You know the feeling you get when you stumble across a musician you’ve never heard before, and upon listening to their records you realize… you’ve heard their music before? Not only that, but you really like the music and had no idea that this new, mysterious name created it?
It’s kind of a scary feeling. Scary-comforting, if that’s a thing. It’s happened to be so many times, I get excited whenever I start hearing a new song in different places at different times. It’s all one big puzzle that leads up to a beautiful fandom.
The sad part of this phenomenon, though, is that many beautiful, influential song writers and composers become lost to history through covers, use without credit, and that old, impatient curmudgeon: time. Unless you take the time to hunt down an artist that you love, well… the disappear!
These days, the only way you’ll likely hear the name Django Reinhardt is through campfire stories involving wandering caravans, romantic Parisian affairs, heart-wrenching tragedies, and how a prodigious gypsy guitarist named Django became the King of Jazz.
I have been influenced by a lot of music in my life. A lot. I would listen to the radio as I fell asleep every night, dig impatiently through my parents record collections, and once the internet arrived, I’d spend my nights crawling through public domain archives and streaming (& not-so-streaming…) music.
Getting lost in a new musician or artist is one of the best feelings ever.
Django Reinhardt is easy to get lost in. His music paints a picture in your mind as if his guitar was a brush and your imagination was the easel. I recently learned that there is a festival in my state completely devoted to Django Reinhardt’s music and influence on the world: Djangofest. Musicians and music-lovers are encouraged to come and experience gypsy jazz from the people who do it best… but no one in my generation has heard of Django Reinhardt. It’s impossible to keep a legend alive when people don’t know that the already love something.
So I’m here to show you how much you didn’t know that you already love Django Reinhardt.
The Story of Django
When you picture a quaint French cafe, alongside a busy street full of adorably dressed pedestrians, and you close your eyes and hear the music – that’s Django Reinhardt.
When you imagine the music playing as you walk down Mediterranean streets full of butcher shops, produce vendors and espresso-sipping – that’s Django Reinhardt.
When you are in a movie theatre watching a huge, blockbuster film like Chocolat or The Matrix and you hear a fast, heartbeat guitar layered with swaying violins and deep, plucky double bass strings – that’s Django Reinhardt.
When you listen to the title track from hip-hop mother and chanteuse Esthero’s 2007 release Wikked Li’l Grrrls – that’s Django Reinhardt, too.
Jean Baptiste “Django” Reinhardt’s life story has a very cinematic quality. Born in 1910, and passing away at the early, unfair age of 43 – he packed at least a trio of full-length films into his limited years, not to mention the effect he had on the entire world’s perception and definition of jazz. Though, the Esthero example above proves his reach is further and wider than the universe that is jazz. He affected the way music is played and enjoyed, even half a century after his death.
He was born in Belgium because that’s where his Manouche gypsy caravan happened to be at the time. As a Manouche, a specific group of wandering gypsies hailing from the eastern side of France, Django was able to see and experience all types of early 20th century European music. He started his love of instruments, specifically strings, by acquiring and subsequently mastering the banjo starting from age 8, then switched over to guitar at age 16 and by 18, he was a well-known guitarist.
Then: tragedy. At age 18, as his career as a virtuoso was quickly climbing, a fire broke out in the caravan in which Django lived, severely burning the left side of his body. He nearly had to have his leg amputated and, perhaps more tragic than that, his ring and pinky fingers on his left hand – the hand that manipulated the strings on the frets – were completely disfigured. Surely the end to 99% of guitarist careers.
…But not Django. Never Django! This part of his story is very personally touching for me because of how I grew up.
I was raised in homes that always had music playing. Though – and I’m sorry, parents – it wasn’t cool music. Some of my friends had hip parents who listened to pop and rock music, but my dad was a guitarist. He loved to listen to his favorite instrument played by the best of the best, and on top of that – my dad lost a fingertip as a young child and faced similar challenges while trying to be a musician, and cites Django Reinhardt as an inspiration. I was lucky enough to be exposed to Django not just for his incredible talents, but through his amazing story and how it affected my Dad’s life. Pretty sweet.
So back to the story – Django is a guitar prodigy and is down two fingers… His next move is obviously to rehabilitate himself by listening to records by Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and reteach himself how to play the instrument he once mastered.
Which he does with wild success, and in 1934, he was voted into an existing student band called Hot Club (Django Reinhardt Et Le Quintet Du Hot Club De France) with friend and violinist Stéphane Grappelli, as well as a double bass player, another backing guitarist, and another guitarist – his brother, Joseph Reinhardt aka “Nin-Nin.”
Then, there was, you know, the war which happened while everyone was in England, but Django went back to Paris. Eventually, he made it back to England, reunited with Stéphane Grappelli, and kickstarted Hot Club for some more records before his retirement in 1951 – he was 41. He passed away two years later on the way home from a performance.
The Django Influence
Django’s original composition, Minor Swing, has been used in movies for decades, and repurposed a thousand times by different musicians. You’ll recognize it.
The amount of musical genres that this man has influenced is astounding. He’s had his hand in everything, from the way that music is played all the way in Argentina to character development in Woody Allen films.
Django used a guitar that is a little different from your average classical guitar. His was made by Selmer Corp., and referred to as a “Selmer guitar“ due to its specific construction. In the time that Django Reinhardt was playing shows, there wasn’t much in the way of amplification. You had to fight with crowd noises, clanking glasses, and whatever acoustics your location had to offer you. Selmer came up with a guitar that had a strange looking sound hole, and inside contained a small wooden box with a resonator inside, allowing the sound to bounce around so much that it turned up the volume.
Django made this guitar famous, and it has since become a staple for gypsy jazz bands. The sound that this guitar made attached itself not just to Django’s style, but with gypsy jazz as a whole -with which Django’s name was now infinitely tied.
Gonzalo Bergara, an Argentinian guitarist, has heavily been influenced by Django Reinhardt, and has brought his gypsy sound back to South America.
He also had an animated cameo appearance in one of my favorite films, the very French Triplets of Belleville, as I think they did a damn fine job:
As if there weren’t enough people in constant awe of Django’s prowess, there are also numerous festivals devoted to exploring the genius of Django, and providing workshops for guitarists to work with some of the top gypsy jazz musicians in the world. I’m extremely excited and honored to say that one of those major festivals takes place in my home, Washington State.
Langley, a seaside town on the southern tip of my home-away-from-home, Whidbey Island, becomes Djangley, and the island explodes with impromptu djams from Djangophiles who just can’t help but drop their stuff and play with one of the dozens of wandering musicians in the area.
Now in its 14th year, Djangofest Northwest is one of the top gypsy jazz festivals in the world, bringing around performers who have worked with members of Hot Club, as well as successful musicians whose works has been heavily influenced by Django, such as Gonzalo Bergara – yes, that Gonzalo Bergara!
This year, the theme of the festival is somewhat unintentionally – Brothers. This fits Djangofest perfectly, as Django and his brother both played together in Hot Club De France! Gonzalo Bergara will even have his brother, Maki, along.
It’s just a quick & beautiful ferry ride from Seattle to Whidbey – if you are in love with the romance of gypsy jazz and the magic of Django Reinhardt, definitely consider coming, and be sure to pass this info along to your musician friends!
Djangofest takes place in Langley, on Whidbey Island, Sept 17-21, 2014.
You can purchase tickets for individual performances, workshops or presentations here. If you’re going, let me know!
Django in Films & References
1948: Some rare footage of Django Reinhardt
1952: “La Route du Bonheur”
1966: “Is Paris Burning?”
The above is a clip from Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown, whose main character (played by Sean Penn) is a guitarist obsessed with Django Reinhardt and, as you might imagine, the soundtrack is full of his tunes.
2012: “La Mer” is used as the Bioshock 2 theme
An excellent, short documentary about Django Reinhardt