Born one hundred years ago, manouche jazz legend Django Reinhardt is often considered the best jazz guitarist of all time. France is honoring the musician with concerts, special edition CDs and TV programs.
An injury led to Reinhardt's unique style
The city of Paris has even named a town square after jazz guru guitarist Jean "Django" Reinhardt to mark the centennial of his birth on January 23. Rheinhardt, who was born in Belgium but grew up near Paris, is considered the father of European jazz and developed a unique style of guitar-playing after suffering injuries to his left hand.
While revered for music pioneered in the 1930s, Django's distinctive guitar swing remains popular in France today, with many non-Sintis embracing his style. But it's French-Sinti, or manouches, as they're known there, who are really fanning the Django flame.
One musical manouche family is the Maillies, who live in a Paris suburb. Sitting in their caravan near an obsolete factory, 23-year-old Vincent holds a guitar, while his stepfather Bayo tunes his own. Vincent's mother and sisters circle around and listen as he and Bayo begin playing a Reinhardt favorite, "I can't give you anything but love."
"This music is who we are, even if we can't play it well," Vincent explained. "Everyone in my family plays the guitar. This music is our trade-mark - something the manouches invented, and it was Django who did it."
Tragedy turned into triumph
Reinhardt's manouche jazz enjoys a strong following
Reinhardt lived in manouche encampments during most of his youth, learning to play banjo, guitar and violin at a young age. A fire in his caravan at age 18 badly burned the musician's body - paralyzing his right leg and rendering the third and fourth fingers of his left hand virtually useless.
Miraculously, after rehabilitation, Reinhardt was able to walk again with the aid of a cane. Originally told his guitar-playing days were over, his left-hand handicap prompted him to develop a completely new music technique. He used the uninjured fingers of his left hand, and particularly his thumb, to play his guitar solos, employing the two injured digits only for chord work.
Part of Django's own genius was his blend of the New Orleans jazz of the 1920s, French waltzes (valses musettes) and Sinti music. All of it flowed into what came to be known as "Gypsy swing."
In 1934, Reinhardt, along with Parisian violinist Stephane Grappelli, formed the Quintette de Hot Club de France, which included Django's brother Joseph alongside Roger Chaput on guitar, and Louis Vola on bass. Pierre Ferret sometimes replaced Chaput.
Together, the Quintette de Hot Club helped put Europe on the jazz map, and the group became one of the few famous jazz ensembles composed only of string instruments.
Gypsy swing lives on
While masses of Roma and Sinti were murdered by the Nazis, Django managed to survive World War II in Paris, reportedly enjoying the protection of a Luftwaffe officer who admired his musical talents.
During his career, Reinhardt - who favored the unusual Selmer-Maccaferri guitar - played with jazz greats Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, among others. Countless other musicians have named Reinhardt as having a major impact on their work.
Django in New York in 1946
And even now, one hundred years after his birth, and over fifty years after his death at age 43, Django's sound lives on. Some of France's best loved jazz artists are manouche guitarists like Christian Escoude and Bireli Lagrene. "Gypsy jazz" plays all the time on French radio, and manouche jazz venues are cropping up all around Paris. The oldest is Chope aux Puces, run by Marcel Campion, who has also opened a manouche guitar school above the club.
"What characterizes this music is a rhythmical style of accompaniment we call 'the pump,'" Campion noted. "It's rare for musicians to master it. It's a manouche jazz thing. But once you can do 'the pump,' you can do everything."
Not only did Django Reinhardt invent this strumming, or "pump," effect, Campion said, but "most of the chords used by jazz guitarists today were invented by Django after he reinterpreted chords for five fingers for three. That made them simpler, which, for jazz, was better. Also, he gave this music an attitude."
Awakening a new generation
Frangy Delporte, a 28-year-old up-and-coming manouche jazz star, clearly has some of that attitude, and has performed at Paris's best-known jazz venues, like the Duc des Lombards. He sports slicked-back hair, just like Django.
"I've been listening to Django ever since I was little because of my uncle. That's all he ever listened to," Delporte recalled. "Later on, I got into techno, dance, that sort of thing and then, all of a sudden, I picked up a guitar and started to try to play Django's tunes. I started listening to his music all the time. It touched me and made me want to play."
Perhaps it's the ability to reveal the musical sensibilities in people that is another of Reinhardt's legacies, after all, his nickname "Django" is Romani for "I awake."
Author: John Laurenson/Louisa Schaefer
Editor: Kate Bowen