It’s the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge, so I thought I’d focus on one of my favourite subjects: Guitars. Care to join me?
Django Reinhardt was born in Belgium the early 1900s to French parents of Romany (gypsy) descent. Born Jean-Baptist Reinhart, the name “Django” was a nickname from his Romany heritage and means “I awake”. His family made cane furniture for a living, but as is typical of many Gypsy families, several of them were also very fine amateur musicians in their own right.
He was largely uneducated, and didn’t even learn to sign his name until well into adulthood, but Django had an ear for music and could play just about anything after hearing it only once. In 1928, at the age of 18, he received second and third degree burns over half of his body in a house fire, and as a result, he had only partial use of his right leg and had lost the use of the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand. He refused to allow the doctors to amputate his leg, yet was walking with a cane within a year.
Using a guitar his brother made for him, Django then taught himself to play again, developing a two-fingered approach to playing single note lines. Rather than being a hindrance, Django put together some of the most incredible performances ever. Of his technique, it so dominated his unique sound that John Jorgenson, a guitarist who played Django in the film Head In the Clouds, found the only way he could play Django’s tunes was to use two fingers. Traditional left hand techniques could not replicate Django’s melody lines.
Django spent most of his career in the nightclubs of Paris, playing a style of music known “gypsy jazz,” characterized by swing rhythms and the kind of Eastern European scales and melodies typical of gypsy music. In gypsy jazz, most of the solos are left to violin and guitar. When the guitar is played as a rhythm instrument, it almost always takes the place of drums or other percussion instruments.
After World War II, Django embarked on a fairly successful tour of the United States, playing with such legends of American Jazz as Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. He reinterpreted Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker for guitar and generally brought American jazz into an entirely new musical realm before returning to France in 1947.
He has influenced guitarists like Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead and Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, simply by virtue of not allowing a disability keep him from playing the music he loved, but he also influenced other guitar greats, like BB King, Les Paul, and Mr. Guitar himself, Chet Atkins.
In 1953, Django Reinhardt died of a brain hemorrhage near his home of Samois-sur-Seine. He was 43.
Here are some Django tunes I think you will enjoy: