Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhardt was the first guitar hero and everyone playing guitar today owes him a debt of gratitude for the trail he blazed. There is very little that we do today that he wasn’t doing 70+ years ago, sans amplification, effects and with only two fingers. Well that’s not really true — he did have an early prototype of the FLANGER. HA! I wonder what Django would’ve done with a flanger!! He did begin using an amplified Selmer guitar post-WW 11 and was tearing it up electric style for just a few years before his very untimely death in 1953 at the age of only 43. During a career spanning almost twenty years he recorded literally hundreds of sides that will blow your mind. If you’re the typical USA rock type guitar player, Django is that guy, the one you always hear about and you either wonder why or don’t, (but should). While he was able to use all four fingers and the thumb for chording/comping, he played all of his fiery leads with just two fingers. You can watch him doing it right now.

Personally, I think this whole clip is brilliant — Django’s playing on the intro with all of those lush beautiful chords and snappy single string lines and the duet he does with Stephane Grappelli’s great violin melody improvisation on the second intro chorus. Once the song kicks in, Django’s brother, Joseph and dashing gangster/great musician, Pierre “Baro” Ferret on rhythm guitars effectively illustrate why drummers are not always necessary. I also love the old-time radio voice. It’s a very evocative snapshot of a time long gone and it’s the only clip that shows Django playing a whole song with the sound/film synched. Note Django’s solo; all the bends he employs—something many players, including myself don’t do nearly as well or nearly enough. Then there is the chromatic run starting at 2:52: zzzzzzip! Classic Django and the type of lick everyone wants to play. That verve, that savior faire, that fire that every 13-year-old sitting on the edge of his or her bed right now is trying to cop on their favorite song is right here with Django in 1939.

You can’t appreciate how cool Django is until you actually try to play his music— even if you use ALL of your digits! Django had awesome licks, incredible dexterity and picking power, and complete rhythmic control of everything he was doing — he was a bona-fide genius for sure and that’s without bringing his compositional abilities into the discussion. Django jammed with some of the premier soloists and players of his day and there wasn’t one who didn’t recognize his profound command of the instrument. I think he also had a very sublime and relaxed sense of humor and music to him was as easy as breathing and delightful as a new toy is to a child. It has been said by people who saw him play that it was pretty much impossible for him to make a mistake, even if he was at a jam session playing a song like Rose Room for twenty or thirty minutes. Music more less fell out of him and for that reason I think all of Django’s music is so cool, even if it sounds dated or the recordings don’t sound like they were recorded with Doubly, er, I mean Dolby. Here was a man who was really plugged into the that great cosmic axis and could channel it to his whims whenever and however he desired. It’s important to realize that there was a World War going on for seven years of his career and the whole concept of making records hadn’t exactly come into its own, so while the sound of his records doesn’t always compare with a disc that was released last year or even twenty or thirty years ago, Django’s musical imagination, brilliant sense of timing, and muscular dexterity enabled him to compose, perform and record some of the most inventive and melodious music ever heard.

From a player’s perspective Gypsy Jazz is difficult to learn for a few reasons. First, it originated with one guy really…Django. He invented a whole style of music that continues to flourish today. Amazing! Also, because he was such a complete virtuoso, everyone who tries to “walk the walk” and attempts to capture the spirit of his music or play even the heads to some of the songs needs to be a serious player, and many players, especially from the Gypsy community have succeeded in upping the ante on the virtuosity quotient that is contained in the music. Finally, while it enjoys quite a bit of respect and popularity in Europe, it has never been so in the USA. Some believe that it is more popular here today than it ever was and that is telling, especially considering Django and Stephane formed their first group in the early 1930s. The internet has had a very profound effect on this new popularity because it is much easier to acquire discs from overseas, find music and solos tabbed out and learn the style from players who play in well. However, Django has always been very popular and influential among players. A list of those people who sing praises for Django’s abilities reads like a who’s who of the greatest six-stringers ever, including; Jeff Beck, Jerry Garcia, Dicky Betts, Joe Pass, Les Paul, Julian Bream, Chet Atkins, and many others like Brian Setzer, Dan Hicks, and Willie Nelson, who have brought the swinging vibe of the original Hot Club into their own music.

Before Django Reinhardt no one had been able to sell the guitar as the GUY-MAN-DUDE instrument that we all know it as today. If anything, by now, the whole flash guitar player wailing in front of the band is probably viewed by many as passé (note my use of French—impressive isn’t it?). But in Django’s day no one could imagine that there would be a time when the guitar would rule the orchestra and dudes would be rockin’ out to it and dudettes would be rocking out to it! But Django was more that just a guitar player. So much more. He was also a composer, influenced by classical musicians such as Bach, Stravinsky and Debussy, as well as jazz greats like his idol, the man who inspired him to play jazz, Louis Armstrong. You can hear this wide variety of influences in his music as it is not strictly jazz, but in a class by itself. Listen to songs like Bolero (1937), the incredible Mystery Pacific (1937), Tiger Rag, and the offbeat Stockholm, as well as many others.

Django pioneered the whole concept of the high-energy, brilliant composer musician who uses a guitar as his instrument of choice to lead an orchestra (read: band). He also influenced the whole development of rock and roll more than most people realize. Many of the “British Invasion” rock players; George Harrison, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Brian May were obviously influenced by Django; I hear his influence and the influence of the Hot Club sound in a lot of British Invasion music from the 60s and 70s.  During the 30s and 40s many people loved the Hot Club in the UK and thought Django was a total superstar, which leads me to believe when young George, Jeff, Jimmy, Brian and the others were learning to play guitar, their dads probably put on their favorite Django records and said “FORGET ELVIS! YOU WANT TO BE A GUITAR HERO? LISTEN TO THIS GUY!” (I’m sure they didn’t all yell in all caps like that, but I just wanted to make it stand out). Even though Django only made in to the USA once, after WWII, there were stories of American servicemen who went looking for him while they were in Europe during the war because they had already heard his music and wanted to see for themselves what he was doing. But because he only came over once, and not with the Hot Club or Stephane Grappelli, there was never any kind of very popular recognition of the style of music they had invented. It has been, and remains, music mostly for players, although, as someone who has been to shows and has played shows of Django’s music, it NEVER goes out of style. At it’s core the music is bouncy, happy, melodious sophisticated and rhythmically shakin’. It has a timeless, infectious quality that is right for many different settings and occasions.

Django came to the USA in 1946 to tour with Duke Ellington. Here is a real interesting page I literally just found on Django’s trip to the USA, specifically his friendship with early swing guitar star Harry Volpe. Harry Volpe was a heavy cat back in the day and there is some really great info and some really great pics at the site. Not only was Harry a great player, but he also ran a music store and taught guitar. His students included Johnny Smith, Sal Salvador and Joe Pass! Whoa! I also think that maybe except for Roy Rogers, he might have been the first American guitar player to have a signature guitar model. But I have to research that and Harry  further.

But back to Britain. One of Django’s famous songs is Tears. Here is Michelle, by the Beatles. I hear a lot of similarities. If you play both in C minor, it’s easy to create a “mash-up” that flows perfectly. And the Beatles sing parts of Michelle in french…hmm. I might be stretching it but, after listening to Django’s music I believe I hear it in music I’ve known for a long time. I’m not saying that everyone necessarily is copying him, but you couldn’t ask for a better influence, especially if you’re a guitar player.

Here are some of my favorite Django moments.  There will be many more posts where I will write about what I’ve learned (or think I’ve learned) from playing his music, where I see that it shows up in modern music, and how you too can maybe cop some gypsy-flavored stuff for yourself.

After You’ve Gone 1936
[QHCF – Stephane Grappelly (v), Django Reinhardt, Joseph Reinhardt, Pierre Ferret (g), Lucien Simoens (b), Freddy Taylor (vo)] This tune is great—brilliant playing by Stephane Grappelli, smooth vocal by Mr. Freddy Taylor and Django uncorks a solo that is less than 60 seconds of unadulterated genius (listen how the whole thing takes off after the break). Can’t forget to acknowledge the rhythm playing of Joseph Reinhardt and Pierre “Baro” Ferret who were chug masters. There’s no drums or percussion on this and it is awesome in its intensity.

What’s scary is that on the 1949 version of this song the solo is longer and even better. I think Django liked playing After You’ve Gone and it is still played by many as a Gypsy jazz “standard”.

Oiseaux de Iles 1940
I love the sound of this song!!! It’s just so WEIRD, modern, jittery and evocative. Cubist, Jean Genet, Picasso or something. France was under siege and already occupied by the Nazis. The whole vision is Django’s, from the jumping quasi-train/shuffle rhythm to the clarinet “head”. His solo is naturally a blast to listen to and try to play. Except for the quick descending arpeggios it is actually pretty doable compared to others that just make you shake your head and go out for a walk. This is atmosphere. In and of itself there is nothing spectacular about the song; most groups don’t play it, it’s not his best guitar solo and some critics have dismissed it as too jittery or a throwaway. I think it is incredibly inventive for 1940.

Nuit de St. Germain Des Pres 1952
Django does bebop. Some people have trouble with Django in his later days, but I’m not one of those people. I think he did some of his best stuff after WWII and this song shows he was still at the top of his game. Here is a dub clip of the tune from a (most-likely) very forgettable movie. This was just a year before Django passed away. That is Hubert Fol on sax and Django’s son, Babik next to him.

Later career songs like “Nuit“, Troublant Bolero, Anouman, Fleche d’Or, and Impromptu all prove that Django was not only still a great guitar player, but also hadn’t lost any of his edge as a composer.

Manoir de mes reves (Django’s Castle) 1943
A beautiful composition, equal to the famed and well-known Nuages, in my opinion. While Django could certainly burn anyone when it came to high-energy swing tunes, or hang with any renowned soloist of the day in a jam session, he was capable of writing some of the most beautiful, melancholy pieces of music ever set to wax. Recorded for the first time during probably some of the darkest days of WW II, one can hear in it the desire to escape, even if only in dreams, from the harsh realities of war, occupation and maybe, from life itself. Django was the quintessential dreamer and there are many tales of his inability to stay focused to the realities of even being a famous (and hopefully reliable) guitar master. But possibly it is from that unreliable place where all of his beautiful ideas were formed and brought to life. Although Django reached his creative peak during the war years and actually enjoyed financial and artistic success, he couldn’t have been happy with what was happening around him and it’s possible that he was always happier dreaming and wandering in his imagination than he was living out the life of an actual person.

Also, it’s a heckuva solo!! Total Django — the diagonal fretboard approach heavy on diminished arpeggios that you can still hear in players like Romane, Stochelo Rosenberg, Birelli Lagrene, Angelo Debarre, Wawau Adler, Tchavalo Schmitt, Dorado Schmitt, Fapy Lafertin, Stephane Wrembel and many others.

*Note from the Youtube link that it is part of the MAFIA game.

Cou-Cou 1940
This song isn’t a guitar number per se, but a charming song out of left field because it has a vocalist, Josette Dayde singing along. This song was also part of the MAFIA game, which I don’t even have, believe it or not. Django’s playing is simple, but bouncy and the song has a very “up” vibe to it.  Josette Dayde didn’t last long with the group because Django let her go after only a short time, but her voice and the take of this song has a vibe that seems very quaint and innocent 70 years later. Many prefer Beryl Davis with the Hot Club and she was certainly a more accomplished singer and had a longer and more successful career. But the first time I heard this song there was a demure, SEXY quality about Ms. Dayde that one doesn’t hear in music anymore. She was out of showbiz shortly after WW II it seems (she was quite the youngster of 17 when she recorded this song) and outlived Django by more than 40 years, passing in 1995. Here she is on an out of sync video singing Quand Betty fait boop.

Mystery Pacific (1937)
I know I mentioned this already, but this is quite simply — flat out amazing! At the very least you can hear the power Django was capable of putting into his playing. This was recorded as the Hot Club was really coming into it’s own and there is swagger and confidence in Django’s and Stephane’s playing. They compliment each other nicely and the whole song is a streamline train on full-throttle until the end. Django does his whole routine; fast picked licks, tremelo chords, rhythmic jabs and stabs in the high register, and another of his patented chromatic runs into his solo. This is a song I’d like to see one of the modern masters do, even on You Tube, but I don’t know that anyone has. I can’t find it. But it’s a fitting close to this first of many posts on the original guitar hero.

Interestingly enough, the latest version of the WordPress blogging software has been named Django, after, you guessed, Django Reinhardt.

Pic Captions

I really don’t like the way captions display, or I just haven’t figured out how to integrate them to work with layout and alignment. So here are captions for the pics above.

1. Django Reinhardt and Duke Ellington at the NY Aquarium, 1946.
2. Django Reinhardt and David Rose, NY Aquarium, 1946.
3. Django Reinhardt with the lovely Josette Daydé (l) and Daidy Davis-Boyer(r).
4. Django Reinhardt in New York City 1946

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2 Responses to “Django Reinhardt”

  1. Thank you for posting this tribute to an incredible guitar player. I had not heard of him until I started thinking about learning to play. Someone mentioned his name and when I saw my first video of his two fingers producing incredible sound I was hooked.

  2. […] and also some US performers like Gogol Bordello and Slavic Soul Party. Traces of it appear in Django Reinhardt, and current Gypsy Jazz players like Stephane Wrembel. The Balkans sit at the crossroads of so many […]

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