Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt’s distinctive style has been emulated by other musicians, and his tradition is carried on today by the group Pearl Django. Pianist John Lewis memorialized him in his composition “Django,” which became a jazz standard as did many of Django’s own compositions.
He was born on January 10, 1910, in a gypsy caravan and lived his young life on the outskirts of Paris in a disreputable area called la Zone where the gypsies, in medieval tradition, gathered their caravans. Refusing to go to school, he grew up illiterate, a free spirit who roamed the streets with his brother and friends, stole chickens, went to the cinema, played billiards, and listened to music intently. His rise to fame in the jazz world of the 20th century put him in a situation that was the reverse of the Connecticut Yankee who visited King Arthur’s court.
According to Charles Delaunay, author of Django Reinhardt, the young boy didn’t get his own instrument, a six-string banjo-guitar, until he was twelve. Although self-taught he was amazingly skilful and soon was performing on street corners and in cafes. WWI had brought jazz to Paris and Django was entranced by this new music, soon mastering the art of improvisation.
On October 26, 1928, Django was severely burned, his left hand maimed, in a caravan fire. During many months of recuperation he taught himself to play again using primarily the index and third fingers of his left hand.
In 1934 the guitarist met violinist Stephane Grappelli who was to become his musical partner for some 15 years in Le Quintette du Hot Club de France. In Michael Dregni’s biography, Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend, Grappelli is quoted as saying, “My life started when I met Django.... I realized when I was with Django, we can produce something not ordinary.” The Quintette toured Europe and recorded with great success until the beginning of WWII. Reinhardt returned to France where he became further immersed in jazz. During his career he played with many famous American musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, and Louis Armstrong.
In 1946 Duke Ellington invited Django to join his band in the U.S. where he was introduced to the electric guitar which he quickly mastered. Ellington’s drummer Sonny Greer was awed by Django: “...That cat could take a guitar and make it talk. Nobody played like him....” Upon returning to Paris, Django organized his Nouveau Quintette (occasionally joined by Grappelli), and began touring again. But as Dregni says, “He came to America playing swing. He returned to Paris playing modern jazz.”
The dichotomy of the music eventually led Django to hang up his guitar, during which time he devoted himself to painting. He emerged in 1951, revered by American jazz musicians who flocked to play with him. But he left Paris in his caravan and took his family to Samois-sur-Seine. In 1953 American impresario Norman Granz lured him out of seclusion for Jazz at the Philharmonic. Before he could join the tour, Django suffered a stroke and died on May 16, 1953, just 43 years old.