Django Reinhardt was arguably the greatest guitarist who ever lived, an important influence on Les Paul, Charlie Christian, B.B. King, Jerry Garcia, Chet Atkins, and many others. Handsome, charismatic, childlike, and unpredictable, Reinhardt was a character out of a picaresque novel. Born in a gypsy caravan at a crossroads in Belgium, he was almost killed in a freak fire that burned half of his body and left his left hand twisted into a claw. But with this maimed left hand flying over the frets and his right hand plucking at dizzying speed, Django became Europe’s most famous jazz musician, commanding exorbitant fees — and spending the money as fast as he made it.
In Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend, Michael Dregni chronicles Reinhardt’s remarkably colorful life — including a fascinating account of gypsy culture — and sheds much light on Django’s musicianship. He examines his long musical partnership with violinist Stephane Grappelli — the one suave and smooth, the other sharper and more dissonant — and he traces the evolution of their novel string jazz ensemble, Quintette du Hot Club de France.#
In a March 9, 2005 interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, Dregni talks about the life of the acknowledged jazz master — and the extraordinary times and circumstances in which he lived.
A signed portrait of Django Reinhardt (for guitarist Fred Sharp)
“They told his story like a fairy tale on the café terraces and in the fashionable salons, just as it was repeated in reverent tones among jazz acolytes. He was spoken of in awe as a child prodigy who never grew up, an idiot savant of jazz, a noble savage let losse in cultured Paris. His life was on its way to being mythologized. In the city of Josephine Baker and Picasso, of the sacrilege of Le Sacre du Printemps and alphabetical anarchy of Ulysses, of Expressionists, Cubists, Dadists, and Surrealists, of Georges Simenon writing an instant novel on command in a glass box, of black balls and drag balls and gay balls and nude balls, the city where both Lenin and Hemingway hatched their plots, it seemed only natural that this Gypsy jazz guitarist would fit in. His was the kind of modern fairy tale that Paris loved — even demanded — of its celebrities. “
– Michael Dregni
– Listen to Django Reinhardt play Nuages
JJM What initiated your interest in Django Reinhardt’s work?
MD The interesting thing about Django is that he not only draws jazz fans, but he draws guitar fans from all genres of music as well. Even more than his jazz background, this interest has kept his music alive for the past thirty or so years. People like Chet Atkins and David Grisman, who plays in a bluegrass style, are among those who were fascinated by Django.
As for myself, I was interested in Mississippi Delta blues, and I read somewhere that B.B. King was a big fan of Django’s, and that he used to play his records on his Memphis radio show in the fifties. That made me interested in pursuing more information about him. I learned he was a Gypsy, which is associated with such a romantic culture, and it made me want to seek out his music. The wonderful Gypsy arpeggios really drew me in — I loved them right away. I began collecting his music and tried to learn how to play it, but in addition to his music, I discovered that Django learned how to write a little bit, and to improvise his spelling much as he improvised jazz. During his 1946 tour of America with Duke Ellington he wrote a letter home from Minneapolis, which is my hometown, and this brought all my interest in him home. I was fascinated with the idea that he was here, in Minneapolis. That visit is what really inspired me to start researching his life, and things just snowballed from there.
JJM How were Gypsies viewed among the residents of Paris during the era of Django’s youth?
MD Probably much as they are today. Gypsies are outsiders. It was difficult tracking down some of the Gypsy guitarists for interviews — you don’t find them listed in the phone book. From the accounts I have heard, Django had a difficult time even getting a gig because cabaret owners were afraid he would steal the silverware. Being a Gypsy put him in the third layer down in French society, beneath the French and the African Americans coming to play jazz. Gypsies were really down in the basement.
JJM Did he have any sort of formal education?
MD His family spent their winters in Belgium, and his mother tried to get him into school there now and then. There is an old myth that Django only spent one day in school, although he certainly spent more than that. In addition to being in and out of school in Belgium, a traveling school in Paris came out to the slums — “la Zone,” a no-man’s land beyond the city’s old medieval fortifications where the Gypsies lived. A schoolteacher converted an old bus into this traveling school, in which Django purportedly attended class. It is difficult to gauge how much education he had. He didn’t learn to write until Stéphane Grappelli taught him, probably in the late 1930s, and I don’t think he ever learned to read books or music.
JJM You characterize the Gypsy culture as being closely knit, colorful, and very musical.
MD Yes, I think it was all of those things. There are certainly different tribes of Gypsies, and Django’s was a musical tribe. In an effort to survive, other tribes devoted themselves to mending pots, weaving baskets, trading horses, or fortune telling, but Django’s family really seemed to devote itself to music, which is what spurred him on. He first played the violin and then the banjo around Gypsy campfires, learning these instruments from his father. His father had seven brothers who were all musicians as well, and Django grew up among this.
JJM You wrote, “Even at twelve and while still learning the banjo, he played with a virtuosity and power that was stunning, startling — even a bit frightening.”
MD A couple of the accordionists who played with him talk about Django as a young prodigy, and how they would struggle to keep up with him even though they were the leaders and he was the accompanist. I just love that image of him.
JJM One of the musette performers, Jean Vaissade, said, “He stuck his fingers to his nose and played incredible, complicated things the other banjo players that worked with us could not have even imagined. Although he was our accompanist, it was we who were unable to follow him! He played almost too strongly and, deep down, we were always afraid that he would overshadow our accordions!”
MD Yes, and if you hear Django in some of those early recordings with Vaissade, it sounds like a duel. Django was always so forceful in his playing, and he was really pushing the beat along.
JJM What sort of culture did musette spawn in terms of fashion and nightlife?
MD Musette was one of the real discoveries for me while writing the book. The original chapter on musette was about three times longer, but I had to slice it back because I was feeding it all this detail on the culture and the fashion. Musette basically grew out of a mix of provincial French bagpipes, Italian accordion, and Gypsy banjos, so it was a funny place to start. It continues even now in parts of France, and in a way you can sort of compare it to country western music in the United States — it is down home, good time music. And just as there are country western or roadhouse bars here, there are those kinds of venues in France around musette as well.
JJM Where was musette primarily performed?
MD In the dancehalls of France, known as bals musette.
JJM Did Django fit into this musette culture pretty comfortably?
MD I don’t know if I can say. He played in that world when he was twelve to eighteen years old, which were six formative years for him. There is little known about him during that time period other than that he moved around from band to band, making a good number of recordings, so he must have fit into it pretty well.
JJM An ongoing theme in this book is that he was pretty unreliable in terms of showing up for gigs, a trait of his that began at a pretty early age.
MD Yes, it did, and I have always been curious about that. It could be that he was indeed simply unreliable; it could be that he only played when the spirit moved him; or it could have been something deeper in the Gypsy culture — a sharing of the wealth, for example. It is possible that Django told his brother or another Gypsy cousin to play in his place so that they too would have the opportunity to make an income from the work. It is difficult to say, but he certainly had that reputation of being unreliable throughout his career.
JJM Well, he wouldn’t have been the first — or the last — with that reputation
MD That’s right. Django wasn’t the only jazz musician in history to have missed a gig.
JJM It was interesting to read how he used to transport his guitar and banjo wrapped in newspaper. It reminded me of how Bix Beiderbecke carried his trumpet around in a paper bag.
MD Even in Django’s later years, well after he became a success, people describe his guitar as being incredibly battered, and that he would use a match to hold the bridge up to the proper height. It didn’t seem that having a gorgeous guitar was a primary concern to him.
JJM You wrote, “From the time Django first heard Billy Arnold, jazz filled his imagination. The music was not only exotic and new but also represented freedom to Django. It left behind the strict traditions of musette for new rhythms and opportunities to play the sounds he heard in his head. Django built up a small repertoire of American jazz numbers, playing the melodies by memory.” What were the first jazz songs he played?
MD I don’t know that I can say for sure. My statement you quote from was taken from the descriptions of that era by Charles Delaunay and Django’s bass player, Louis Vola, and they never mentioned particular songs. It was not until later, when Django began playing with Grappelli even before the Quintette du Hot Club de France was formed, that they talk about particular early songs like “I Saw Stars,” “Dinah,” and “Lady Be Good,” all of which were a part of his repertoire for at least the first decade of his career. Even later they would return to those songs. So as far as I know, they are some of the earliest jazz pieces he played.
JJM How did Jack Hylton want to use Django in his orchestra?
MD Jack Hylton led a traveling big band that already included a guitarist, Noel “Chappie” d’Amato, who played a number of instruments. According to all of the accounts I found, Hylton wanted to hire Django to play in that main traveling band. It is possible that since Hylton also had secondary bands — kind of like “farm league” bands that traveled around England — he may have envisioned having Django play in one of those bands and work his way up.
JJM Hylton was like the Paul Whiteman of England?
MD Yes, he was a big name in England all the way through the fifties, when he switched over to producing television shows.
JJM Within a night or so of being hired by Hylton, a fire in Django’s caravan ended that opportunity and damn near his career as a musician.
MD Yes, that’s right. As far as I can tell, the hiring was verbal. The Jack Hylton Archives didn’t have any record of a contract with Django, which, according to Hylton’s biographer, was pretty typical of Hylton. Most all of his business deals were verbal, made with a shake of the hand. So from all the accounts I researched, Hylton and Django made their deal to work together, and it was either that night or several nights later that the caravan fire occurred.
JJM In the fire, his left hand was burned badly, and the right side of his body was affected to the point where they actually talked about amputating his right leg.
MD He apparently had burns over most of the right side of his body, as well as his left hand. It’s possible that he put a blanket up to shield himself as he tried to put the fire out, and at that point burned his hand. I never read accounts of him ever having trouble walking or anything like that, but in the pictures William Gottlieb took of him in 1946, the scar the fire left on his hand is visible.
JJM As a guitarist yourself, can you imagine how difficult it must have been to play the instrument with a hand as impaired as Django’s?
MD Well, I certainly couldn’t play the guitar with two fingers. Amazingly, several of the Gypsy guitarists who came along after Django played with just two fingers in an effort to get the tone he had — guitarists like Jacques Montagne. Even today, players like John Jorgenson or Sam Miltich here in Minnesota will every now and then play a song with two fingers for fun, and they are able to do it, but four fingers is certainly better.
JJM How long did it take for Django to learn how to play the instrument using two fingers?
MD He was convalescing and teaching himself to play again for about eighteen months.
JJM What did he do to earn an income during this time?
MD I am not sure. He must have been eighteen or nineteen years old, and during part of that time he was in the free hospital for the poor of Paris, and most likely living with his mother in their caravan for the other part. She made jewelry and sold homemade lace, and was probably able to provide enough of an income for them. It is also possible that his brother Joseph was playing music around town to earn money. It isn’t likely that they needed a huge income in that caravan, and I think that is one reason Django was able to stay with music through the ups and downs of the years, whereas many of the Frenchmen who played in his band would have to leave because they weren’t making enough money to support themselves.
JJM You describe Django’s first listening of Louis Armstrong’s “Indian Cradle Song” as a turning point in his life. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MD That is a first hand description from Emile Savitry, an amateur guitarist, painter, and all-around bohemian who played the record for him. Savitry heard Django and his brother play in Toulon in the south of France, was impressed by their music, and invited them up to his apartment to play some new American jazz recordings, including some by Duke Ellington, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, as well as this one by Armstrong. According to Savitry’s account, Django heard this and broke down, holding his head in his hands and exclaiming in the Romani language, “Ach moune,” which means, “My brother.” While it is an exclamation, in this case it had a secondary, ironic meaning.
JJM Savitry said, “Right away, he understood Armstrong. Right away, he preferred Armstrong’s formidable playing over the erudite technique of the orchestra of Duke Ellington. Guided by an instinct of astounding precision, he was able to judge these musicians, almost instantly.”
MD Yes, and many times that has been projected as a kind of “Eureka!” moment for Django, but it is important to remember that he had heard jazz before – he had heard Billy Arnold, and he liked what he had heard of other people like Mitchell’s Jazz Kings playing in Paris, for example. But that was music from the mid-twenties, and jazz had taken these giant steps forward to Louis Armstrong’s playing, so while it was a “Eureka!” moment of sorts, he had indeed heard jazz before hearing “Indian Cradle Song.”
JJM How was the groundwork for the Quintette du Hot Club de France laid?
MD The Quintette happened by accident. Django was playing with Stéphane Grappelli in a fourteen-piece orchestra for tea dances at the Hotel Claridge on the Champs-Élysées. It was a kind of stilted affair that included waltzing, and Django’s dance band alternated with a tango band. Grappelli actually played in both of these bands. At one point he broke a string on his violin and stepped backstage to restring and tune up. As he was tuning up, he played a little jazz ditty that Django echoed, and they began jamming together. The next thing they knew they had a rhythm guitarist joining in, and a bass player, and the band built up by accident from this experience.
JJM And then the members of the Hot Club embraced their music
MD The Hot Club was not a place, although many people have that idea. It was more like a fan club of young jazz buffs who published a newsletter and sponsored concerts in a record store in Montparnasse. It wasn’t until later, in the late thirties, that they actually had a headquarters, a clubhouse. In their early years together, the Quintette played a little bit here and there throughout Paris, but they primarily lived as a recording band, and it wasn’t until about 1936 or 1937 that they had steady gigs that kept them together as a band. In those early years they would pull each other out of other bands they were playing in to make their recordings.
JJM Charles Delaunay and Hughes Panassié were the originators of the Hot Club?
MD Yes. Delaunay actually came a little bit later, but he was eventually instrumental in it. Along with a small group of eighteen-year-old jazz fans who started this group, Panassié was really the driving force behind the Quintette for many years. They organized concerts and recording sessions for them.
JJM Fnding them recording sessions wasn’t particularly easy. After an audition for the record label Odéon, the label’s directors informed the Quintette, “After deliberation, our administrative committee has found that your band is far too modernistiquefor our firm.”
MD During that time, jazz was having a hard time gaining acceptance, so they had some difficulties getting recorded for a couple of years. And once jazz did gain appeal, it was considered to be horn music, drum music, or piano music. So when Django and Grappelli came along, recreating the music people were used to hearing come out of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet — only on strings — it was an odd thing to accept at the time.
JJM Was Django generally appreciated by members of the Hot Club?
MD While he was certainly appreciated, he was also considered to be a bit of a novelty because he was a guitarist, which was not a solo instrument in those days. Some said that he didn’t know much about jazz in those early days, but they did hear something special in his playing. The members of the Hot Club wanted to find Frenchmen they could support so they could prove to others that the French could play jazz as well as the Americans, and in Grappelli and Django, they believe they found that.