemble with clarinetist Alix Combelle and performed often in Paris’s burgeoning jazz clubs at both Montparnasse, a neighborhood that would soon be marked by its train stations leading to free France, and Pigalle, a red-light district at the foot of Montmartre, home to Paris’s avant-garde.

In February 1940, Hubert Rostaing replaced Alix Combelle in Reinhardt’s ensemble. Along with Rostaing, Reinhardt would form a second Quintette du Hot Club de France. Charles Delaunay, with whom Hugues Panassié had founded the Hot Club and who would later become a close friend and biographer of Reinhardt’s, recorded the new Quintette on a number of sessions through 1940 despite the German occupation of Paris in June of 1940. The occupation caused Reinhardt to briefly relocate to Toulon on France’s Mediterranean coast, but he returned to Paris soon after. Throughout the rest of the summer of 1940, the Quintette recorded and rehearsed under the patronage of the Hot Club. By fall of 1940, Reinhardt had secured a residence at Cinema Normandie in Paris. These performances, along with those in other well-known clubs in Paris, were well-received among the Parisian public and Paris’s Nazi occupiers. An official interdiction of jazz in Nazi-occupied territories, as well as Reinhardt’s Roma ethnicity, would seem to have been factors forcing Reinhardt to stop performing, and indeed, to flee France. However, Reinhardt found fans for his music in the occupying forces and was encouraged to perform surreptitiously throughout the occupation.

Despite the wholly-stringed instrumentation of the first Quintette, Reinhardt took inspiration from the American musicians he heard and played with in the late 1930s. The timbre of the new Quintette began to change. The insistent four-on-the-floor rhythm employed by the original Quintette gave way to a lighter swing emphasizing the second and fourth beats, while the piercing lead melody of Grappelli’s violin was replaced by the earthy chalumeau of Rostaing’s clarinet. In addition to the more ethereal timbre of the Quintette, Reinhardt seems to have absorbed and employed a more insistently French harmonic vocabulary that emphasized altered dominant chords and liberal employment of whole-tone and diminished scales. To say that this was a direct influence of fin-de-siècle composers of French art music such as Debussy and Fauré, is perhaps wrong-headed, but the similarities in harmonic vocabulary between Reinhardt and such composers has been received and read as identifying an essentialized French sound for jazz. The primary example of this can be found in Reinhardt’s composition “Nuages.” The most prominent recordings of this track happened with Rostaing and the new Quintette under Charles Delaunay’s direction in 1940. It would prove to be one of Reinhardt’s most enduring compositions bringing him notoriety among the French public, and American jazz musicians.The song came to stand as a jazz standard, as well as evidence to the French public as a distinctly Gallic contribution to a burgeoning art form. Most importantly, the royalties from this composition provided the basis for a comfortable financial existence for Reinhardt and his family as he and his common-law wife, Sophie Ziegler, more commonly known as Naguine, took up residence near the Champs Elysées.

Through the rest of the war years, Reinhardt began to experiment with larger ensembles, including a number of big bands, in order to explore some timbral possibilities in his compositions. Reinhardt was increasingly influenced in this project by the compositions and arrangements of Duke Ellington, with whom Reinhardt would tour the US after the war. At the same time, internal ruptures in the Hot Club de France over new artistic directions in jazz led to a fractured association incapable of sustained patronage for its Quintette. The Quintette continued to perform, sometimes as the Hot Club’s Quintette, and sometimes as Reinhardt’s.

Reinhardt’s tenuous status as a famous Rom musician in German-occupied territory created difficulty in his domestic life. In July 1943, Reinhardt made official his marriage to Naguine. Just afterward, Reinhardt finally capitulated to Nazi insistence that he tour Germany with a planned tour of autumn 1943. Travel problems and second thoughts for the tour resulted in an ill-fated attempt to enter Switzerland, followed by a return to Paris. The continued bombing of Paris by occupying forces forced Reinhardt and his family to relocate to Montmartre, where the deep hallways of the Parisian metro would act as makeshift bomb shelters for Django, Naguine, and their son, Babik, born in June 1944. While there, Reinhardt resumed his performing career in the cafes and bistrots where had initially made a name for himself some fifteen years earlier.

Reinhardt’s music acted as a soundtrack for the liberation of Paris in August 1944. The American forces that would arrive in Paris at the close of the war to help rebuild the city would bring with them a taste for swing. As American musicians from the USO toured France, they often found themselves sharing a bandstand with Reinhardt and his Quintette. This contact resulted in a number of recordings of Reinhardt performing with American musicians under his direction. Reinhardt continued to perform with American musicians through the rest of 1944 and into 1945. In October 1945, Reinhardt would speak with Grappelli for the first time since 1939, and they would agree to tour England in January 1946, and also to record the aforementioned sessions under Delaunay’s direction.

The economic malaise of post-war France affected jazz musicians profoundly, and work for Reinhardt was harder to come by after his return to France in March of 1946. He scrabbled together a living in Paris’s rapidly closing jazz clubs and cafes, and also took up painting. His tour schedule became a bit more hectic, as he recommenced an itinerant lifestyle keeping with his Rom roots. This led Reinhardt to a brief stint in September 1946 performing in Switzerland. In Zurich, an agent for Duke Ellington approached Reinhardt, inviting him to join Ellington’s band as a guest soloist for an American tour. The tour was well-received critically, but injured Reinhardt’s ego nonetheless, as his stardom had not preceded him in quite the way he had expected. Anecdotes of Reinhardt’s lack of professionalism on the tour abound, and the success of the tour has been much debated. Ultimately, Reinhardt returned to France in February 1947 without the sense of naive enchantment he had of the US upon leaving, and with a more realistic view of his place in a contemporary jazz world. He returned to France also playing a style of jazz colored by his encounters with bebop and more modern harmonic vocabularies.

Reinhardt returned in February 1947 to France, and performed in and around Paris before embarking on a tour of Belgium in the spring of that year. Throughout this time Reinhardt found himself embroiled in a schism that would ultimately divide the Hot Club de France. Hot Club founders Charles Delaunay and Hugues Panassié disagreed fundamentally on the role of bebop in jazz’s future. While Delaunay tended toward a view that considered bebop as an essential element of jazz’s growth, Panassié viewed bebop as antithetical to the essence of jazz, and discounted it as a legitimate aesthetic path. Seeing as Reinhardt represented the only French thread in the narrative of jazz history at the time, each of the Hot Club’s two founders fought to claim Reinhardt and his music for their side of the argument. Reinhardt continued to play music that treaded the boundary of tradition and modernism for the rest of his life; he maintained an interest in exploring the characteristics of bebop, but felt a distinct obligation to remain true to a traditional sound.

Reinhardt and his family relocated to Samois-sur Seine, a picturesque town about 40 miles southeast of Paris, in 1951. Reinhardt spent the last two years of his life there painting, and occasionally returning to Paris for recording sessions and to perform. Reinhardt died on 16 May 1953 of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Django Reinhardt’s son, Babik, would garner a degree of fame as a jazz guitarist until his own death in 2001. Reinhardt is well remembered today not only as an instrumental musician in European jazz, but also as the namesake of one of France’s most prestigious awards for jazz musicians, the Django d’Or (Golden Django), awarded each year in various categories to both French and international jazz musicians.

Contributor: Donald James