Personalities | Django Reinhardt | Gypsy Guitar Giant | Guitar Heroes

Django Reinhardt (1910–53) overcame physical disabilities to create a unique playing style and one of the most highly influential sounds in jazz.

He was born in Belgium to gypsy parents. At the age of eight his mother’s tribe settled near Paris. The French Gypsies, or Manouches, were medieval in their beliefs, and distrustful of modern science. But Django grew up exposed to Paris while living the life of the nomadic gypsy.

When he was 12 he received his first instrument, a banjo/guitar that was given to him by a neighbour. He learned to play by mimicking the fingerings of musicians he watched, and was soon impressing adults with his ability. Before he was 13 he began his musical career playing in dance halls. He made his first recordings with accordionist Jean Vaissade for the Ideal Company. Django could not read or write at the time, and his name appeared as Jiango Renard.

In November 1928 the 18-year-old Django returned from a performance at a new club to the caravan in which he lived with his new wife. The caravan was filled with celluloid flowers his wife had made to sell at market. Django thought he heard a mouse and bent down with a candle to look. The wick from the candle fell into the highly flammable celluloid flowers, and in a matter of seconds the caravan was engulfed in flames. Django wrapped himself in a blanket, and he and his wife barely made it outside, but his left hand and his right side were badly burned from knee to waist.

Django was bedridden for 18 months. Given a guitar, he created a whole new fingering system built around the two fingers on his left hand that had full mobility. His fourth and fifth digits of the left hand were permanently curled towards the palm due to the tendons shrinking from the heat of the fire. He could use them on the first two strings of the guitar for chords and octaves, but could not extend the fingers. His soloing was accomplished with only the index and middle fingers.

Django was influenced by jazz recordings of guitarist Eddie Lang and violinist Joe Venuti, and by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. In 1934 The Quintet Of The Hot Club Of France was formed by a chance meeting of Django and violinist Stéphane Grappelli. A band of 14 musicians, including Django, were commissioned to play at the Hotel Cambridge. During intermission, Django would play in a corner, and one day Grappelli joined in. Both were so pleased with the exchange that they played regularly and filled out with Roger Chaput (guitar), Louis Vola (bass) and eventually Django’s brother Joseph (guitar).

A small record company Ultraphone recorded The Hot Club’s first sides, ‘Dinah’, ‘Tiger Rag’, ‘Oh Lady Be Good’ and ‘I Saw Stars’. These first records made a big impression, and The Quintet went on to record hundreds of sides, building a...

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