The manouche guitarist Django Reinhardt was as famous for his mutilation as his music. The co-founder of the Quintette du Hot Club de France, he created the gypsy jazz style with just two usable fingers of his left hand. Ever since, guitarists of all styles have been listening to his recordings and trying to work out how he played them. The answer is, like much about Django, a mystery.
A Belgian Romani who was given a banjo-guitar at the age of 12 and was making a living playing it a year later, Django sustained terrible injuries aged 18, when the gypsy caravan in which he was sleeping caught fire. He almost lost the use of his right leg as a result, and the third and fourth fingers of his left hand remained partially paralysed for the rest of his life, locked together in a claw as immediately recognizable as the ‘chicken-strutting’ guitar sound he was to create.
His brother Joseph bought Django a new guitar, and Django developed a technique to play it despite the crippling effects of the injury. Six years after being pulled from his caravan burning alive, Django joined with the French violinist Stéphane Grapelli to form the Quintette du Hot Club de France, the most famous jazz group ever to have emerged from that country.
These facts are well known – although they may come as a shock to anyone hearing Django’s music for the first time. Django played the guitar as if it were a kaleidoscope, squeezing and punching head-spinning improvisations from his Selmer Maccaferri with a unique brand of brio, wit and tenderness. The world seems a brighter place when Django hits a string – a more intelligent place, a more interesting place, a place more filled with happy possibilities.
Less well known about Django is his struggle during the Second World War to write a symphony. Django spent the war years in occupied France. While he appears to have enjoyed the protection of high-ranking German officers who secretly loved jazz, hundreds of thousands of his fellow Romanis were murdered by the Nazi regime.
In 1943, Django enlisted the help of the young clarinetist Gérard Lévecque to help him write down his classical ideas. He conceived both a Symphony and a Mass for the Gypsies. Lévecque had recently graduated from the Paris Conservatoire; Django himself, a self-taught musician with no formal education at all, was unable to read or write music. Django’s inspiration came partly from hearing the Requiem of Berlioz – a fellow-guitarist who, exceptionally for a composer of the nineteenth century, had never learned to play the piano.
Django would play his ideas on the guitar, and Gérard would write them down. But Django – an improviser nonpareil – had no experience of composition, and Gérard had little experience of arrangement himself at that stage in his career. The project was abandoned after a few months. Django returned to jazz and was reunited after the war with Stéphane Grapelli, who had spent the war years in England.
Accounts of Django’s life after the war are shot through with a sense of disconnectedness. Django toured the United States in 1946, playing with Duke Ellington, but did not become part of the post-war jazz scene in that country. He experimented with electric guitars but never made the sound his own the way he had the acoustic Selmer Maccaferris of the ’thirties. He would often turn up to concerts without his instrument, or simply not turn up at all. He died in 1953 at the age of just 43.
Django’s life is a history of overcoming – overcoming poverty, overcoming injury, overcoming prejudice. When lying in hospital with first- and second-degree burns, Django was told that his right leg would have to be amputated. His response was to leave the hospital. Informed that he would never play music again, his answer to was create a style that generations of guitarists would come to imitate. It was said of him that he would sometimes begin a solo on a wrong note, just for the pleasure of resolving the harmony and showing that he had been right all along in setting out from that point. When you listen to Django, you feel that music can overcome anything.
Yet this was clearly not the case for Django, who found it impossible to complete his orchestral lament to the sufferings of his fellow Romanis. Perhaps his failure to complete his classical project had not just to do with the technical challenges of composition. Perhaps there were things that even Django, the gypsy prince of jazz, could not bring himself to say.
In 1977, some forty years after trying to write down Django’s orchestral compositions for him, Gérard Lévecque passed on his notes to the guitarist and composer Jean-Marie Pallen, who was then 34 years old. “They’re all that’s left to me of Django,” he said. “I’ve never been parted from them. I’m giving them all to you: you’re the only person I know who might one day be able to make something of them.” It was another three decades before Jean-Marie Pallen commenced work on the project.
In 2006, after three years of work, he produced a seven-minute guitar composition with the unspoken thoughts of Django, Confidences d’une guitare.
Jonathan Steffen is a writer and musician. Jonathan was a published author while still at university. Born in London, he read English at Cambridge, where he won the King’s College James Prize and the Cambridge University T.R. Henn Prize, both for creative writing. On graduating, he received a Harper-Wood Travelling Studentship for English Poetry and Literature, awarded by St. John’s College, Cambridge.
His work encompasses poetry, short stories, novels, literary translations, songs and instrumental music.
Image of Django Reinhardt courtesy of The Wall Street Journal.
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