On January 29, 1947, Django Reinhardt landed in New York. Because of poor communications, Django was a late add to the new tour and Ellington didn’t have the arrangements for guitar and the large band, so he decided to use a smaller backup group for the guitarist. This was complicated by Django showing up with no guitar. He was convinced the American guitar manufacturers would be so thrilled with his arrival that he would be showered with instruments. It didn’t happen. Reinhardt ended up borrowing money for a guitar and purchased a new Gibson L5. The decision to go electric was strictly to compete with horns in a concert setting, but what resulted was Django with a new instrument and new arrangements he couldn’t read.
The band had to rehearse the arrangements just before the first show in Cleveland. A personal account of an audience member talked of every guitar player in the region being at this show. And of course, Django killed. Band members like Johnny Hodges and drummer Sonny Greer were blown away by Reinhardt’s natural ability to hear a song once through and own it. And he figured out that L5. Probably helped that this is arguably the best jazz guitar ever made.
Django with the Duke enthralled American audiences. In Chicago, he was late for the first show with the audience beginning to believe he was a no show (Django’s reputation preceded him). But then the Duke announced the ‘incomparable’ Django Reinhardt and they were off. Fortunately for us, there was a recording engineer in the house with a wax lathe to bring us recordings from that show, like “Honeysuckle Rose”:
And “A Blues Riff”:
Next up was Carnegie Hall for two shows on November 24 and 25. The first show was packed; the advance publicity was strong for the venerable hall. Ellington played for a while and then brought out Django with the smaller backing band. And again, the audience reaction was thunderous.
However, the second night Django was not to be found. Finally, the Duke had to apologize to the audience and announce Django Reinhardt would not appear that evening. Then at 11PM a disheveled Django roared up to the hall in a cab, and without a guitar. He had found a French friend earlier in the day and lost track of the time. They had to dig up a banged up old guitar from a back room with old strings loose on the fretboard. The possible disaster was once again saved by Reinhardt’s huge talent. The audience went to their feet several times and the applause was deafening.
But critics, being what they are, particularly NY critics, were heavily polarized. Some missed the big band. Ellington couldn’t do the big band for lack of arrangements and he felt music was changing, with everyone going to smaller combos. Others were completely won over by the concert and by Django.
After the tour Reinhardt was booked for 4 weeks at the prestigious Cafe Society in uptown Manhattan. The band was great for the first week but Django became bored with the material, as he often did. By that time, he was also lonely and completely disillusioned with the wiles of America. Eventually he refused to play more than the four guest solo pieces required by union rules, naturally upsetting management.
Despite offers from Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey for a West Coast tour that would have catapulted Django into the arms of Dorothy Lamour, he found himself done with America. He missed his family; he missed Paris and especially the community of all his Romany cousins. He went back to France, but now with some modern jazz chops under his belt.
In 1947 he was reunited with Stephane Grappelli, Nin-Nin, and Jean Ferret, and in March recorded some sides that showed the influence Django had brought from America, including a bass solo fer crying out loud. Simply titled “Blues”.
And the bebop anthem “How High the Moon”. You’ll hear modern drum accents in Django’s rhythm playing.
Later he again recorded with the Nouvelle Quintette, including a bebop tune Django wrote and named after his beloved son. This is a double header with Grappelli helping on “Babik” (listen for homage to “Salt Peanuts” in there) and then “Belleville” with Rostaing on clarinet and Django on electric, which he now owned completely.
The years 1949 to 1950 Django lost heart in music and retired to paint, a passion he had picked up recently. Thankfully he was saved in 1951 when Hubert Fol dragged him back with a new ensemble that presented exciting new possibilities. Reinhardt was once again all in and having a ball. Delauney arranged some broadcasts at the Club Saint-Germain that brought back his popularity and energized his creativity.
In 1952 they recorded again and we have his bebop masterpiece “Nuits de Saint-Germaine-des-Pres”:
By 1953 Reinhardt had moved his beloved family to a sleepy fishing village on the Seine, Samois-sur-Seine. Django was happiest here, spending mornings in the cafe with his pals drinking coffee, playing billiards or cards or fishing in the afternoons.
He still composed and recorded, and in January he and Fol recorded the beautiful “Anouman” which Django wrote for Fol’s alto aka Duke/Hodges.
In May 1953, Norman Granz was organizing a group of shows called Jazz at the Philharmonic, with an eye to tour. The headliner was Lester Young with Roy Eldridge, Oscar Peterson, Ben Webster, and Benny Carter. Granz invited Django on the tour, which was going through Europe, America, and Japan. Imagine man. Django went crazy with renewed dreams of conquering the world and during rehearsals he recorded his revitalized and quintessential “Nuages”.
But Django had been complaining of severe headaches and problems with his hands. Everyone, including Naguine, begged him to go to a doctor. But he had the Gypsy distrust for all authorities, including doctors, and was not helped by memories from his burn incident 25 years previous. He refused to go.
On the morning of May 16, 1953, during a breakfast before a planned fishing trip, he collapsed. A doctor was finally summoned but it was too late. Django Reinhardt had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and never regained consciousness.
The influence this wild man had on future guitarists is as varied as deep. Jeff Beck called him “the most astonishing guitar player ever.” Peter Frampton, Charlie Byrd, Wes Montgomery, and Joe Pass. Tony Iommi lost the tips of two fretting fingers early in an industrial accident and gave up the guitar. A friend showed him a Django recording and told him the story. Iommi fashioned homemade prosthetics and we got Black Sabbath. Julian Bream, Chet Atkins. Dicky Betts from the Allman Brothers wrote “Jessica” as a tribute. Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrix (think Band of Gypsies). Angelo Debarre, Tchavolo Schmitt, Babik Reinhardt (son), and David Reinhardt (grandson).
Today there are Django festivals all over the world and every summer guitarists gather to celebrate the wonderful Manouche Jazz we couldn’t have had without the incomparable Django Reinhardt.
I will leave you with my favorite recording from that Chicago date with the Duke. Dj by himself.
You have got to be kidding me.
For those of you brave hearts that have stuck with me, I have to credit most of my research to the definitive biography, by Michael Dregni, Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend. This is truly a wonderful bio from which I borrowed unabashedly. If you are a Djangologist this is a must read. Fully the last 15% of the book talks of the wonderful guitarists and recordings that followed Django’s demise and make for a whole new journey. Enjoy.