Today is the birthday (1910) of Jean “Django” Reinhardt, Belgian-born Romani jazz guitarist, regarded as one of the greatest jazz musicians of the 20th century, and considered to be the first jazz talent to emerge from Europe. He was especially remarkable because only two fingers on his left hand were functional following an injury in a fire. With violinist Stéphane Grappelli, Reinhardt formed the Paris-based Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934. The group was among the first to play jazz that featured the guitar as a lead instrument.
Reinhardt was born in Liberchies, Pont-à-Celles, into a Belgian family of Manouche Romani descent. His father was Jean Eugene Weiss, but living in Paris with his wife, he went by Jean-Baptiste Reinhardt, his wife’s surname, to avoid French military conscription. Django’s mother, Laurence Reinhardt, was a dancer. His birth certificate refers to “Jean Reinhart, son of Jean Baptiste Reinhart, artist, and Laurence Reinhart, housewife, domiciled in Paris.” A number of authors have repeated the claim that Reinhardt’s nickname, Django, is Romani for “I awake.” However, it may also simply have been a diminutive, or local Walloon version, of “Jean.” Reinhardt spent most of his youth in Romani encampments close to Paris, where he started playing the violin, banjo, and guitar. His father reportedly played music in a family band comprising himself and seven brothers.
Reinhardt was attracted to music at an early age, first playing the violin. At the age of 12 he received a banjo-guitar as a gift. He quickly learned to play, mimicking the fingerings of musicians he watched, who would have included local virtuoso players of the day such as Jean “Poulette” Castro and Auguste “Gusti” Malha, as well as from his uncle Guiligou, who played violin, banjo and guitar. Reinhardt was able to make a living playing music by the time he was 15. He received little formal education and acquired the rudiments of literacy only in adult life.
At the age of 17 Reinhardt married Florine “Bella” Mayer, a girl from the same gypsy settlement, according to gypsy custom (although not an official marriage under French law). The following year he recorded for the first time. On these recordings, made in 1928, Reinhardt plays the “banjo” (actually the banjo-guitar) accompanying the accordionists Maurice Alexander, Jean Vaissade and Victor Marceau, and the singer Maurice Chaumel. His name was now drawing international attention, such as from British bandleader Jack Hylton, who came to France just to hear him play. He offered him a job on the spot, and Reinhardt accepted.
Before he had a chance to start with the band, however, he nearly lost his life when the caravan he and his wife lived in caught fire when he knocked over a candle on his way to bed. To supplement their income, his wife made artificial flowers from extremely flammable celluloid. They caught fire, engulfing the wagon in flames almost immediately. Reinhardt dragged himself and his wife through the fire to safety, but suffered extensive burns on his left hand and other areas. He received first- and second-degree burns over half his body. His right leg was paralyzed, and the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand were badly burned. Doctors believed that he would never play guitar again, and they intended to amputate one of his legs. Reinhardt refused to have the surgery and left the hospital after a short time; he was able to walk within a year with the aid of a cane.
Two of his fingers remained paralyzed. By sheer force of will, he taught himself to overcome his now permanent disability by using only his thumb and two fingers on his left hand. In 1929, his wife gave birth to a son, Henri “Lousson” Reinhardt. As a result of the trauma and injuries, he and Bella parted company soon after. His son later took the surname of his mother’s new husband, Baumgartner. He later recorded with Django. Django’s brother, Joseph Reinhardt, also an accomplished guitarist, bought him a new guitar, and with rehabilitation and practice, he re-learned his craft in a completely new way. He played all his guitar solos with only the index and middle fingers and used the two injured fingers only for chord work.
The years between 1925 and 1933 were formative for Reinhardt, personally and musically. He had parted with his wife and had formed a relationship with one of his distant cousins, Sophie Ziegler, nicknamed “Naguine.” They traveled throughout France with Reinhardt getting occasional jobs playing at small clubs. He was playing all types of music but began to appreciate American jazz a little during this period, when an acquaintance, Émile Savitry, played him a number of records from his collection. It was the first time Reinhardt heard leading American jazz musicians, such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. The new sounds gave Reinhardt a vision and goal of becoming a jazz professional.
He later met Stéphane Grappelli, a young violinist with similar musical interests. In the absence of paid work in their radical new music, the two would jam together, along with a loose circle of other musicians. Finally, Reinhardt acquired his first Selmer guitar in the mid-1930s. He used the volume and expressiveness of the instrument as integral elements of his style. From 1934 until the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Reinhardt and Grappelli worked together as the principal soloists of their newly formed Hot Club, in Paris. It became the most accomplished and innovative European jazz group of the period. Reinhardt’s brother Joseph and Roger Chaput also played on guitar, and Louis Vola was on bass. The Quintette du Hot Club de France was one of the few well-known jazz ensembles composed only of stringed instruments.
In Paris on 14 March 1933, Reinhardt recorded two takes each of “Parce-que je vous aime” and “Si, j’aime Suzy”, vocal numbers with lots of guitar fills and guitar support. He used three guitarists along with an accordion lead, violin, and bass. In August 1934, he made other recordings with more than one guitar (Joseph Reinhardt, Roger Chaput, and Django), including the first recording by the Quintette. In both years the great majority of their recordings featured a wide variety of horns, often in multiples, piano, and other instruments, but the all-string instrumentation is the one most often adopted by emulators of the Hot Club sound.
Reinhardt also played and recorded with many American jazz musicians, such as Adelaide Hall, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, and Rex Stewart (who later stayed in Paris). He participated in a jam session and radio performance with Louis Armstrong. Later in his career, Reinhardt played with Dizzy Gillespie in France. Also in the neighborhood was the artistic salon R-26, at which Reinhardt and Grappelli performed regularly as they developed their unique musical style.
In 1938 the Quintet played to thousands at an all-star show held in London’s Kilburn State auditorium. A few weeks later the quintet played at the London Palladium. When World War II broke out, the original Quintet was on tour in the United Kingdom. Reinhardt returned to Paris at once, leaving his wife in the UK. Grappelli remained in the United Kingdom for the duration of the war. Reinhardt re-formed the Quintet, with Hubert Rostaing on clarinet replacing Grappelli.
In 1943, Reinhardt married Sophie “Naguine” Ziegler in Salbris. They had a son, Babik Reinhardt, who later became a respected guitarist in his own right. Thanks to his renowned music talent, Reinhardt survived the war unscathed, unlike many Gypsies who were interned and killed in the Porajmos, the Nazi regime’s systematic murder of several hundred thousand European Gypsies. His survival is a little surprising, however, given the Nazi regime’s general hostility to jazz. Because Reinhardt and his family were Gypsies, and he was also a jazz musician, he tried to escape from occupied France with his family. After his first attempt, he survived when a secretly jazz-loving German, Luftwaffe officer Dietrich Schulz-Köhn, let him go back to France after he was captured. But still desperate to get out of France, knowing that Gypsies were being rounded up and killed in concentration camps, he tried again to cross into Switzerland a few days later, this time in the dead of night. But he was stopped by Swiss border guards who forced him to return to Paris. Since the Nazis officially disapproved of jazz, Reinhardt tried to develop other musical directions. He tried to write a Mass for the Gypsies and a symphony (he worked with an assistant to notate what he was improvising). His modernist piece Rhythm Futur was intended to be acceptable.
After the war, Reinhardt rejoined Grappelli in the UK. In the autumn of 1946, he made his first tour in the United States, debuting at Cleveland Music Hall as a special guest soloist with Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. He played with many notable musicians and composers, such as Maury Deutsch. At the end of the tour, Reinhardt played two nights at Carnegie Hall in New York City; he received a great ovation and took six curtain calls on the first night.
Despite his pride in touring with Ellington (one of two letters to Grappelli relates his excitement), he was not fully integrated into the band. He played a few tunes at the end of the show, backed by Ellington, with no special arrangements written for him. After the tour, Reinhardt secured an engagement at Café Society Uptown, where he played four solos a day, backed by the resident band. These performances drew large audiences. Having failed to bring his usual Selmer Modèle Jazz, he played on a borrowed electric guitar, which he felt hampered the delicacy of his style. He had been promised jobs in California, but they failed to develop. Tired of waiting, Reinhardt returned to France in February 1947.
After his return, Reinhardt re-immersed himself in Gypsy life, finding it difficult to adjust to the postwar world. He sometimes showed up for scheduled concerts without a guitar or amplifier, or wandered off to the park or beach. On a few occasions he refused to get out of bed. Reinhardt developed a reputation among his band, fans, and managers as extremely unreliable. He skipped sold-out concerts to “walk to the beach” or “smell the dew.” During this period, he continued to attend the R-26 artistic salon in Montmartre, improvising with Grappelli.
In 1951, Reinhardt retired to Samois-sur-Seine, near Fontainebleau, where he lived until his death. He continued to play in Paris jazz clubs and began playing electric guitar. (He often used a Selmer fitted with an electric pickup, despite his initial hesitation about the instrument.) In his final recordings, made with his Nouvelle Quintette in the last few months of his life, he had begun moving in a new musical direction, in which he assimilated the vocabulary of bebop and fused it with his own melodic style.
While walking from the Avon railway station after playing in a Paris club, he collapsed outside his house from a brain hemorrhage. It was a Saturday and it took a full day for a doctor to arrive. Reinhardt was declared dead on arrival at the hospital in Fontainebleau, at the age of 43.
This video is a documentary (in French with English subtitles) showing Django playing and some old photos of him with his family.
Reputedly, Django’s favorite food was niglos (hedgehogs), and there are newspaper reports of him having Parisian chefs prepare them for him during the war, and having fellow diners comment that he was taking wartime rationing too far. It’s really not just urban legend that Gypsies eat hedgehogs. Even though I have Gypsy heritage through my maternal line, I am too much of a sentimentalist to eat hedgehog (or give a recipe). I can’t quite explain the aversion. I eat just about everything the walks, crawls, swims, or flies. Somehow hedgehogs are over the line for me. I’ll eat a bunny in a heartbeat – even at Easter – but hedgehogs are too cute to consider eating them.
There are few authentic and traditional Gypsy recipes available because historically they have been tight lipped about their culture. I discuss this issue a little here: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/international-day-of-the-roma/ The yog (communal fire seen in the video) is used for cooking: stewing in pots, or roasting over the open flames. Here’s a recipe for manriklo (pan fried bread). The herbs are simply recommendations. Traditional Gypsy encampments use whatever herbs are available wild. The knowledge of edible wild foods of traditional itinerant Gypsies is extensive. Lore about bread among Gypsies is also extensive.
1 cup flour
½ cup warm water
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp chopped fresh dill
½ tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
4 strips bacon, grilled and crumbled
Combine flour, salt, bacon, rosemary, and dill in a bowl.
Add warm water in small amounts until the dough is able to be worked, but is neither too wet or too dry. Add several drops of oil and knead the dough.
Divide the dough into small balls. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface or stretch it into a thin circle with your hands.
Coat the pan with oil and allow it to heat. Place the flattened dough in the pan when the oil sizzles. Flip the bread several times so that it cooks evenly. When the bread is ready, it should be raised, and slightly brown on both sides.