Django: breathing life into jazz outside America

He didn’t know his wife, Bella, had spent the day making celluloid flowers to sell to mourners at the cemetery the next day. They filled the caravan, so when he arrived home from a gig at 1am and could find nothing in the dark, he lit a candle stub that disintegrated in his hands, and the flame only had to kiss the flowers for them to explode. While Bella escaped the inferno, he was not so lucky. His legs were badly burned, his left hand worse. Doctors discussed amputation.

Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappell. Photo supplied.

Django Reinhardt’s hand was saved, but with the third and fourth fingers permanently paralysed – apparently ending the musical career of this kid born in a Belgian Romani community in 1910. He’d taught himself to play a six-string banjo at 12, been a gigging guitarist at 15, and by 18 – the fire – was widely admired.

Initially unable to walk, Django spent a long, painful year convalescing in a sanatorium. Someone gave him a guitar, and, in an extraordinary display of genius and willpower, he devised a fretboard technique for two fingers rather than four. Simultaneously he heard a new music that touched his soul: jazz. The future beckoned.

When he and friends sauntered into the club where violinist Stephane Grappelli was playing, the latter thought they were gangsters – albeit intently-listening ones. Grappelli, born in the same Paris hospital where Django was treated for his burns, was also self-taught, and they soon clicked. Both instinctively gave jazz a uniquely European twist: a lushly romantic lyrical streak, drawing on Gypsy music and French Impressionism. Like all Europeans, they also played waltzes. Jazz waltzes.

Django Reinhardt and Duke Ellington. Photo (and top): William Gottlieb.In 1934 they formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France, the line-up of three acoustic guitars, violin and double bass announcing the Gypsy swing revolution: the first original development in jazz outside the US. With the art form less then than 20 years old, this had a profound long-term impact, paving the way for later players in countries as diverse as Brazil, Norway, Ethiopia and South Africa to put their own local slant on the music.

Despite his injury, Django became jazz’s first and arguably greatest guitar virtuoso, adapting an accordion’s rippling arpeggios to the instrument and making a melody dance like sunlight on water, so each note was illuminated differently, even at blistering tempos. Sudden rhythmic switchbacks and furious chordal assaults would soften into romance with his extravagant vibrato, and his powers as a composer were almost as great, as evidenced by the sublime Nuages and groovy Minor Swing.

The outbreak of WWII found the Hot Club in London on tour. Grappelli stayed, and Django returned to Paris. They wouldn’t see each other until 1946 – the same year Duke Ellington invited Django to join his orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Such pioneers as saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and trumpeter Rex Stewart had performed with Django when touring Europe in the ’30s, and spread the word across the Atlantic. Django prayed Duke’s offer would be his big break, but, speaking no English, he found his New York experience unnerving. He was late for the first concert and virtually missed the second, having run into an old Parisian friend with whom to speak French, drink Bordeaux and smoke Gauloises.

When his popularity dived in the early 1950s he turned to painting, before being enticed to back to music to record his only LP, after which a US tour was planned with Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Coleman Hawkins. That was never to be: Django suffered a stroke and died suddenly at 43.

While he’d have been flattered by his unprecedented legions of imitators, he’d have also been bemused that they did not seek their own musical path, as he’d done. Now, 110 years after his birth, Rex Stewart’s observation that “you only find a musician like Django once in a century” looks on the money.

His phenomenally well-documented career equates to an avalanche of modern compilations, curated and mastered with variable love and care. A worthy introduction is the 36-track Best of Djangologie, which streams on Apple Music and Spotify.