Saturday Night Tunes: Django Reinhardt

Let me get this out of the way right off the bat: I’m not a big fan of jazz guitar. I don’t dislike it, really, but if you look through my disturbingly large collection of jazz CDs you’ll find only a perfunctory few that are headlined by a guitarist. But that said, Django Reinhardt was such a huge influence not just on jazz, but on guitar playing in general, that I couldn’t let his birthday (yesterday) pass without some mention.

Jean Reinhardt, nicknamed “Django,” was born to a French-Romani family in Belgium in 1910, and by 1923 he was playing the six-string banjo (the “banjo-guitar”) professionally after having received virtually no actual instruction on the instrument or in music. He was a prodigy if there ever was one, having also taught himself the violin and the guitar as a child. In 1928, when he was just 18, Reinhardt’s house caught on fire and he was grievously injured; among other ailments, the ring and pinky fingers on his left hand were partially paralyzed for the rest of his life. Amazingly, Reinhardt relearned how to play guitar given his new physical limitations, and then he discovered Louis Armstrong and a career was born. He spent most of the next two decades touring Europe, including a harrowing period during World War II when he was unable to leave Occupied France. Given the Nazis’ official position on both Romani and jazz music, Reinhardt must have frequently feared for his and his wife’s lives, but he survived thanks in part to the fact that plenty of Nazi officers loved jazz and particularly loved Reinhardt’s music.

In 1934, Reinhardt formed his longest-lasting musical partnership, with violinist Stéphane Grappelli (whose birthday is coming up on Monday), when they co-founded the “Quintette du Hot Club de France,” maybe Europe’s most famous jazz ensemble in the 1930s. It has the distinction of being one of the few jazz groups made up entirely of strings; Grappelli’s violin and Reinhardt’s guitar were joined by two other guitarists (one of whom was Reinhardt’s brother Joseph) and a bassist. The two worked together on and off until a 1949 tour of Italy, which would be the last time they recorded together before Reinhardt died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1953 when he was only 43 years old. He’s credited with founding an entire sub-genre called “Gypsy Jazz,” but his guitar technique was such that rock guitarists will still cite Django Reinhardt as an influence.

Part of the reason this series has focused so much on albums from the 1950s and 1960s is because the earlier you get the more primitive the recording equipment gets, so don’t expect any of these to sound particularly good. There’s also the problem of finding intact albums on YouTube, which gets harder the further back you go. So that’s why we’re breaking somewhat with the normal format here and covering the artist instead of one of his or her albums. I’m picking 6 tracks that are among Reinhardt’s most famous tunes and that sound halfway decent in the versions that have been uploaded to YouTube.

“Minor Swing” is one of the Reinhardt/Grappelli partnership’s most famous tunes, and if you’re looking for the perfect example of “Gypsy Jazz,” this is probably it:

“Nuages” is another of Reinhardt’s best known tunes. I think this version was recorded in 1940, after Grappelli had fled the war to England (actually it would be more accurate to say that Reinhardt went back to France after the war started; he and Grappelli had already been on tour in Britain when war broke out), and the Quintette incorporated a clarinetist in his place:

Here’s another Reinhardt classic, “Belleville,” probably recorded around the same time as evidenced by the clarinet:

“Djangology,” recorded I think by the original Quintette, including Grappelli:

Our fifth Reinhardt original is “Swing ’42,” which like the others is today considered a standard:

Finally let’s have a cover; this is Reinhardt and Grappelli playing the pop classic “Beyond the Sea,” made famous by Bobby Darin in 1959. I’m including this one because I happen to like the song, and also because I think this version comes from that 1949 Italian tour so the recording quality is about as good as a Django Reinhardt recording is going to get. It also highlights his amazing guitar work outside of the Gypsy Jazz style:


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