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Django Reinhardt

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Jean Baptiste (1910-1953) French guitarist

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross: Django Reinhardt
Kevin Whitehead presents a profile of the three-fingered Roma jazz guitar great and reviews a recent collection of Django's work.

Django Reinhardt was the son of a traveling entertainer and the brother of Joseph Reinhardt. He grew up in a gypsy settlement outside Paris. Reinhardt first played violin and later took up guitar, and began working professionally in 1922 with the accordionist Guerino. In 1928, he was badly burned in a caravan fire, which resulted in the mutilation of his left hand. This deprived him of the use of two fingers and led him to devise a unique fingering method to overcome his handicap.

After a period of convalescence, he worked in cafés in Paris and in a duo with the singer Jean Sablon. In 1934, he was a founding member, with Stephane Grappelli, of the ensemble that became known as the Quintette du Hot Club de France. In the years before World War II the group gained considerable renown through its numerous recordings, and Reinhardt became an international celebrity. He appeared throughout Europe and recorded with many important American musicians who visited the Continent. During the war, while Grappelli lived in Britain, Reinhardt remained in France. He led a big band, then achieved considerable success as the leader of a new quintet in which the clarinetist Hubert Rostaing took Grappelli's place. He also became interested in composition and, with Andre Hodeir, arranged the music for the film Le Village de la Colere (1946). In 1946, he visited England and Switzerland, toured the USA as a soloist with Duke Ellington's band (playing an amplified guitar for the first time), and worked in New York.

After his return to France, he lived in Samois and toured and recorded with his quintet, which sometimes included Grappelli again. Reinhardt's grasp of harmony, remarkable technique, and trenchant rhythmic sense made him an excellent accompanist. His incisive support is heard to advantage on Stardust (1935), recorded with Coleman Hawkins. He later developed into a soloist of unique character, creating a deeply personal style out of his own cultural patrimony. By 1937, when he recorded Chicago with the Quintette, he was established as the first outstanding European jazz musician, a stylist with great melodic resourcefulness and a mastery of inflection. He was a gifted composer of short evocative pieces and had a flair for pacing a performance so the maximum variety could be wrung from it without compromising its homogeneity; an excellent example of this is St. Louis Blues (1937).

Endowed with remarkable sensitivity, he could work with visiting American performers without forsaking his own essentially romantic style. In the 1940s, he switched to the electric guitar. However, this did not coarsen his playing since he used its power with discretion. The rhythmic content of his work became more varied, as in Minor Swing (1947), and his improvised lines more flexible. The asymmetrical, occasionally violent playing heard in some later performances shows the continual widening of his expressive scope. A documentary film, Django Reinhardt (1958), was made after his death by the director Paul Paviot. It includes an introduction by Jean Cocteau and features music performed by Grappelli, Rostaing, and Joseph Reinhardt.

Django's two sons, Lousson and Babik, were both fine guitarists, and after their father's death, Babik established a reputation in his own right.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For personal, non-commercial use only. Copying or other reproduction is prohibited.
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