Django’s Legacy

July 25, 2012

During his short life, Django Reinhardt influenced many jazz guitarists. It could hardly have been otherwise. He was an innovative genius; in a word, he was original.

This man, who appeared to have come out of nowhere, seemed not to have built his playing style on that of any other jazz guitarist, continues to influence jazz guitarists, many of whom were born after he died.

Django had the most unlikely beginnings, born into a gypsy life, with all the prejudice and discrimination that meant. He was born Jean Baptiste Reinhardt an 23 January 1910, in Liberchies, which is near Luttre, Belgium. Living a nomadic life with his gypsy family, he first played violin but later took up the guitar and worked in a touring show before he was in his teens. Everything could have come to an abrupt stop when in 1928 he suffered serious injuries in a caravan fire. The worst of the damage was to his left hand, and ever after he could not use two of his fingers. Remarkably, Django devised a unique method of fingering the guitar and began a solo career in clubs, mainly in Paris, where he soon made startlingly clear that he was different. It was in Paris, in 1934, that he and violinist Stéphane Grappelli formed the Quintette Du Hot Club De France.

With this group and through sitting in with visiting American jazzmen, Django made many records and swiftly earned an international reputation.  Django-on-radio cdIn today’s pop music world, international sensations happen often, real and manufactured; at the time, the late 1930s, it was unusual and in his case even more remarkable because non-Americans simply did not make an impact on jazz. He did, and it was an impact that has continued to have its effect through the decades.

 

Directly affected by Reinhardt was his co-leader of the QHCDF, Stéphane Grappelli. Apart from his work in that group, he can be heard on many albums because he lived a long life and enjoyed a full career, being eagerly embraced by a new young audience from the 1970s onwards. An interesting CD of Grappelli’s music is Improvisations (Essential Jazz Classics), which draws mainly from recordings made when the violinist was between his first key period, when he was alongside Django, and the second, which came after he had become a notable figure on the world stage. This in-between spell, the mid-1950s, can be heard here on sets that are particularly rewarding, in part because Grappelli is no longer playing second fiddle to Reinhardt but is an increasingly confident leader.  Stephane-Grappelli-sketchPerhaps deliberately, he largely avoids comparisons by working without a guitar on many tracks. He does, though, return occasionally to his roots and in whatever group setting displays invention and swing, is always thoroughly melodic, and consistently demonstrates how jazz can be simultaneously light-hearted and emotionally fulfilling.

A near-contemporary of Django’s was Oscar Alemán, a self-taught Argentine guitarist who visited France in the 1930s where he encountered Django and completely embraced the new style of jazz guitar playing. The extent of his conversion can be heard on Swing Guitar Masterpieces (Acoustic Disc), recorded in Copenhagen, Paris, and Buenos Aires between 1938 and 1954. Later in his career, Alemán began to play with more reference to his South American heritage, but the impact Django had made never left him as can be heard on Buenos Aires 1965 1975 (Frémeaux).

 Oscar-Aleman cd

The lasting impact of the QHCDF can be seen from the number of bands that have followed their example through the years. For example, there is the New Quintette Du Hot Club De France, a group led by Django’s son, Babik Reinhardt (1944-2001), and who can be heard on a self-titled 1998 recording reissued on Frémeaux. This CD demonstrates the respect Babik and his companions had for the original creators of this style although, fortunately, Babik was clearly aware that his father was inimitable and he and his colleagues seek not to copy but to breathe the master’s spirit. Similarly breathing the spirit is the Hot Club de Norvege, a band formed in 1979 and still playing today. Guitarists Jon Larsen and Per Frydenlund, bassist Svein Aarbostad and violinist Ivar Brodahl (later succeeded by Finn Hauge) appear on a number of well-received albums, among them Swing de Paris (Hot Club) and Django Music (Hot Club).

Then there is Austrian gypsy guitarist Harri Stojka, who can be set amidst the front runners in the specialist field of those who perpetuate the airily swinging music of Django. Harri’s playing is deft and fleet; his single note lines are dramatic and swing fluently. Harri can be heard on A Tribute To Gypsy Swing (ZoHo) on which his violinist is Eva Berky. Together, they play many items that nestled in the repertoire of the QHCDF, notably Reinhardt’s own compositions, Nuages and Nuits De Saint-Germaine-Des-Pres. This is exceptionally attractive music, played to perfection by a fine guitarist.

The USA is not left out of the admiring circle of enthusiasts of the music of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. On a 2004 CD by jazz singer Connie Evingson, Gypsy In My Soul (Minnehaha),  Connie-Evingson cdshe presents music inspired by Django and teams up with three different QHCDF-style bands: the Clearwater Hot Club, the Parisota Hot Club and Pearl Django. The music is vibrant and colorful and singer and instrumentalists revel in the free, open swing that admirably reflects the gypsy legend. Mostly the songs are standards, along with a couple of Django’s own compositions, Nuages and Anouman, the latter having a new lyric by Evingson herself.

In the UK, guitarist Martin Taylor, who worked with Stéphane Grappelli in the 1970s, formed Spirit of Django in 1994 and became very popular with a Jazz Album Chart No 1 as well as poll success in the USA. Recently, marking the centenary of Django’s birth, Martin reformed the group with Alan Barnes and released Last Train to Hauteville (The Guitar Label).  Martin-Taylor cdThe group also appeared in concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, proof, if needed, that the music and the spirit of Django Reinhardt remain as powerful as ever, despite all the musical and cultural changes that have taken place in the past half century.

 

 

Listening to Django Reinhardt’s music today, all these years after his death in Fontainebleau, France, on 16 May 1953, it is still vividly apparent why he was such an important influence on the development of jazz guitar music. His distinctive, flowing lines are filled with inventive ideas and although often overflowing with deeply romantic melodies are always intensely rhythmic. His compositions are many and include Manoir De Mes Rêves, Djangology, Anouman, Nuits De Saint-Germaine-Des-Pres and Nuages, the latter a gorgeously dreamy ballad.

Django himself can be heard on many reissues, among them Django D’Or (Gazell), Anthologie (Cristal) and The Best of the Radio Sessions (Fuel), while an unusual CD, and one perhaps best-suited to serious followers, especially those who play the guitar, is Complete Solo Guitar And Duet Recordings (Essential Jazz Classics). For the general listener, though, eager to hear a lot from this master jazz guitarist at work, extensive and attractive multiple-CD boxed sets abound, including Postwar Recordings 1944-1954 (JSP), Djangology (Red/Membran) and Swing de Paris (Properbox).

Swing-de-Paris box set

 

 

 

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