Jean ‘Django’ Reinhardt (23 January 1910 – 16 May 1953) was a Belgian-born French jazz guitarist and composer of Romani heritage.
Reinhardt is often regarded as one of the greatest guitar players of all time and was the first hugely influential jazz figure to emerge from Europe.
He learned to play banjo as a child, from watching other musicians in the gypsy camp where he grew up, but in 1928 a disastrous caravan fire badly burned his left hand, paralysing the fourth and fifth fingers. No longer able to play the banjo, he was given a guitar, which he learned to play by devising a novel fingering system. In this way, he invented an entirely new style of jazz guitar technique (sometimes called ‘hot’ jazz guitar) that has since become a living musical tradition within French gypsy culture.
After a period of recuperation, he resumed his career playing in Parisian cafes. In 1934, Hot Club de France secretary Pierre Nourry invited Reinhardt and Parisian violinist Stéphane Grappelli to form the Quintette du Hot Club de France, with Reinhardt’s brother Joseph and Roger Chaput on guitar, and Louis Vola on bass.
The Quintette enjoyed great success and although Reinhardt could not read music, many of his compositions with Grappelli have become jazz standards, including ‘Minor Swing’, ‘Daphne’, ‘Belleville’, ‘Djangology’, ‘Swing ’42’ and ‘Nuages’.
When the Second World War broke out, the Quintette was on tour in England. Reinhardt returned to Paris immediately, while Grappelli remained in London. Reinhardt managed to survive the war in France, where he reformed the Quintette with Hubert Rostaing on clarinet replacing Grappelli’s violin.
After the war, Reinhardt rejoined Grappelli in the UK, and then, in 1946, joined Duke Ellington and his Orchestra on a US tour as a special guest soloist. Reinhardt’s experience in the States was not a success – partly due to his lack of English – and he returned to France in February 1947.
He spent the remainder of his days re-immersed in gypsy life, having found it difficult to adjust to the modern world. During this period he did, however, continue to attend the R-26 artistic salon in Montmartre, improvising with Grappelli. Also, in Rome in 1949, he recruited three Italian jazz players (on bass, piano and snare drum) and recorded his final (double) album, Djangology. In 1951, he retired to Samois-sur-Seine, near Fontainebleau, where he lived until his death. He continued to play in Paris jazz clubs and began playing electric guitar.
Part of Reinhardt’s legacy is the popularity of gypsy jazz outside of the Romani community, evidenced by the increasing number of gypsy jazz festivals, such as the Samois-sur-Seine festival and the various DjangoFests in the USA.
This documentary – ‘The Genius of Django’ – provides further insight into Reinhardt’s life and includes clips of live performances.