[JPL] Fw: review of Django

Tom Reney tr at wfcr.org
Wed Dec 1 07:23:43 EST 2004

The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend.
By Michael Dregni.
Illustrated. 326 pp. Oxford University Press. $35. 

'Django': Guitar Hero

November 28, 2004

LIKE Miles Davis, Django Reinhardt is so famous his first
name is usually enough to identify him. His virtuosity was
astounding: despite a maimed fretting hand he redefined
jazz guitar, blazing longer, more complex lyrical solos
than anyone had coaxed from six strings. In the 1930's, the
jaunty jazz that Reinhardt and the violinist Stephane
Grappelli poured out with the Quintet of the Hot Club of
France warmed Parisian hearts, won over American jazz
musicians and expatriates, entranced large British
audiences, and infused Gypsy melodies and rhythms into
jazz's vocabulary. 

But Reinhardt himself has been elusive, as much myth as
fact. In ''Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend,''
the music journalist Michael Dregni clarifies a lot of
history while weaving an illuminating web of contexts
around his subject. He vividly describes Gypsy life and
mores, and anti-Gypsy bigotry; unearths new aspects of
Reinhardt's life and work; discusses Parisian musette,
American ''hot'' jazz and bebop, and classical music; and
insightfully details the music Reinhardt made and the
instruments and people he made it with. 

Jean Reinhardt (his Gypsy name, Django, means ''I awake'')
was born on Jan. 23, 1910. His jack-of-all-trades father
played music while his mother danced off the back flap of
their caravan. When Django was 5, his father abandoned the
family. Soon the boy learned to play violin by ear. But he
was fascinated by the banjo-guitar, a guitar neck with
banjo resonator body, deprecatingly called a ''jambon.''
Taken up by improvising Gypsy virtuosos, the jambon rapidly
filtered into the popular style called musette, and with it
driving rhythms infused with passionate lilt and jazzy

At 12 Reinhardt was a professional, wowing gadje
(non-Gypsies) in bals musette, the blue-collar Parisian
dance halls where accordion-banjo duos with drummers ruled
through the 1920's. At 19, he was a star. Then came the
legendary caravan fire that nearly cost Reinhardt his life.
Refusing doctors' pleas to amputate his leg, he suffered
through months of painful care: his damaged hand was burned
again with silver nitrate so it would heal into a usable
claw. His brother brought a new guitar to the hospital for
Django, and gradually he reinvented himself: ''Instead of
playing scales and arpeggios horizontally across the
fretboard as was the norm, he searched out fingerings that
ran vertically up and down the frets as they were easier to
play with just two fingers. He created new chord forms. . .
. He pushed his paralyzed fingers to grip the guitar as
well, his smallest digit on the high E string, his ring
finger on the B, and sometimes barring his index finger to
fashion chords of four to five notes. He then slid his hand
up and down the fretboard, employing these chord forms to
craft a fluent vocabulary.'' 

In 1931, Louis Armstrong's recordings overwhelmed him; his
improvising deepened under the spell of American jazz. In
1934, the French jazz impresario Charles Delaunay drafted
him into the new Quintet of the Hot Club. Co-workers like
Delaunay and Grappelli quickly learned Reinhardt would as
soon fish or light out for the Midi as perform at concerts.
They groused at how carelessly he spent and gambled away
huge sums, at how any place he inhabited morphed into an
encampment full of Gypsy ''cousins,'' stolen and begged
food and drink, music and partying and growing trash heaps.
Gypsy culture, Dregni reminds us, distrusts non-Gypsies and
ignores national borders and bank accounts; with its
caravans and portable skills (music- and lacemaking,
fortunetelling, pot and furniture refurbishing,
fish-tickling, and stealing) its life-in-the-moment style
has survived a thousand years, with the resilience so
evident in Reinhardt's life and music. 

World War II broke up the quintet; Grappelli became a
bigger star in London while Reinhardt rotated around his
Gypsy haunts. Paradoxically, Nazi-occupied Paris was a jazz
mecca: stylish Parisians and SS troops frequented clubs
side by side, and Reinhardt's haunting ''Nuages'' was an
omnipresent anthem. With the Liberation came
disillusionment and decline. A tour in the United States
with Duke Ellington did not live up to Reinhardt's
exorbitant sense of his reputation, and he had to play the
electric guitar, which he didn't much like. But bebop fired
his imagination, and Dregni argues that Reinhardt in the
late 40's mastered both the electric guitar and the new
jazz idioms. There was, however, less and less work for
musicians, and in 1950 he hung up his guitar. A few months
later, a recording of Charlie Parker's ''Ko Ko'' lured him
back into performance. On May 16, 1953, Reinhardt went to
fish in the Seine, collapsed and died of a cerebral

Dregni's biography does its complex subject justice. And
even when Dregni dallies overlong on some byways, his
immersion in the period's history enriches his storytelling
and our understanding. The panoramic results present Django
Reinhardt as he has never been seen. 

Gene Santoro's books include ''Highway 61 Revisited: The
Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, Rock and Country
Music'' and ''Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of
Charles Mingus.'' 


Tom Reney
"Jazz à la Mode"
Monday - Thursday, 8 p.m.- Midnight
Public Radio for Western New England
Hampshire House
131 County Circle
Amherst, MA 01003-9257
413-545-3220 office
413-545-2546 fax
tr at wfcr.org

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