One of the first prominent European jazz musicians, Reinhardt remains one of the most renowned jazz guitarists due to his innovative and distinctive playing. With violinist Stéphane Grappelli he cofounded the Quintette du Hot Club de France, described by critic Thom Jurek as "one of the most original bands in the history of recorded jazz." Reinhardt's most popular compositions have become jazz standards, including "My Sweet", "Minor Swing", "Tears", "Belleville", "Djangology" and "Nuages" (French for "Clouds").
Born in Liberchies, Pont-à-Celles, Belgium, Reinhardt's Gypsy nickname "Django" was Romani for "I awake." He spent most of his youth in gypsy encampments close to Paris, playing banjo, guitar and violin from an early age, and professionally at Bal-musette halls in Paris. He started first on the violin and eventually moved on to a banjo-guitar that had been given to him and his first known recordings (in 1928) were of him playing the banjo.
At the age of 18, Reinhardt was injured in a fire that ravaged the caravan he shared with Florine "Bella" Mayer, his first wife. They were very poor, and to supplement their income Bella made imitation flowers out of celluloid and paper. Consequently, their home was full of this highly flammable material. Returning from a performance late one night, Django apparently knocked over a candle on his way to bed. While his family and neighbors were quick to pull him to safety, he received first- and second-degree burns over half his body. His right leg was paralyzed and the third and fourth fingers of his left hand were badly burnt. Doctors believed that he would never play guitar again and intended to amputate one of his legs. Reinhardt refused to have the surgery and left the hospital after a short time; he was able to walk within a year with the aid of a cane.
His brother Joseph Reinhardt, an accomplished guitarist himself, bought Django a new guitar. With painful rehabilitation and practice Django relearned his craft in a completely new way, even as his third and fourth fingers remained partially paralyzed. Hence, he played all of his guitar solos with only two fingers, and managed to use the two injured digits only for chord work.
In 1934, Reinhardt and Parisian violinist Stéphane Grappelli formed the "Quintette du Hot Club de France" with Reinhardt's brother Joseph and Roger Chaput on guitar, and Louis Vola on bass. Occasionally Chaput was replaced by Reinhardt's best friend and fellow Gypsy Pierre "Baro" Ferret. The vocalist Freddie Taylor participated in a few songs, such as "Georgia On My Mind" and "Nagasaki". Jean Sablon was the first singer to record with him more than thirty songs from 1933. They also used their guitars for percussive sounds, as they had no true percussion section. The Quintet du Hot Club de France was one of the few well-known jazz ensembles composed only of string instruments.
In Paris on March 14, 1933 Rheinhart recorded 2 takes each of "Parce que je vous aime" and "Si, j'aime Suzy", vocal numbers with lots of guitar fills and great guitar support, using 3 guitarists along with an accordion lead, violin, and bass. In August of the following year recordings were also made with more than one guitar (Joseph Reinhardt, Roger Chaput, and Django), including the first recording by the Quintet. In both years, it should be noted, the great majority of recordings featured a wide variety of horns, often in multiples, piano, etc.
Reinhardt later formed bands with more conventional instrumentations as with clarinet or saxophone, piano, bass and drums. He produced numerous recordings at this time with the quintet. But he played and recorded also with many American Jazz legends such as Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Rex Stewart (who later stayed in Paris), and a jam-session with jazz legend Louis Armstrong. Reinhardt could neither read nor write music, and was barely literate. Stéphane took the band's downtime to teach him.
When World War II broke out, the original quintet was on tour in the United Kingdom. Reinhardt returned to Paris at once, leaving his wife behind. Grappelli remained in the United Kingdom for the duration of the war. Reinhardt reformed the quintet, with Hubert Rostaing on clarinet replacing Grappelli's violin. In 1943, Django married Sophie Ziegler in Salbris, with whom he had a son, Babik Reinhardt, who became a respected guitarist in his own right.
Reinhardt survived World War II unscathed, unlike the many Gypsies who perished in the porajmos, the Nazi regime's systematic murder of several hundred thousand European Gypsies, quite a few of whom were sent to death camps. He was especially fortunate because the Nazi regime did not allow jazz to be performed and recorded. He apparently enjoyed the protection of the Luftwaffe officer Dietrich Schulz-Köhn, nicknamed "Doktor Jazz", who deeply admired his music.
After the war, Reinhardt rejoined Grappelli in the UK, and then went on in fall 1946 to tour the United States as a special guest soloist with Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, playing two nights at Carnegie Hall, with many notable musicians and composers such as Maury Deutsch. Despite Reinhardt's great pride in touring with Ellington (one of his two letters to Grappelli relates this excitement), he wasn't really integrated into the band, playing only a few tunes at the end of the show, with no special arrangements written personally for him. He was used to his brother, Joseph, carrying around his guitar for him and tuning it. Allegedly, Reinhardt was given an untuned guitar to play with (discovered after strumming a chord) and it took him five whole minutes to tune it. Also, he was used to playing a Selmer Modèle Jazz, the guitar he made famous, but he was required to play a new amplified model. After "going electric", the results were not as much liked by fans. He returned to France with broken dreams, but continued to play and make many recordings.
Django Reinhardt was among the first people in France to appreciate and understand the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie whom he sought when he arrived in New York. Unfortunately they were all on tour.
After returning to France, Django spent the remainder of his days re-immersed in gypsy life, having found it difficult to adjust to the modern world. He would sometimes show up for concerts without a guitar or amp, or wander off to the park or beach, and on a few occasions he refused even to get out of bed. Reinhardt was known by his band, fans, and managers to be extremely unpredictable. He would often skip sold-out concerts to simply "walk to the beach" or "smell the dew". However, he did continue to compose and is still regarded as one of the most advanced jazz guitarists to ever play the instrument.
In 1948, Reinhardt recruited a few Italian jazz players (on bass, piano, and snare drum) and recorded one of his most acclaimed contributions, "Djangology", once again with Stephane Grappelli on violin. Although his experience in the U.S. left him influenced greatly by American jazz, making him a different player from the man Grappelli had known, on this recording Reinhardt switched back to his old roots, once again playing the Acoustic Selmer-Maccaferri. The recording was recently discovered by jazz enthusiasts and is now available in the U.S. and Europe. Reinhardt and other guitarists of the Quintette du Hot Club de France used Selmer acoustic guitars.
In 1951, he retired to Samois-sur-Seine, France, near Fontainebleau. He lived there for two years until 16 May 1953, when, while returning from the Avon train station, he collapsed outside his house from a brain hemorrhage. It took a full day for a doctor to arrive and Django was declared dead on arrival at the hospital in Fontainebleau.
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Many musicians have expressed admiration for Reinhardt (whose main influence was Eddie Lang), including guitarist Jimmy McCulloch, classical guitarist Julian Bream; country artist Chet Atkins, who placed Reinhardt #1 on a list of the ten most influential guitarists of the 20th century (he placed himself fifth); Latin rocker Carlos Santana; blues legend B.B. King; the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia; Phish's Trey Anastasio; Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi; Jimi Hendrix; The Libertines' Carlos Barat, Synyster Gates; Shawn Lane; Stevie Ray Vaughan; Derek Trucks; Mark Knopfler; Les Paul; Joe Pass; Peter Frampton; Denny Laine; Jeff Beck; Jon Larsen; Steve Howe; Charlie Christian; George Benson; Wes Montgomery; Martin Taylor; Tchavolo Schmitt; Stochelo Rosenberg; Biréli Lagrène; John Jorgenson; Michael Angelo Batio; Richard Thompson; Robert Fripp; and Jeff Martin. Willie Nelson wore a Django Reinhardt T-shirt on tour in Europe in 2002, stating in an interview that he admired Django's music and ability. The British guitarist Diz Disley plays in a style based on Reinhardt's technique and he collaborated on numerous projects with Stéphane Grappelli.
Musicians have paid tribute to Reinhardt in many other ways, such as by invoking his name in their own work or personal life. Jimi Hendrix is said to have named one of his bands the Band of Gypsys because of Django's music. Jazz trio The Lost Fingers from Quebec, Canada named themselves after Reinhardt's injured fingers, and play music that is strongly influenced by his style.
A number of musicians named their sons Django in reference to Reinhardt, including David Crosby, former Slade singer Noddy Holder, Jerry Jeff Walker, Richard Durrant, and also actors Nana Visitor & Alexander Siddig and Raphael Sbarge. Jazz musician Django Bates and singer-songwriter Django Haskins were named after him.
Songs written in Reinhardt's honor include "Django," composed by John Lewis, which has become a jazz standard performed by musicians such as Miles Davis. The Modern Jazz Quartet titled one of their albums Django in honor of him. The Allman Brothers Band song Jessica was written by Dickey Betts in tribute to Reinhardt — he wanted to write a song that could be played using only two fingers. This aspect of the artist's work also motivated Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, who was inspired by Reinhardt to keep playing guitar after a factory accident that cost him two fingertips. Composer Jon Larsen has composed several crossover concerts featuring Django inspired music together with symphonic arrangements, most famous is "White Night Stories" (2002) and "Vertavo" (1996).
Despite not being Belge, in 2005, Django Reinhardt ended on the 66th place in the election of The Greatest Belgian (De Grootste Belg) in Flanders and on the 76th place in the Walloon version of the same competition Le plus grand Belge.
The record label Hot Club Records have, since 1982, released more than 350 records, many with Django-influenced music.
Reinhardt in popular culture
Reinhardt has been portrayed in several films, such as in the opening sequence of the 2003 animated film Les Triplettes de Belleville. The third and fourth fingers of the cartoon Reinhardt are considerably smaller than the fingers used to play the guitar. Reinhardt's legacy dominates in Woody Allen's 1999 Sweet and Lowdown. This spoof biopic focuses on fictional American guitarist Emmet Ray's obsession with Reinhardt, with soundtrack featuring Howard Alden. He is also portrayed by guitarist John Jorgenson in the movie Head in the Clouds. In the classic Italian western Django, the titular hero is presumably named after Reinhardt. In the climax of the movie, his hands are smashed by his enemies and he is forced to fire a gun with his wounded hands. Reinhardt is also the idol of the character Arvid in the movie Swing Kids, where the character's left hand is smashed by a member of the Hitler Jugend (HJ), but is inspired to continue by Reinhardt's example.
Reinhardt's music has been used in the soundtrack of many films, including the oracle scene in The Matrix; Rhythm Futur (95 minute mark) and I Can't Give You Anything But Love (41 minute mark) in The Aviator; Nuages in Gattaca; the score for Louis Malle's 1974 movie, Lacombe Lucien;the background for the Steve Martin movie L.A. Story; the background for a number of Woody Allen movies, including Stardust Memories, where Woody's character plays a Django record; Honeysuckle Rose in the background of the Central Park carriage ride scene in Kate and Leopold; during the Juilliard audition in the movie Daltry Calhoun; Minor Swing and Blues Clair in Metroland for which Mark Knopfler wrote the score; his rendition of Brazil can be heard on the "Something's Gotta Give" soundtrack; and Minor Swing in the scene in the painter's house in the Italian film "I Cento Passi", and as played by Johnny Depp in the river party scene in Lasse Hallström's Chocolat. Reinhardt's work also figures heavily into B. Monkey and The Pallbearer. Reinhardt's music has also been featured in the soundtracks of several video games, such as the 2002 game Mafia and the 2007 game BioShock. He was also mentioned in Swing Kids.
Reinhardt has been a subject in several works of fiction. Harlan Ellison's short story "Django" is a fantasia about a guitarist, with similarities to Reinhardt. Author William Kotzwinkle's 1989 collection, The Hot Jazz Trio stars Reinhardt in a surrealistic fantasy also featuring Jean Cocteau. An extended discussion of Reinhardt takes place among several characters in the novel From Here to Eternity by James Jones. The character Andre Custine has a double bass that had been played by Reinhardt in the novel Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds.
Reinhardt has been the subject of several songs, most notably "Django", a melancholy gypsy-flavored piece that jazz pianist John Lewis (pianist) of the Modern Jazz Quartet wrote in honor of his memory (1954); numerous versions of the song have been recorded, including one on the 1973 Lindsey Buckingham / Stevie Nicks self-titled debut album; it also appears on Joe Bonamassa's 2006 LP "You & Me". The lyrics of the Norwegian song Tanta til Beate by Lillebjørn Nilsen mentions Django several times.
- 1945 Paris 1945
- 1947 Ellingtonia - with the Rex Stewart Band - Dial 215
- 1949 Djangology
- 1951 Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club Quintet
- 1951 At Club St. Germain
- 1953 Django Reinhardt et Ses Rythmes
- 1954 The Great Artistry of Django Reinhardt
- 1955 Django's Guitar
- 1959 Django Reinhardt and His Rhythm
- 1980 Routes to Django Reinhardt
- 1996 Imagine
- 2001 All Star Sessions
- 2001 Jazz in Paris: Swing 39
- 2002 Djangology (remastered) (recorded in 1948, discovered, remastered and released by Bluebird Records)
- 2003 Jazz in Paris: Nuages
- 2003 Jazz in Paris: Nuits de Saint-Germain des-Prés
- 2004 Le Génie Vagabond
- 2008 Django on the Radio (radio broadcasts, 1945 - 1953)
- At least eight compilations have also been released.