Watching Quentin Tarantino’s new flick Django Unchained brought to mind another famous Django, one who is probably today remembered only or mostly by jazz buffs, Jean Baptiste “Django” Reinhardt . His is an amazing and inspirational story. Tarantino’s movie also has a connection with Reinhardt.
Some Django facts, both film and muso:
- The title and setting of the Tarantino film was inspired by the 1966 spaghetti western Django, with the original Django actor Franco Nero having a small role in the Tarantino film.
- The title of the 1966 movie was taken from the name of the jazz muso, Jean "Django" Reinhardt (1910-1953) who was mentioned above.
- Reinhardt’s nickname, Django, meant “I awake” in Romani.
- Jean Reinhardt was born in Belgium in 1910 of a Romani family. His youth was spent in Romani encampments where he learned to play the violin at an early age and, from the age of 12, the banjo-guitar (a banjo guitar has six strings and is tuned like a guitar). He learned to play by copying the fingerings of musicians that he watched and by age 13 he was able to make a living playing music.
- By age 18, in 1928, he was already married, his wife Florine “Bella” Mayer making imitation flowers from celluloid and paper to supplement his music earnings. He and his wife shared a caravan. One night, returning from a performance, he knocked over a candle which caused the highly flammable materials to ignite. Although he and his wife survived, neighbours pulling them to safety, he received first- and second-degree burns over half his body. His right leg was paralysed and the third and fourth digits on his left hand were burned so badly they were fused together. Although the doctors succeeded in separating the fingers, they were of diminished use to him in his future guitar playing
- The gift of a guitar by his brother during his subsequent rehabilitation saw him focus on the guitar and to develop a unique system of fingerings that enabled him to play despite his injured fingers and hand, playing his guitar solos with only two fingers and using the two injured digits for chord work.
- Around this time he also discovered jazz, frequently jamming with a young violinist, Stephane Grappelli, who shared his passion.
- According to a Wikipedia summary:
Reinhardt is often regarded as one of the greatest guitar players of all time and is the first important European jazz musician who made major contributions to the development of the idiom. Using only the index and middle fingers of his left hand on his solos (his third and fourth fingers were paralysed after an injury in a fire), Reinhardt invented an entirely new style of jazz guitar technique (sometimes called 'hot' jazz guitar) that has since become a living musical tradition within French gypsy culture. With violinist Stephane Grappelli, he co-founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France (“The Quintet of the Hot Club of France”), described by critic Thom Jurek as "one of the most original bands in the history of recorded jazz." Reinhardt's most popular compositions have become jazz standards, including "Minor Swing", "Daphne", "Belleville", "Djangology", "Swing '42", and "Nuages".
- Guitarists and musicians as diverse as Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, B B King, Pete Townshend, Tommy Emmanuel and Chet Atkins have all acknowledged being influenced by Reinhardt. He also had an impact upon the parallel development of Texas's western swing string bands, which eventually fed into country music.
- Jeff Beck has described Reinhardt as "By far the most astonishing guitar player ever..." and "...quite superhuman.”
- The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi, both of whom lost fingers in accidents, were inspired by Reinhardt’s example. According to Garcia:
"His technique is awesome! Even today, nobody has really come to the state that he was playing at. As good as players are, they haven’t gotten to where he is. There’s a lot of guys that play fast and a lot of guys that play clean, and the guitar has come a long way as far as speed and clarity go, but nobody plays with the whole fullness of expression that Django has. I mean, the combination of incredible speed – all the speed you could possibly want – but also the thing of every note have a specific personality. You don’t hear it. I really haven’t heard it anywhere but with Django".
Click on the links below to hear some of Django Reinhardt’s music:
A 6 minute video of what jazz is about and film of Django, Stephane Grappelli and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France playing:
Take the time to watch the whole of the video. I will be surprised if you are not moved and inspired.
According to a commentary by a poster on that clip:
This short film was made about 1938-1939 as an advertisement for Django’s brand of music before a tour of Great Britain to educate music-hall audiences on what jazz was all about. This film was “lost” even forgotten for decades until a French fan of cartoons with jazz soundtracks found it in a junkshop in a film can simply marked “Jazz Hot”; the price was right, so he bought it, and voila, here’s the film..
Minor Swing with Stephane Grappelli:
Top 5 Django Reinhardt solos:
The comments section contains two interesting observations by separate people:
This is a handicapped gypsy playing black music with a gay violinist in the middle of Nazi occupied France. What kind of nerve (balls) do you have to have to pull off that? There is just not a finer musician on the planet.
As a gypsy he was born into music as a big part of a passionate life. Eating, sleeping, breathing, making love, making music - all the rest comes later. There are guitarists that can play faster, more notes, more sophisticated charts but they don't have that passion, that life behind it and without that, you might as well listen to a washing machine.
After You’ve Gone, with Stephane Grappelli:
Quintet of the Hot Club of France
Django died in 1953 from a brain hemorrhage suffered whilst walking home from the train station. He was on his way home after playing in a Paris club. He was aged 43.