Jazz always seemed to me a bit elitist, a bit bourgeois if you like. For those reasons, I had always given it a wide berth. A friend of mine wasn’t so averse and occasionally he would play something that interested me, especially a kind of trance-like guitar driven music with a strong rhythm. What’s that I asked ‘Django Reinhardt’, he said. ‘Gypsy Jazz, from the 1930’s’. Around six years ago the same friend badgered me to go with him to a gig in Durham to see Swing Manouche. I really didn’t know what to expect but suffice to say I’ve been a fan since.

Tickets here > Swing Manouche at Claypath Deli

So ahead of their gig at Claypath Deli on Saturday October 9th I wanted to delve a little into the origins of Gypsy Jazz and learn a little more of the life of Django Rienhardt. So lets rewind a hundred years or so and imagine how life must have looked on the streets of Paris.

The First World War had ended and politics and art were no longer local – they had become global and the 1920s in Europe were alive with influences from all over the world. Paris in particular became an artistic oasis for painters, poets and philosophers and music was everywhere. American jazz and blues along with the Argentine tango had arrived; played with unfamiliar instruments such as the banjo, clarinet, trumpet and saxophone. It was exciting and new – uplifting and danceable.

The sub-genre of Jazz Manouche is said to have begun with the nomadic Gypsy guitarists whose playing included influences from Russia, Italy, Spain, the Balkans and the Middle East. They infused the popular music of the day with their own styles and in the late 1920s many of them were employed by ensembles that supplied music for public dances. They travelled throughout central Europe, some remained nomadic while others settled where they could find work.

One such, the legendary gypsy jazz guitarist, Jean Baptiste ‘Django’ Reinhardt was born on January 24th, 1910 in Belgium in an open Gypsy camp. At the age of 8, his mother’s Manouche tribe settled in old Paris near the Choisy gate. The Manouche’s were a world unto themselves, medieval in their beliefs and distrustful of modern science. Django grew up in this world of contradictions; one foot in the urban world of Paris and the other in the rootless life of the nomadic gypsy. He never lived in a house until he was 20 years old.

At age 12 Django received a banjo-guitar from a neighbour who noticed his interest in music. Before he had turned 13 he was playing with a popular accordionist known as Guerino at a dance hall on the Rue Monge. He went on to play with numerous other bands and musicians and made his first recordings with accordionist Jean Vaissade. Since Django could not read or write, on these records his name was spelled ‘Jiango Renard’.

On November 2nd, 1928 the 18 year old Django returned to his caravan from a night of playing music. His young wife, Naguine was pregnant and asleep inside. The caravan was filled with celluloid flowers his wife had made to sell at the local market. The highly flammable flowers caught fire due to a candle accident and the caravan became an inferno. Django and his wife survived but his left hand was badly burned and he only retained use of his forefinger and middle finger.
During his 18 months of convalescence he recreated a way to play guitar using the two remaining functioning fingers. The affected fingers were permanently curled towards the palm due to the tendons shrinking from the heat of the fire. He could use them on the first two strings of the guitar for chords and octaves but full extension was impossible.

Django went on to reinvent jazz by combining the Gypsy style and dance hall influences which elevated Jazz Manouche into a wildly popular new form of dance music. In the 1930’s two rhythm guitars were necessary as there was no amplification and dance halls were large and noisy. The use of Selmer guitars designed by Mario Maccaferri made it possible to generate the raw power needed to fill the hall with rhythmic sound and Reinhardt’s dusky, chromatic sound gave even light-weight songs weight and drive.

Extended improvised solos on guitar and/or violin (and occasionally clarinet and accordion) were the norm. In 1934 Django met a classically trained violin player called Stéphane Grapelli and together they assembled The Quintet of the Hot Club of France. The original line-up was Django (lead guitar), Stéphane (violin), Roger Chaput (rhythm guitar), Louis Vola (bass) and Django’s brother Joseph on rhythm guitar. The Quintet went on to find success in both the US and Europe.

The second World War broke out in 1939 while the Quintet were touring in England. Django returned to Paris while Stéphane decided to remain in England. Django played and recorded throughout the war years substituting Hubert Rostaing’s clarinet for Stéphane’s violin. After the war he re-joined Grapelli and they again played and recorded. In 1946 they toured briefly with Duke Ellington in America. In 1951 Reinhardt moved to Samois-sur-Seine near Fontainebleau, France though he continued to play in Paris jazz clubs and had also began to play electric guitar. However, on 16 May 1953, while walking from the station in Fontainebleau after playing in a Paris club, he collapsed close to his house, suffering from a brain haemorrhage. Reinhardt was declared dead on arrival at the hospital in Fontainebleau. At the age of 43 he died leaving behind his wife Sophie (Naguine) and son Babik.

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