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The Life and Legacy of Django Reinhardt

April 24, 2009

You know who kind of kicked a lot of ass? Django Reinhardt. Let me explain.

Django Reinhardt was a Gypsy born Jean-Baptiste Reinhardt on the 23rd of January in 1910 in Belgium (Vernon, 1). Though he was born in Germany, he spent much of his life in France, where he married at about the age of 17, and within the next couple of years formed played banjo on numerous recordings, usually accompanied by accordion player Jean Visage. He also played the violin and guitar (Britannica). In Paris in 1928, it is alleged that an English bandleader named Jack Hylton saw him play in a club called “La Java” and, impressed with Reinhardt’s virtuosity, offered the young Gypsy a contract to play in his orchestra (Vernon, 5).

Soon afterward, an accident that would redefine Reinhardt’s style and change his life forever occurred. Coming home to the caravan that Django and his wife shared, he accidentally set fire to a bunch of cellophane flowers that his wife had made. She made her living by selling these paper flowers, but the material was highly flammable, and their home was full of them. The caravan was ablaze in a matter of seconds. Though the couple escaped, Django was not left completely unharmed. Most noticeably, his invaluable left hand, which he used to finger the strings on the various instruments he played so masterfully, was badly burned. Realizing that he could still potentially retain movement in some of his fingers, he refused to have them amputated, despite the suggestion of doctors. He had almost completely lost movement in his pinkie and ring fingers. They were now nearly useless. Still, he would not give up music. Rather than playing as he had before, he had to reteach himself how to play instruments with his remaining mobile fingers. The result was a completely new method of playing that required only these the middle and index fingers. His new style was ready for audiences within a few months, and they were astounded with it. While eventually he would manage to use the damaged fingers to hold down strings, he was never again able to use them in solos (Coats).

Just as he coped with the loss of the use of his fingers, Django Reinhardt managed to find success despite the hardships inherent in being both a Gypsy and a jazz musician during his time. During the Holocaust, the Gypsies, like the Jews, were chosen to be completely wiped out based upon nothing more than the fact that they were racially different and were supposedly “inferior” to the Germans. While the Nazis would look back into a person’s familial history four generations for Jewish blood to determine whether or not someone should be sent to the concentration camps, they were even harsher on those who may have had Gypsy blood, going back eight generations for any trace of Gypsy heritage. Hitler saw the Gypsies as a “degenerate” race that needed to be eliminated. Alongside the Jewish people who were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, the Gypsies were also taken to camps, where they were kept in separate facilities from the Jews and political dissidents. About half of a million Gypsies were killed during the Holocaust. Nearly the entire Eastern European population was killed (Schwartz).

Not only was Reinhardt prejudiced against due to his race, but the Nazis also discriminated against his music. After the Second World War’s Battle of France of 1840 in which France had lost, the country became occupied by Germany. Jazz music was quite popular in France at the time and was becoming part of the country’s culture, but under Nazi control it became illegal. Jazz musicians were forced to flee. Hitler saw jazz as “degenerate music” because it had originated with African-Americans, whom Hitler saw as members of an inferior race. For Hitler, music that was not of the “master race” was impure. He also saw it as a way of taking over each and every aspect of French culture during his invasion, because jazz had become such a big part of the cultural identity of France. By stomping out jazz, Hitler also managed to exert his power (Whisenant).

Given the circumstances of his birth and the music that he played, Django Reinhardt was only kept safe because of the amazing respect he garnered for his great musical prowess. One story, in particular, is of a Luftwaffe Overleutnant named Dietrich Schulz-Koehn. Though he was a Nazi officer, he was a lover of jazz, even earning him the nickname of Doktor Jazz. Schulz-Koehn was such a fan of Reinhardt that he allegedly protected the Gypsy musician on multiple occasions. Though they had numerous grounds to detain Reinhardt, the Nazis never managed to capture him because Schulz-Koehn would protect him. One photograph even shows the Nazi soldier outside a jazz club in Paris called La Cigale alongside the Gypsy Django Reinhardt, four other musicians of African descent, and a Jewish man standing next to another Nazi officer, smiling. All of these men would have been captured and sent to concentration camps under other circumstances, whether it was because of their race or because of the music that they played despite the fact that it was illegal. Because of Schulz-Koehn, however, they remained out of harm’s way (Morton). Some Gypsies, hearing about the special treatment that Django Reinhardt was receiving, would claim to be him when they were placed in concentration camps, hoping that it would get them released. The Nazi soldiers would sometimes give these claimants a guitar and tell them to play, but no one could play like Django and lying did not help them. Arguably, had it not been for his virtuosity with the guitar, he would not have attracted the attention and protection of Schulz-Koehn, and probably would have been killed during the Holocaust.

On the contrary, his musical career continued to flourish despite everything that was happening in France. Years before the invasion of France in 1940, his first public appearance was on February 4th, 1934 at the Salle Lafayette, where his style garnered much appreciation. Jacques Bureau, a journalist for Jazz-Tango-Dancing who was at the event, described Reinhardt as “the revelation of the evening. He is a very strange musician, whose style is like no other that I know. This hasn’t prevented the public from understanding him very well and applauding his solos,” (Vernon,18-19). A year later, at a show in February of 1935, Reinhardt was lauded again in the publication as a “truly exceptional guitarist, as much for his technique as for his style.” The writer notes that, while usually the guitar is reserved for rhythm in a jazz ensemble, Reinhardt managed to turn it into an intense and melodic instrument incredibly suited for his improvised solos (Vernon, 32). Guitar solos usually consisted of chords, and Reinhardt had managed to invent a whole new style for the instrument. His success in Paris continued right into the invasion of France in May of 1940.

By chance, Django Reinhardt left Paris for the south of France just two days before the “Battle of France” began. Before he returned in mid-August, the city had fallen to the German army (Vernon, 168-169). Even though Paris had been taken over, Reinhardt managed to perform at various Paris clubs despite the ban on jazz music. His status as a jazz musician was also widely known. In 1942, for example, Down Beat magazine in Chicago erroneously published  a story that Django Reinhardt had died. The story was reprinted in England, and soon both countries’ offices were swarmed with letters saying that it could not be true because people had heard him broadcasting recently (Vernon, 185-186). The rumors of the death caused an uproar with fans who refused to believe that Reinhardt was dead. Soon, these rumors were cleared. In November of 1946, Django Reinhardt began to do numerous shows in both the United States and Canada, appearing with such American jazz legends as Duke Ellington. His popularity was becoming more and more apparent in November of that year with an article published about him in Time magazine as well as an article of Down Beat magazine, whose cover he also graced (Vernon, 203-204). In February of 1947 he returned to Paris. He continued to play in Paris and to tour in such countries as Belgium and Switzerland until he passed away on May 16, 1953 at the age of 43.

Though his music was popular more than sixty years ago, Django Reinhardt’s legacy as a musician lives on. Reinhardt’s unique and innovative style, stemming not only from skill but also coming out of a fire that was completely an accident, proved to not only revolutionize jazz guitar but also to inspire those who heard his music and of the consequences of his playing. His musical stylings have “inspire[d] musicians as varied as Yehudi Menuhin, Julian Bream, Les Paul, Barney Kessel, Chet Atkins, Joe Pass, and Carlos Santana” (Ferran). His style has reached classical, jazz, country, and rock guitarists all the same. Reinhardt is even mentioned in the 1993 film “Swing Kids,” which takes place during Hitler’s power in Germany in a time in which swing and jazz music are banned, but the rebellious youth listen to it anyway. When Arvid, a virtuosic young swing guitarist, loses the function of two of his fingers after being beaten up by two members of the Hitler Youth, he finds himself in a very similar position to Reinhardt after the fire. Using Django Reinhardt as a source of inspiration, Arvid manages to teach himself how to play with his remaining good fingers (Swing Kids). Though Django Reinhardt might not be a household name, his style and influence still permeate popular culture. Whether people know it or not, they have likely heard music that was at one point inspired by Django Reinhardt’s brilliant improvisational jazz solos of the 1930’s and 40’s. In this way, Reinhardt’s influence will continue to be a part of music as long as guitarists look to the past at other styles for inspiration.

Works Cited

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