Django Reinhardt was a jazz guitarist who became one of the first important soloists in the genre.
Born in Belgium on January 23, 1910, Django Reinhardt learned guitar at an early age, adapting his technique to accommodate the loss of the use of two fingers burned in a caravan fire in 1928. Reinhardt toured the United States with Duke Ellington in 1946. He was one of the first important guitar soloists in jazz; his blend of swing and the Roma musical tradition, as well as his unconventional technique, made him a unique and legendary figure. Reinhardt died in France in 1953.
Born on January 23, 1910, in Liberchies, Belgium, Django Reinhardt became famous for his unique musical sound, which blended elements of American jazz with traditional European and Roma music. Reinhardt's father was a musician and entertainer and his mother was a dancer, according to some reports; they were Manouches, or French gypsies, and they eventually settled in a camp near Paris. Raised without any formal schooling, Reinhardt was practically illiterate.
In his youth, Reinhardt learned to play an interesting instrument—a hybrid of a guitar and a banjo. He was largely self-taught, never learning how to write or read music. Later on, Reinhardt had to depend on others to transcribe his compositions. He was already playing in clubs in Paris by his early teens. Reinhardt started out playing popular French music, but he became interested in American jazz in the mid-1920s. He especially liked the works of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Joe Venuti. His promising career, however, was almost ended by a terrible accident in 1928.
In 1928, Reinhardt was injured in a fire in his caravan. A lit candle fell into some paper, or celluloid, flowers that his wife had made to sell, and the flames quickly spread throughout their home. Both Reinhardt and his wife made it out of the fire, but Reinhardt suffered bad burns to his right leg and left hand. Perhaps worst of all for this talented musician, he permanently lost the use of two fingers on his damaged hand. He would spend the next 18 months to two years recuperating.
During this time, Reinhardt taught himself how to play music again. It was a slow, painful process, but he devised an innovative style of guitar playing. With his two fingers and thumb, Reinhardt handled his instrument with remarkable speed and agility. He was back to dazzling audiences in the Paris nightclubs by 1930.
By the mid-1930s, Reinhardt had joined forces with violinist Stephane Grappelli to form the Quintet of the Hot Club of France (Quintette du Hot Club de France). Their group, which grew to include Reinhardt's brother Joseph and others, became the first major European jazz band. Some of the band's early recordings included covers of American songs like "Dinah" and "Lady Be Good," and these tracks helped win them a following on both sides of the Atlantic.
Reinhardt also produced original music, which fused his musical heritage with the latest jazz and swing sounds. Some of his most famous works with the quintet are "Djangology," "Bricktop" and "Swing 39." His style from this period has been called "gypsy swing" and "le jazz hot."
World War II
According to some reports, Reinhardt was in England touring with Grappelli in 1939 when World War II began in Europe. He decided to return to France, but his cohort remained abroad. The following year, the Nazis took control of France, a move that put Reinhardt in jeopardy. The Roma, or gypsies, were among those considered undesirable by the Nazis, and thousands and thousands of them perished in concentration camps during the war.
Remarkably, Reinhardt was allowed to play freely in the clubs of Paris during much of the war. It seemed that the Nazis viewed this famed city as their playground to some degree, and their military personnel enjoyed frequenting its nightclubs. Reinhardt expressed his melancholy over the occupation in one of his most famous compositions: "Nuages," which means "clouds." According to Contemporary Musicians, the musician made two attempts to flee France for Switzerland, but both of these efforts proved to be unsuccessful.
After the war, Reinhardt became interested in electric guitar and experimenting with other styles of jazz. He toured the United States with Duke Ellington in 1946, but he failed to win over American audiences and critics. Reinhardt also started recording with a new version of his beloved quintet, but rarely gave public performances. Instead, he spent much of his time in the South of France.
In 1953, the famed improviser jammed with another jazz legend, Dizzie Gillespie and made some of his final recordings. The music world lost a great talent that May. Reinhardt died from a massive stroke on May 16, 1953, in Fontainebleau, France. He is regarded among the most prominent European performers to have heavily influenced American jazz. Additionally, his work has had a lasting impact on other guitarists in different musical styles, influencing such diverse artists as B.B. King and Carlos Santana.
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