Music to My Ears

Django, Act 4

In 1940 the Nazi war machine engulfed France and Paris in a cloud of black smoke. Misery came to freedom lovers everywhere, not just the continent. The silver lining was jazz. The Swing Era arrived in full force at the same all over Europe, including German households.

Joseph Goebbels, ever the master puppeteer, personally hated jazz and especially Swing but he understood its power. He knew better than to ban this music that had swept people everywhere, including Germans. He also knew he had to control it. The possibility of displacing the idolatry for the Fuehrer in the hearts of the people with a love for a music worshipping freedom was a dangerous subversion that had to be controlled. He created the Propagandastaffell to censure anything cultural, including literature and music.

Somehow Django Reinhardt, despite being a hated Gypsy, was vetted and approved for playing in nightclubs. This was helped by his overwhelming popularity and demand. Hitler wanted to show the world Paris remained the City of Lights and to showcase the Nazi occupation as a beacon of natural order. So Django slipped through this crack and began what was ironically one of the more lucrative periods of his career.

Reinhardt reformed his band without Grappelli, adding a drummer, Pierre Fouad, and clarinetist Hubert Rostaing to replace the violin. The Nouveau Quintette du Hot Club de France. They started a long stint at the Cinema Normandie and Django suddenly had more money than he’d had in his life. He and Naguine settled into a plush apartment on the Champs-Elysee.

The new setup suited Django very well. He was already famous in French jazz circles and all his musicians were in awe of him and followed him faithfully. As wonderful as the musical brotherhood created with Stephane, Django always chafed at not always being the center of attention and petulantly angered when at times the old quintet would be introduced as Stephane Grappelli and his Quintette. Having his own devoted group inspired him and spurred his creativity to new levels.

Rostaing would speak later about the sheer improvisation of this period, Django tapping his foot and the band having no idea what they were going to play or in what key. Reinhardt would launch into a song and by the end of four bars you had to be on the bus.

There is a wonderful story of the quintet playing at La Doyen and Django was wistfully looking over the lights of the city when he suddenly comes to a new song. He turned to the band and explained the rudiments and launched. The result, “Lentement, Mademoiselle”.  By the way, this video states Grappelli and the old quintet but that’s obviously Rostaing on clarinet.

 

Magnifique, n’est pas? Hey! That’s French!

Despite his success Reinhardt lived in continuing fear his days were numbered and one day the Nazis would wake up and put him and his family into one of the dreaded camps. It wasn’t as though he was working in a vacuum. There were German officers and soldiers at his shows in abundance. His band, like all others, still had to submit each night’s playlist to the Propagandastaffell for cultural approval, so the watchful eye never slept. To deal with the censors Charles Delauney of the Hot Club, who would always be a central figure in Django’s journey, would change the names of the songs to non-descript French titles to slide past the Propagandastaffell police.

In October 1940, Hugues Panassie brought Andres Segovia back for an engagement in Paris and decided to get the Spanish classical master to meet Django again. This time Segovia was enthralled. It’s amazing how notoriety can get a man’s attention and make him listen. At the last encounter, Reinhardt was a dirtbag itinerant musician with a banged-up guitar. This time Django was the toast of Paris and Segovia was impressed. Go figure.

October 1, 1940, The Nouveau Quintette debuted at a large concert hall and they played a new composition “Nuages”. Meaning clouds, the song carried a sense of dreaming in the clouds and of surviving hardship which everyone understood. The audience went crazy and made the band play it 3 times. The song became a hit and made Django a national hero, which just made Reinhardt more nervous. Notoriety he craved with a passion and feared continually.

Recorded in December 1940, “Nuages”.

 

Ironically, 1941 through 1944 were great touring and recording years. Django was experimenting with rhythms and accompanists as can be heard in “Nuages”.

On June 6, 1944, the Allies landed at Normandy and headed towards liberating Paris. As the Allies advanced the Nazis laid explosives all over Paris waiting for an order from Hitler to burn the city to the ground. When the Allies were about to take Paris Hitler gave the order. But the head of the Wehrmacht General Von Choltiz ignored the order and instead surrendered Paris. Good on ya Von.

But once again, everything changed.

Charles de Gaulle, who had spent the war in London, came back in triumph to a war worn city, exhausted and hungry. There was a pushback on anything that reminded of the war, including the music. De Gaulle closed dance halls and nightclubs, Swing became regarded as reminders of the bad days, and “Nuages”, along with Django, lost popularity.

Paradoxically this post war period found Reinhardt and the Quintette free but broke.

They were saved by the US Army Air Corps.

The German officers and soldiers were replaced by American officers and soldiers, all clamoring for jazz and, specifically, Swing. Glenn Miller had convinced the Special Service office during the war that playing for the troops was important to morale and now a lot of these musicians were stationed in and around Paris. The Special Service wing, influenced by Miller, hired Reinhardt and his band to play for the troops all over Europe. Hired for a special jazz concert at L’Olympia, Django and company were waiting their turn backstage. A GI in uniform walked by Django, did a double-take, and rushed up to him grasping his hand. The GI gushes “I saw you in 1939 in Paris!” Fred Astaire, who was also on the bill.

Swing Records was still in business and Reinhardt was able to record with some of the best swing musicians around, as these bands were over playing for the troops. From 1944 we have “Artillerie lourde”.  Because of Special Service rules, the musicians were not allowed payment for recording or playing nightclubs, so they changed their names for the recording. But there is no doubt which band these guys came from.

 

The Miller musicians played with Reinhardt at Bal Tabarin in early 1945. Mel Powell sat in and gave up, finally closing the lid on his piano to listen to Django.

On January 25, 1945, recording with a small group of Miller guys and Mel Powell, Django recorded “Stompin at the Savoy”.

 

In October 1945, Stephane Grappelli telephoned Delauney looking for Django. Reinhardt was in the office and Delauney handed over the phone. What ensued was laughter filled conversation and plans to reunite the old Quintette. Reinhardt traveled to London to rehearse for 6 shows at the BBC. Django got sick and had to return to Paris, but not before the two recorded together. From the EMI Studios on Abbey Road on January 25, 1946, “La Marseilles”.

 

This recording caused quite a stir, especially back in France, and was denounced as being anti-patriotic. Nothing could be further from the truth, to which Jimi Hendrix could attest.

In September 1946, the Nouveaux Quintette was on tour in Switzerland. An agent from William Morris tracked Django down with an invitation from Duke Ellington to join him for a tour in America. This was a dream come true for Django. America was home turf for jazz, and Reinhardt was sure he would take the country by storm and end up in Hollywood making movies with Dorothy Lamour.

[We’ll conclude Woody’s epic saga of Django with Act 5 in Copper # 91—Ed.]