Although France may have only produced two jazz musicians of real genius, those two musicians alone give France pretty respectable bragging rights: Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt. Their quintet recordings for the Hot Club de France in the 1930s led the way for jazz becoming as popular in Europe as it was in the States.
Music journalist Michael Dregni’s completely engrossing book offers an impressively researched, appreciative history of how Reinhardt created his timeless sound, and gives a look into every aspect of the guitarist’s short but fully lived life.
For early jazz guitar aficionados, the Django legend owes as much to his capricious and intriguing personality as to his breathtaking solos: the mangled hand, his exotic Hollywood-handsome looks and pencil moustache, as completely ignorant of the alphabet as he was of musical notation, the Parisian backdrop. Born in a Manouche gypsy caravan in 1910 just inside the Belgian border, Reinhardt grew up to develop a unique sound as a teenager in the bal musette dives of Paris, owing to a perfect ear and a campfire gypsy guitar heritage. Then scarred by a tragic fire in 1928, Reinhardt had to relearn guitar with just two working
fingers on his left hand (plus his thumb), yet miraculously he still created some of the most arresting solos on the instrument. After Reinhardt became widely known with compositions like “Nuages” and “Djangology,” no European guitarist could escape his influence, and many Americans were affected by his playing: Charlie Byrd, Les Paul, Chet Atkins, B.B. King. One critic has even made a compelling case for Jimi Hendrix being influenced by Reinhardt’s
Reinhardt’s life was a litany of memorable “nevers”: never said no to a pretty face, never had a driver’s license though he owned (and wrecked) dozens of cars, never saved a single penny from his considerable earnings, never passed by a good fishing spot without stopping, and never missed a chance to hone his childhood skill of stealing chickens from any farm yard—the
last “never” continued long after Reinhardt became famous, and even sometimes while he was dressed in a tuxedo on his way to gigs.
Django answers the question of how Reinhardt survived Nazi occupation of France, while hundreds of thousands of gypsies were murdered in the death camps (including 18,000 French gypsies alone). The book also recounts Reinhardt’s supremely disappointing U.S. visit, when he toured with Duke Ellington’s big band and for various reasons felt he had failed to take America by storm.
Aside from relying a few awkward translations and occasional arcane expressions, Dregni has written a lasting and important history of one of jazz’s most intriguing characters. Amazingly, this is the first critical American biography written about this important jazz pioneer.