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Jean “Django” Reinhardt was born on January 23rd, 1910 in Liberchies, Belgium. His parents were gypsies and grew up in a nomadic lifestyle in the open air and at the age of eight his mother’s tribe settled outside of Paris. It actually was not until Django was twenty years old that he ever owned a suite or lived in a home as we know them today. Reinhardt’s interest in music began at an early age playing the violin and at the age of twelve he received a banjo-guitar as a gift from a neighbor. Django quickly learned the instrument by ear and was able to easily mimic and pick up lines from listening and watching other players in his youth. It only took one year for him to begin playing professionally with accordion player Guerino at a dance hall on the Rue Monge at the age of thirteen. Reinhardt made his first recordings with accordionist Jean Vaissade for the Ideal Company at the age of eighteen.
In 1928, Django returned home to the caravan of him and his wife after a gig at the club La Java in Paris and accidently knocked over a candle that started a fire that quickly turned into a raging inferno. Django received first and second degree burns all over his body, his right leg was paralyzed, and his third and fourth fingers on his left hand were badly burned. Doctors wanted to amputate his leg but Reinhardt would not let them and left the hospital after only a few days. Reinhardt was bedridden for quite some time, but during this time he practiced a guitar he was given and relearned how to play, developing a new style using only the index and middle finger on his right hand. Django’s influences came from recordings of American Jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti. He quickly fell in love with Jazz and it fit his talents perfectly.
In 1934 the Quintette du Hot Club de France was formed with Stephane Grapelli on violin, Django’s brother Joseph and Roger Chaput on guitars and Louis Vola on bass. A small record company called Ultraphone recorded them first with the tune Dinah, Tiger Rag, Oh Lady Be Good and I Saw Stars. These first few recorded songs became extremely popular very quickly and the group would go on to record hundreds more around the world. The Quintet was in England when WWII broke out and Django quickly returned home to Paris. He still managed to play and record during this time which was no small feat. Even the fact that he was not killed during the war is pretty amazing as the Nazis did not allow Jazz music to be played or Gypsies to live.
When the war was over Django returned to England to join once again Stephane Grappelli in 1946 and then got to tour with one of his heroes in America, Duke Ellington. While in New York Django tried to look up to more of his heroes, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie but unfortunately they were on the road at the time. Reinhardt returned to France and spent most of his remaining days back in the Gypsy lifestyle finding it difficult to live in the modern world. Django continued to play though and in 1948 recorded one of his most famous albums ‘Djangology’ with Grapelli and several Italian musicians. Django retired to Samois-sur-Siene in 1951 but still made a few more recordings using the electric guitar and fusing bebop with his own style of playing. Many consider these last recordings, including ‘Nuages’, to be his best and possibly the best of any jazz guitar player who ever lived. Django passed away in 1953 leaving a legacy as one the greatest Jazz Guitar players to ever live and redefined what was possible on the instrument throughout his career. Even today he is still immensely popular internationally and his music continues to be used for television, movies and even video games. So many musicians have done tributes to him and his likeness has been used in many films including Les Triplettes de Belleville and Woody Allen’s 1999 film Sweet and Lowdown.
“Jazz attracted me because in it I found a formal perfection and instrumental precision that I admire in classical music, but which popular music doesn't have.” – Django Reinhardt
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