Jazz guitarist and composer “Django” Reinhardt was born on January 23, 1910 with the much less colorful first name Jean. His family were Manouche gypsies, originally from Bulgaria or Romania. He’s almost always referred to as simply “Django.” As gens de voyages (zjohn duh voyazj), or travelers, the family moved between Belgium, where Django was born, and France, where he spent his time playing the banjo, guitar, and violin in encampments outside Paris. When his was 12, he was given a banjo-guitar. He learned to play by observing the fingering of other musicians. Just one year later, Django was skilled enough to be able to contribute to supporting his family by playing the guitar in the streets.
At the age of 18, he was badly injured in a fire that tore through the caravan he shared with his wife. He almost lost his leg and the third and fourth fingers of his left hand were never the same and he had to learn to play in a whole new way. Django used two fingers for the melody line and the damaged fingers for chords. He adopted a guitar, in lieu of the more typical gypsy banjo-guitar hybrid. A friend played him American jazz records by Louis Armstrong and Django was entranced. He began to jam with a like-minded violinist, Stéphane Grappelli, and with some other friends they formed la Quintette du Hot Club de France and they began to record together. This is where the term “hot jazz” comes from. Later, Django even appeared on the radio with his idol Louis Armstrong.
Django remained in Paris during World War II and escaped the anti-Gypsy purges because a Nazi officer was a secret jazz fan, despite the fact that the Nazis officially disapproved of jazz because of its association with black musicians. After the war, he toured the US where he was very well received. After the tour, Django began to behave erratically, sometimes failing to show up for sold-out concerts or showing up without an instrument. In the early 50s, he began to experiment with the electric guitar. On May 16, 1953, Django died of a brain hemorrhage at age 43.
Interest in Django’s music lives on. It has shown up in innumerable film soundtracks. And a Django character plays the guitar in a train station in the film Hugo. Some of his biggest hits were “Minor Swing,” “Nuages,” and “Swing 42.”
- Django Reinhardt: Great Gypsy Jazz (dentonjazz135.com)
- 10 Great Performances From 10 Legendary Jazz Artists: Django, Miles, Monk, Coltrane & More (openculture.com)
- Morning Song – Minor Swing (allthingshipblog.com)