Django: The Life and Times of a Jazz Legend

Broadcast December 2004

Django Reinhardt was born into a Gypsy family in 1910. In the language of his family, Romany, the word django is a verb that means “to awake.” And the world that Django woke to would, in the end, be awakened by the new forms of music that would come from Django’s mastery of his instrument, the guitar, and his music, jazz. The writer Michael Dregni, who works primarily for Vintage Guitar magazine, has produced a truly informative and readable biography of this great musician. Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend, is entertaining, thoroughly researched, and filled with an expertise of both Django’s music and his instrument that leads to an examination of his work that can only be described as precise. Author Dregni has written an invaluable book.

This biography begins with a fascinating explanation of the Gypsy culture that Django was born into, a world of caravans and horses, of impromptu markets and entertainment, of stolen chickens and roasted hedgehogs. Django’s family was musical, often performing for crowds on a custom-build stage on the back of the family caravan. Django took up a traditional Gypsy instrument, the banjo, and by his early teens, he was a regular working musician, one of the best in and around Paris, where his family had settled. Django wasn’t playing jazz in those early days, but he was already one of the best at what he did – playing traditional and popular songs of all kinds in and around the dance halls of the City of Lights.

Around the age of 16, in 1926, Django began hearing—either occasionally in the Paris clubs or, eventually, on record—a new form of music from America called jazz. At first, much of what he could heard was not very good, but the freedom of improvisation appealed greatly to Django, who assimilated musical influences easily and who played largely impromptu styles of music in the first place. Sooner or later, though, Django heard a few Louis Armstrong records, and he was a convert for life.

He was about to make a big breakthrough in his career when two pivotal events occurred. First, he was caught in a fire that resulted in his left hand, the hand that frets the notes on the neck of a banjo, being badly scarred. After the fire Django had only the use of two fingers on that hand. Second, while he was recuperating in the hospital from his burns, he was brought a guitar on which to practice. Django altered his technique to suit his new left hand, and emerged from the hospital as a guitarist. It took a few more years, but by 1935, Django was a true jazz star all over Europe.

The book details Django’s musical and career path—his longtime partnership with the great jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli in the legendary Quintette du Hot Club de France, his continuing to play jazz through World War Two in Paris, his evolution with the arrival of bebop, and his tour of the United States with Duke Ellington. Most amusing—and frustrating, I suppose—are the subplots of Django and Grappelli fighting and making up over the years, and of the French jazz critics Hugh PanassiĆ© and Charles Delaunay going to war over bebop. All in all, though, a balanced and clear path of Django’s life is presented in this book, right up to his death, of what probably was a stroke, in the early 1950s at the age of 43. He may have been, arguably, the most influential European jazz artist ever.

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