[Act 1 of the Django Reinhardt story appeared in Copper #86.]
The Manouche poultices and remedies had kept Django alive but his mother Negros realized he was not recovering. Negros and friends took DJ back to the Hospital Saint-Louis. Reinhardt’s burns began to heal and the doctors saved his leg.
The left hand was partially paralyzed, the skin burned off and the muscles, tendons and nerves were in such deteriorated condition it was believed he would never use the hand again. But the doctor had a private clinic where he thought he could treat Django. This was going to cost. Negros and Pan Mayer, the father of Bella, the wife who would leave Django, hocked everything they owned and on DJ’s 19th birthday he was admitted to the clinic in hopes of operating on and saving that left hand.
After the surgery Django was transferred back to the Hospital Saint-Louis to convalesce. Negros went to his bedside every day and had to be sent out after visiting hours each night. She tended to DJ and never really trusted the doctors to take care of him. As Django improved she had his brother Joseph, affectionately known as Nin-Nin, purchase a new guitar and bring it to his thoroughly despondent best friend.
Saved his life. Mom.
Django began the excruciating and mind-numbing process of getting his hand to play the guitar again. For months in his hospital bed, he willed his index and middle fingers to work. The ring and pinky fingers were basically useless. The index and middle fingers began to move slowly through scales but DJ had to develop a new fretboard style going up and down the neck compared to traditional guitarists that use the ‘box of notes’ technique where the player stays in one or two positions going through the scales. Django had come up with a method where he played with two fingers up and down the neck. This method is still recommended for guitarists, that they learn in one or two positions in the traditional manner but also work the scales on one or two strings up and down the fretboard. DJ also had to reinvent chord patterns. He used the two fingers to find alternate triads using open notes when he could and sometimes jamming the crippled pinky on the ‘E’ string and the deformed ring finger on the ‘B’ to help him with more complex chords. Really?
There was no one to show him this. He was on his own.
After 6 months of this slavery in the hospital two of his fingers came back to life and old melodies returned. In early 1930 he joined his fellow Manouche, still walking with crutches and his hand wrapped to hide the scarring, back at the caravans for a family festival. Once the traditional meal featuring the Romani delicacy hedgehog (you heard me) was finished, everyone settled around the campfire and the instruments came out. Django went inside Negro’s caravan to retrieve his guitar. He was probably watched with pity but admiration for his guts as he un-wrapped his hand to play and everyone saw the condition of that hand. Surely no one expected much.
He joined in the song, keeping up using his new chord techniques. At one point he took off into a solo that astonished everyone, with flourishes and fretting speed none of them could do with four fingers let alone two, Negros beaming with pride. Everyone present related to their deaths they had witnessed a true miracle that day. The legend of Django Reinhardt was re-born.
As I mentioned in the last column Django’s wife Bella left him within months after the fire and remarried. What I didn’t talk about was Django’s first wife Naguine. Yes, by 18 Django had been married twice. His first love Naguine he married at 15. The traditional marriage rites were different in the Manouche caravan community. When a couple went off on their own and came back after a few weeks they were considered a married couple. No muss, no fuss, just fact. This must have saved a ton on wedding parties. I tried to talk each one of my kids into this but Diana would have none of it. Anyway, later he met the beautiful Bella and he dumped Naguine and ‘married’ Bella. Naguine was hopeless and took to the road to get away from the memories and the families settled in their caravans on the outskirts of Paris.
On a spring day in 1930 Django left the Hospital Saint-Louis for the last time leaning on the arm of Negros. Waiting on the sidewalk was Naguine. She had heard of his tragedy and returned from Tuscany to search for him. She handed Django a bouquet of tulips saying “Here! These are real and won’t start a fire.” Zing. And so a new love affair bloomed, one that would last longer than the first.
Reinhardt could have gotten a job in the bals musette with any accordionist doing the traditional material, but he had become completely blown away by the jazz of the likes of Billy Arnold and Louis Armstrong. He and Nin-Nin once again took to the streets of Paris to play for sous but working on jazz tunes.
In 1931 Django and Naguine walked from Paris to Nice in search of work. A distance of 520 miles today on modern roads. They were broke and without a guitar because he’d lost it in a poker game. The only work that could be gotten were odd jobs along the way. Without that guitar Django couldn’t find any credible work in Nice so they moved on to Cannes where he somehow got an instrument and a job at the nightclub Banco. Headlining at the Banco was an American violinist with his own band. Eddie South.
South was born in Missouri in 1904 and early on studied classical violin. Eddie was a prodigy so his parents moved to Chicago to enroll him in the College of Music. But South was black, and in the 20’s there were no chairs for black musicians in formal orchestras. Like his compatriots in color he switched to jazz. However, Eddie never lost his interest in classical music. A move had to be made.
South resumed his classical studies in 1929 by moving to Paris and then Hungary. It was during these travels he came across the playing of the Manouche Romani violinists and he incorporated the sound in his jazz compositions. Django first heard this sound when alternating sets with Eddie at the Banco. Reinhardt was awestruck and would never forget the sound.
In 1937 these two recorded together and you can hear what Django would have heard in 1931. This is Django and Eddie South doing “Eddie’s Blues”.
During 1932 to 1934 Django started playing for Jean Sablon, a French Bing Crosby who had some popularity and his own orchestra. DJ also alternated with Louis Vola’s band and renewed his old professional relationship with the Italian accordionist Vetese Guerino with whom he’d played before his accident. Django was two steps above the life of a hedgehog, horribly irresponsible with money and gigs, incapable of any personal grooming and basically starving. DJ would eventually cast quite a dashing figure as his ego realized the possibilities of looking good, but in those days he barely bathed.
It was Vola and Sablon who began working with Django to not only force him to get to gigs but teach him how to clean and dress himself. Sablon at one point anointed one of his band members, Andre Ekyan, one of the best French saxmen at that time, to be Django’s minder/driver using Sablon’s car. Django was dropped off where he was staying after the gig and picked up the next day. This story told me how much these successful bandleaders and musicians appreciated and loved Reinhardt’s powerful and expanding skills as a player. There is no way any member of an orchestra was ever granted this kind of treatment. Before rock and roll (a critical distinction) anyone who showed up unwashed in threadbare Gypsy clothing or didn’t show at all and not named Jim Morrison would have gotten the hook. The recordings that survive the period, though the arrangements were forgettable, display a 23-year-old Django playing improvised solos with complex arpeggios and scale patterns with increasingly astonishing power. But he was playing waltzes at tea dances. He needed more.
In the summer of 1934 Django was playing the Hotel Claridge in Paris for Louis Vola. Vola played accordion and led an orchestra with 2 pianos, another guitarist, a horn section of four, drums, bass and two violinists. This was a dignified gig, men in tuxes waltzing with women in jewels, nothing in the way of jazz. But one of the violins was a young man 2 years older than Django. His name was Stephane Grappelli. This meeting and a chance encounter when Stephane broke a string in the middle of a performance would propel these two around the world.
A taste. Recorded in 1937, penned by Reinhardt and Grappelli, “Minor Swing”.
Next: Django, Act 3.