Jazz Stars: Django Reinhardt

Today, on the birthday of Arthur Django Reinhardt, French jazz guitarist-virtuoso, one of “the manouche jazz" style founders, the life story of the musician is in the column "Jazz Stars". A selection of musical compositions performed by Django Reinhardt is posted in the museum Phonotheque.

The musician was born in a gipsy encampment in Belgium, on January 23, 1910. His entire childhood and youth were spent on the southern outskirts of Paris, in the encampment that was stationed at the Porte de Choisy. At the age of 9 he learnt to play the banjo, and then the guitar, without taking a single lesson – just looking at how the Gypsy guitarists in the camp played. He often accompanied adult musicians at the gatherings or town festivals. As one of the musician's biographers later wrote, music was his environment, like water for a fish or the sky for a bird. By the age of 18, Django Reinhardt had become a virtuoso performer that easily found a living from music. That's when tragedy struck – the carriage house that served as his home caught fire, the left of leg of the musician was badly burnt and two fingers on his left hand were crippled. The doctors advised Django to ablate his leg, but he refused. The gypsies in this encampment were already lamenting his failed musical career, which had promised to be brilliant. The musician was forced to spend more than a year in bed. But a guitar that one day was brought by his younger brother, assisted him to get through the grave recovery period. Django Reinhardt began to re-learn playing the instrument and was able not only to overcome his injury, but also to develop a unique technique of playing. It was the following – the guitarist played mainly with two fingers, and at the same time he used the mutilated fingers in an unusual way – the little finger was intended for the E string and the ring finger for the C string.

Django left the camp. Performing variations on the French national motifs in café-restaurants and Russian gypsy songs in Russian white-immigrant pubs, Django and his brother once heard American jazz, which was just beginning to penetrate Europe, at the house of one of their patrons. Django began to improvise desperately at his gigs, playing jazz on the guitar. Imagine a traditional French musette or a Russian gypsy romance in which the guitarist suddenly starts playing jazz compositions. But due to this he became very popular in France in the 30s and created the quintet "Hot Club De France", which popularized the unique style of jazz manouche (manouche is French means "gypsy"), combining American swing with gypsy motifs and the style of classic French chanson. The quintet had a very unusual line-up for jazz without drums: Django, who played lead guitar, two rhythm guitarists (one of whom was his brother), double bass and, in addition, another legend of the French jazz of those times – violinist, Italian-born Stephane Grappelli. During the capture of Paris and full occupation of France by the Nazis, Django and his quintet performed in London. Returning to Paris after the tour, Django continued to play with a revitalized line-up. Reinhardt thus protested against the rules imposed by the occupiers, who considered jazz an unworthy music due to its low origins. All the best venues, including the Olympia and the Moulin Rouge, literally fought for the right to let the musicians play there. Django Reinhardt himself began to write orchestrations as well. Despite the triumph, the harsh wartime atmosphere put pressure on Reinhardt. He was not threatened with arrest, nor did he have to compromise with the occupation authorities to do what he loved. He was often criticised by the Nazis, while at the same time they were insisting on his performances in Germany. Jazz lovers and musicians, ceaselessly persecuted by the collaborationist Vichy regime, found it increasingly difficult by the end of the war: censorship, humiliation, arrests. The musician left Paris and wandered around the country.

In August 1944, in Toulon, Django met the newly landed American troops and joined their orchestra. After the end of the war, Stephane Grappelli returned to Paris, the friends formed a new ensemble and began to prepare for a major American tour organised for them by Duke Ellington, the man who had changed Reinhardt's perception of music. In the run-up to the tour, the guitarist's record “Paris 1945”, a one-of-a-kind musical portrait of post-war Paris, was released in the United States. At the end of 1946, the long-awaited tour of the United States was realized. The audience was not as enthusiastic and open-minded as before – electric guitars were already in fashion. That's why in February 1947, returning to Europe, the musician spoke about the States as a country "where guitars sound like pots".

In the second half of the 40s, Django Reinhardt recorded the bulk of his discography. Records were released on both sides of the Atlantic, and his work became affordable for musicians and music lovers all over the world. Among them were many concert recordings: "At Club St. Germain", "Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club Quintet" and others.

By the early 50s Reinhardt applied himself in a new art form - painting. A request not to talk about music, as he was now painting, became the standard polite refusal to job offers. Although he made a couple of exceptions for a tour through Belgium and a short tour in Germany, he still felt that his music was already in the deep shadow of the new trends, bebop in particular.

Django and his family left Paris. The musician died May 16, 1953 of a heart attack. In his short 43 years, according to his friend Stephane Grappelli, he changed not only the style of guitar playing, but also jazz itself.