By Steve Rider

Like many people who are attracted to the multifaceted world of all-things-guitar, I spend quite a bit of time learning things online. I frequent so many guitar playing and guitar building pages on social media that I can’t even begin to remember the names of them all. It was in the thriving communities of these fans of the strings that I first came across a name I hadn’t seen before: Django. While it was new to me, it was immediately apparent that there was a storied depth to this person. He was discussed with reverence as a pioneer of among his peers, a man who had developed a style that rang true across national boundaries, across genres, and decades to still be relevant to players and guitar builders of today.

Jean “Django” Reinhardt was born 23 January 1910 in Liberchies, Pont-à-Celles, Belgium, into a French family of Manouche Romani descent. Jean Reinhardt and Laurence Reinhardt raised him in Manouche Romani encampments close to Paris. Django was drawn to music at an early age, receiving a banjo from a close relative around the age of twelve. Having little formal education as a child, musical or otherwise, he learned to play by mimicking the fingerings of the musicians he watched. His first known recordings, made in 1927, were of him playing the banjo and guitar. By age 15, Reinhardt was able to make money playing music. He played as a street musician, exploring his own style and eagerly observing those of other musicians in Paris.

A young Django before his burn accident.
A young Django before his burn accident.

Django Reinhardt’s Gypsy upbringing would remain close to his heart throughout his life, repeatedly calling him back from the city to wander in nature and spend time in the caravan camps in the countryside of France.

An incident that would forever shape his life and his music happened one night upon his return to the caravan he called his home. In 1928 in Saint-Ouen, Seine-Saint-Denis, Reinhardt was injured in a fire which ravaged the caravan he shared with his first wife, Florine “Bella” Mayer. Bella made imitation flowers out of celluloid and paper to supplement the meager income coming in from Django’s street performances. Returning from a performance late one night, Reinhardt accidentally knocked over a candle, igniting those highly flammable materials. He was pulled from the blaze by friends and family. While his life had been saved, he received first- and second-degree burns which covered fifty percent of his body. As a result, he lost movement in his right leg and the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand. The doctors delivered crushing news: he would neither walk nor play guitar again. It was suggested that his leg be amputated. Reinhardt refused, leaving the hospital in only a short time. His determination and foresight proved correct as he was able to walk with the aid of a cane within only one year after the incident.

Even such a traumatic event could not quell Reinhardt’s love of music. He developed his signature style as a result of the injury, using only the first and second fingers to fret notes. He even managed to use the injured fingers on the high E and B strings when chording. While Django’s work before the accident, was influenced by the “musette” style of other Gypsy guitar players like Gusthi Malha, the style of playing he created following his injury became much more his own. He used lightning –fast staccato picking to transform notes selected by just two fingers into thrilling runs that belied his limited finger movement.

Check out Reinhardt on Minor Swing:

Jazz had emerged and grown in popularity in the years between World War I and World War II, characterized by tight rhythms and percussion, thumping bass notes, and soaring horns. It was in this period that Reinhardt would come to appreciate and embrace the music of the times. He would listen to his friend’s jazz records, and eventually met Stéphane Grappelli, a violinist with his own love of jazz. Paying work in the jazz genre was slim at first, so the pair would jam together and with other like-minded musicians after gigs, where they found an immediate synergy between them.

Django switched from banjo to guitar during those early years of his fascination with jazz, and acquired his first Selmer guitar in the mid-1930s. At the time, Selmer was experimenting with “wide mouth” D-shaped and elongated longitudinal sound holes. He found that the volume and expressiveness of the instrument were a perfect complement to his style. Along with Grappelli and a few others, Django pioneered in the Gypsy Jazz genre on steel and silk strings, blending the long and mournful notes of his gypsy influence into the swinging free flow of jazz. He would continue to use his Selmer guitars for the rest of his life.

Reinhardt and Grappelli formed an all string ensemble called Quintette du Hot Club de France featuring Django, Grappelli, Roger Chaput on rhythm guitar, Louis Vola on bass, and Django’s brother Joseph Reinhardt on rhythm guitar. They would headline at the Hot Club in Paris and perform in venues throughout the city where jazz was becoming popular. The Quintette gained notoriety across Europe, America, and the United Kingdom.

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When World War II started, Reinhardt returned to Paris from the United Kingdom. He survived the relentless Nazi campaigns that killed so many Romani, most likely through the patronage of jazz-loving Nazi officers. Though the Nazi doctrine was strictly, anti-jazz, many Germans loved the genre and continued to enjoy the music clandestinely.

Following the war, Django returned to his music career, but it seemed that he was never to be the same. He often missed sold out performances to simply wander on the beach or retreat to the Gypsy caravan camps. In 1946 he was invited to join Duke Ellington for a tour in America. Although the entire band was invited, for some reason, Django decided not to tell them about the offer and went on his own. This would be the first and only time he would perform with an electric guitar. He had been so sure that guitar makers would line up to have him play their instruments that he neglected to bring his own guitar and was forced to borrow one from a friend (an Epiphone Zephyr or Gibson L5). He was unhappy with the transition to electric and his performances were not well received by fans.

Although he had become more isolated and unpredictable, to the chagrin of fans, managers and bandmates, he still performed throughout the remainder of his life and never lost his love for guitar.

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He left a legacy that influenced generations of guitar players, including Wes Montgomery, Les Paul, Jerry Garcia and Tony Iommi. Garcia and Iommi, who both suffered damage to their hands, were inspired by the man who had come back from a crippling fire to become a legend within the guitar community. Jeff Beck is quoted as saying that Django Reinhardt was “By far the most astonishing guitar player ever…”

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