January, 1910, on a cold evening in Liberchies, Belgium a baby boy was born to a Manouche Romani couple named Jean Baptiste and Laurence Reinhardt. They named him Jean. He would take the nickname Django.
The Romani clan originated on the Indian subcontinent and left there for Europe when there was no Europe, about 1500 years ago. They crisscrossed territories in gay gaudy caravans, a nomadic people, and were disparagingly called the Gypsies. They were alternatively welcomed and spurned since they arrived to open arms by bored peasants who loved the gay lifestyle, the music and entertainment the Gypsies brought to town, but soon discovered after the Gypsies left no one had any pants. These wanderers had a different view. The Romani considered what the townsfolk called thievery to be more of a bartering. We bring you song, we take pants.
But the music. The music sung and played around the campfires was old and emotional. The songs were passed from generation to generation, from century to century and being a musician was an occupation of honor. The melodies of the violins in the European Tzigane tradition are evocative and stirring. You don’t have to be musically trained or diverse in tastes to recognize these. They are locked into our DNA. As in Ravel’s homage to “Tzigane” played by the wonderful Itzhak Perlman.
From Spain came the Gitane Romani whose tradition favored the guitar and flamenco. This melding of both together reached the ears of Django at a very young age.
Father Jean-Eugene had a dance orchestra and played hotels in Paris and along the Cote d’Azur. Ambitious for the time, it consisted of 2 violinists, a bassist, 2 guitars and a piano, and Papa hauled that upright in his caravan all over France and played popular songs, waltzes and gypsy melodies for a variety of audiences. But no matter what or where, when the orchestra left town no one had any pants. Still they were in demand and always welcomed back.
Django was schooled by his uncle Guiligou on the violin and the child was good enough to play in the ensemble at age 7. At ten the boy became fascinated by a new instrument played by his cousin Gabriel. The banjo.
This infernal shrieking instrument was brought over and popularized by the American troops during WW1. OK, OK everybody relax. I love the banjo and play a little myself. But it’s not for everyone. Mark Twain said “A gentleman is one who knows how to play the banjo and doesn’t.” What was important about the introduction to France was not just the instrument, but the music it was played on. Jazz.
Every change in musical genres brings with it a howling of outrage by the group being displaced. In the late 1800’s, believe it or not, the Parisian musette scene was dominated by the bagpipes. Seriously. Talk about infernal shrieking. But French audiences adored the masters who wore bells on their ankles to simulate percussive accompaniment and bals musette in Paris were packed with whirling workers anxious to blow off steam. In 1880 there were 150 such halls around Paris.
Then around 1890 Italian immigrants brought the next example of Satan’s laughter, the accordion. The accordion shocked everyone with its range and power and the bagpipe musicians, seeing the future, were purple with rage at the insanity that this instrument could best them, but best them it did. By 1910 the bals were the territory of the accordion. The music remained the same with popular songs and waltzes but the power of the accordion completely displaced those wheezy old windbags.
The Scots kept the bagpipes but they still wear skirts. So.
Now WW1 brought soldiers, jazz, and the banjo. Into this stew of jazz, gitane flamenco and Manouche violin was born a prodigy. Django begged his mother for a banjo, but she scoffed at the idea of spending 5 francs for such an extravagance.
A local musician recognized talent in the boy and gave him a battered old banjo-guitar. This odd duck had a banjo resonator and a six string neck. Gabriel showed Django how to string and chord the instrument. Django was soon playing on street corners with Gabriel. The kid practiced constantly and carried the banjo everywhere. He soon became known around Paris for how amazingly good he was getting at a young age.
Django, like stories from a lot of budding musicians, spent a deal of time hiding in cafes listening to the music of musette and the jazz of the time. The jazz was mostly of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band variety. In fact that band was very popular all over Europe and represented the real change that was about to happen. We know Django heard this song because he later recorded it.
This music grabbed his soul and never let go.
He was discovered by a band member in a café where Django was hiding under a table to avoid the waiters. The boy of course had his banjo with him, and the band asked him up to play as a novelty. They were astonished at his ability and innovation which was the cornerstone of this new music. A band member went in search of Django’s mother to speak to her about hiring the lad. He was 13.
His mother would not allow Django in the band; she had already spent the last few years chasing Django all over Paris to find which street corner he was playing on. But Django convinced her of the stability of knowing each night where he was playing. Recognizing the possible commercial viability that Django was showing, she sold a string of fauz pearls and bought Django a real guitar.
His early teachers on guitar were Romani guitarist Auguste Malha and Gitane flamenco virtuoso Poulette Castro. Django would be hired to accompany these guys and they would teach him how to perform the music, which he picked up immediately. Malha was also an accomplished songwriter, a skill Django would begin to pick up. This is Malha’s “La Valse des Niglos” performed by the unwisely named Ferret Brothers.
Soon the well-known Italian accordionist Vetese Guerino hired him as an accompanist at the princely sum of ten francs a night. Django was just over 13 years old. Guerino taught Django hundreds of songs but especially Guerino’s fascination for innovation and different tunings.
Reinhardt began following the money. He was easily distracted and began changing accordionists frequently. The result was he became known all over Paris. In 1926 Jean Vaissade, a virtuoso violinist, recognized Django’s unique talents and hired him. But Django had a reputation for irresponsibility as well and could become bored by repetition. Often Vaissade would have to search the gambling halls and fishing spots around Paris on the day of a performance. Sometimes Reinhardt just didn’t feel like playing and would send his brother in his stead. You know. A Gypsy.
But Django’s power could never be denied so everyone stuck with him. Soon his power began to overshadow the violins and accordions he was accompanying and the pupil started becoming the master.
He was first recorded with Vaissade in 1928. The recording engineer recognized that the power and center of the music was this young guitar player. He arranged the band around Django with him closest to the single microphone and the others around him.
Reinhardt had written a song at this time but he didn’t record it for several years. “Valse Manouche” showed the beginnings of not only a major player but a talented songwriter at 18.
At the same time Django was becoming entranced by the Sounds of Jazz, especially the recordings of Louis Armstrong and Billy Arnold. He spent his practice time incorporating these jazz melodies and stirrings into innovative jazz guitar licks over traditional songs and adding jazz numbers to his repertoire. His reputation began crossing the ocean.
In October 1928 Django was accompanying accordionist Maurice Alexander at La Java, one of the roughest halls in one of the toughest sectors of Paris. A man dressed to the nines entered this establishment of cutthroats and thieves in a tuxedo, with a woman on each arm and bedazzled in expensive gowns and diamonds. The crowd, though resentful and even nasty, reluctantly parted as the group made its way to the stage and performers. His name was Jack Hylton.
Hylton was the British version of America’s Paul Whiteman. He and Whiteman made a living taking the hot jazz stylings of the ‘working class’ pronounced ‘black class’ and sanitizing them for wealthier clientele. Pronounced ‘white’ clientele. Both orchestras were hugely successful and Hylton’s traveling show was replete with singers, dancers and comedians. With 700 performances per year and the sale of 3,180,000 records Hylton was the King of Jazz in Europe. And he’d come looking for Django.
The ability of a guitarist to play improvised solos over a jazz number in 1928 was fairly non-existent and the reputation Django was getting was something Hylton wanted in his orchestra. After listening to Reinhardt for a bit and talking to him, he made Django the offer that could change his life. Django accepted and an appointment was made to meet in the morning to sign contracts.
As you can imagine, Reinhardt at 18 years old was in the clouds. He left La Java after he closed it and took a taxi back to the caravan where his pregnant wife Bella was sleeping. He was so distracted with his fortune he left his guitar in the back of the taxi and it disappeared forever.
There are three versions of what happened next. One has Django stumbling drunk into the caravan and knocking over a candle. Another has him waking in the night and thinking he’d heard an intruder grabbed for a candle and over-turned it. In the last his wife reached for the candle as Django entered and dropped it on the floor. The effect was the same no matter. Bella had spent the day making celluloid flowers for a funeral and the caravan was filled to the brim with the huge colorful displays. When the candle was over-turned the caravan exploded with fire like a bomb.
Reinhardt got his wife out the one door with her screaming and her hair on fire. He succumbed to the smoke and in desperation covered himself with a blanket. With his left hand. But that hand was exposed and part of his left leg. Neighbors got him out and rolled him putting the fire out but Django was badly burned all over his body. He was brought to the hospital for the poor on the other side of Paris.
The doctors told Django’s mother the left hand was irreparably burned, all fingers paralyzed and permanently damaged. His left leg would have to be amputated. The mother took him back to the caravan where they began applying the poultices and Gypsy remedies they trusted.
They saved his life. But Django was badly crippled. When he asked doctors if he could ever play guitar again they scoffed and said you may never walk again, let alone play an instrument.
Jack Hylton with his orchestra and promise of fame disappeared like the smoke ring from a cigar, followed by his wife Bella whom he never saw again. Django sank into a deep depression, a crippled gypsy confined to a wheelchair.
Next: Django, Act 2.