"By far the most astonishing guitar player ever has got to be Django Reinhardt. I'm sort of a newcomer to his work, although I was always aware of him. Django was quite superhuman. There's nothing normal about him, as a person or a player." Jeff Beck
There comes a time when every learner of the guitar makes a decision, consciously or not, to continue to pursue an interest in the instrument or put it down. The former will push themselves to learn more chords and will endeavour to learn some basic lead licks. My interest, like I am sure of many other guitarists, also led me to buy guitar magazines and to receive some nice hardback books as Christmas presents. Any of these books that chronicled the history of the guitar or its major players would include all the usual suspects. The early chapters would inevitably feature two of the early pioneers of lead guitar - Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. As a young teenager fairly uninterested in jazz I probably would have skipped these over and focused on the biographies and discographies of my early guitar heroes who were all famous post 1956 rock n roll. Therefore like Jeff Beck and I´m sure many others, I was always aware of Django Reinhardt. Yet it is only now that I am sitting down and really listening to his music with a taste for the jazz and social history that surrounds this fascinating character. I guess I´m a sort of a newcomer as well.
Django was the first big European jazz star. He was born in a gypsy caravan in Belgium but spent most of his life living in France hence some confusion as to his nationality. He began as a banjo player and was beginning to earn a name for himself in the mid to late 1920´s. The turning point in his life occurred in 1928 when he became very badly injured in a fire at his caravan home. His injuries were severe enough for one doctor to suggest amputating a leg. Thankfully Reinhardt refused. His recuperation proved to be long and many thought that the injuries received to his left hand would mean the end of his musical career. A bedridden Django would eventually develop a new technique that involved him predominantly using his first and middle fingers only.
In the early 30´s he met Stéphane Grapelli and the two would go on to form the Quintette du Hot Club de France, named after the organisation that promoted jazz in France. Their music was clearly influenced by that of Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti yet Django´s musicianship takes the music to the next logical step especially given the influence that swing music was having on the world by 1935. The early recordings by the group are astounding. Any track would exemplify Django´s sound but for me Dinah is a particular favourite. The trills and runs are mindblowing.
Check out the stop-time fills and Van Halen-esque alternate picking in this version of Tiger Rag. (Django was basically the original shredder!)
He was in England when war was declared on Nazi Germany. Yet while Grappelli opted to remain Django, somewhat inexplicably and without warning, returned to Paris. Despite the Nazi´s public aversion to jazz and attitude to the gypsy populace, Django continued to play and to develop his style. After the war he embarked on a tour of the United States as a special guest soloist with The Duke Ellington Orchestra. He was a massive hit with the audiences but his lack of ability to communicate in English and his undoubted restlessness saw him back in France in 1947. He experimented with electric guitar and continued to record right up to his untimely death in 1953. His dalliances with the electric guitar and bebop influences have somewhat divided opinion, perhaps a precursor to what would happen to Bob Dylan twenty years later. Personally I can find no fault with any of Django´s later recordings. As is often the case of artists who refuse to sit still artistically he fell foul of those who did not want him to change. For me a track like Fleche D'or from 1952 blows the naysayers out of the water. It's so far ahead of its time and Django sounds great.