Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

November/December 2009: John Pizzarelli and Aaron Weinstein

Django Reinhardt (1910-53): The Best of Django Reinhardt

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Jean Baptiste, or Django, Reinhardt was a nomadic, outlandish, self-taught musician who couldn’t read music or words. His towering contribution to music makes him one of the most influential jazz guitarists of all time and the single most important jazz musician to emerge from Europe.

Those who worked with him say Reinhardt was ingenious, charming, capricious, and exasperating. He kept a pet monkey, and he was a habitual gambler who once permanently abandoned his new car on the side of the road when it ran out of gas. Many fans will recognize Reinhardt as the source of Sean Penn’s musical quest in the Woody Allen movie Sweet and Lowdown.

Reinhardt was born in a gypsy caravan in Belgium, and Django is his Roma name. He was a child prodigy on the banjo-guitar, but at age eighteen his playing career almost ended when his left hand and right side from waist to knee were badly burned in a caravan fire. He was bedridden in a nursing home for eighteen months while he recovered. It was while he was there that he developed a new fingering for playing the guitar that primarily used the two fingers of his left hand that had flexibility. His fourth and fifth fingers were permanently curled toward his palm because the tendons had shrunk in the heat of the fire and he could use them only on the first two strings of the guitar. When he soloed, Reinhardt used his index and middle fingers. These limitations shaped his distinctive style as a guitarist.

Reinhardt came into prominence in 1934 with the formation of the Quintette du Hot Club de France. Reinhardt’s musical partner in the group was violinist Stéphane Grappelli. Until Grappelli’s departure from France and from the quintet at the outbreak of war in 1939, they created some of the most innovative and imaginative music in jazz.

It is estimated that Reinhardt recorded somewhere between 750 and 1,000 sides in his lifetime. A quick survey of releases under his name today shows numerous CDs drawn from a variety of settings, including radio broadcasts, studio sessions, and concerts. For the new fan there is a lot to dive into. A strong place to start is The Best of Django Reinhardt [Blue Note #37138]. It features eighteen selections recorded between 1936 and 1948. The music ranges from sensual to high octane.

This is thoroughly charming music that, despite the archival recording sound, deserves to be listened to intently. Reinhardt loved the sound of North American jazz and somehow managed to turn it into something sexy and very European by incorporating gypsy melodies, Russian balalaika music, the French musette, and an abundance of string instruments.

The Hot Club is represented on the CD with four selections including the uptempo classic “Minor Swing,” a song co-written with Grappelli and loosely based on an Eastern European theme (“Dark Eyes”). The raucous “Limehouse Blues” showcases Reinhardt and Grappelli’s virtuosity on their respective instruments. “Naguine” is a beautifully relaxed song named after Reinhardt’s second wife. The biggest departure for Reinhardt is “Manoir de mes rêves (a.k.a. Django’s Castle),” which is the surviving fragment of a symphony he wrote. It features Reinhardt in a session, not long after the end of the Second World War, when he toured the United States, playing with a group of American musicians.

Reinhardt died at the age of forty-three of a cerebral hemorrhage in Samois-sur-Seine, the small town where he had retired. Each year, the town holds a festival to celebrate his music.

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