Thanks to Woody Allen's Oscar-nominated movie Sweet and Lowdown many more people in America have heard the name Django Reinhardt. Actor Sean Penn plays a jazz guitarist in the 1930s who worships the great Django—and faints every time he's in Django's presence. Django Reinhardt is a jazz legend romanticized for his life story and idolized for his guitar playing, which is well-documented on more than 400 recordings.
Our show this week celebrates the music of Django Reinhardt with a special concert featuring our guest band, The Quintet of the Hot Club of San Francisco led by guitarist Paul Mehling with violinist Evan Price.
Born in 1910 Django Reinhardt grew up in a Romany (Gypsy) camp on the outskirts of Paris and performed in local cafes with his father when he was a boy. The story goes that Django nearly lost his life at the age of 18 in a terrible fire in the caravan where he slept. A candle knocked over in his sleep set the caravan ablaze and scarred him for life. Two fingers on his left hand were paralyzed and his left leg was badly damaged.
In spite of this tragedy, Django kept on playing guitar. When he first heard recordings of the exciting new music being made in America by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Django was inspired to experiment. He began blending jazz rhythms with traditional European gypsy music.
One night in 1931 in a smoky cafe in Montparnasse, Django Reinhardt and the trail-blazing jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli came face to face. Remembering that first meeting, Grapelli said,"I was on stage and seeing this dark face in the crowd staring at me very intently made me nervous. At first I thought he was a gangster who didn't like my music. But of course, it was Django. For myself I can say we hit it off together perfectly. He was the most marvelous improviser I ever heard."
In 1934 Django and Grappelli formed the Quintette of the Hot Club of France—a radically different kind of jazz band based on guitar and violin instead of the usual brass and percussion instruments heard in jazz bands of the day.
When Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli appeared together on stage, they were a study in opposites. Grappelli often wore an elegant white jacket that accented his slim, aristocratic figure. Django Reinhardt, on the other hand, had the physical presence of a football player. He wore workman's boots on stage with his pants legs hoisted up to show his bare legs. He had powerful wrists and hands—and after about six months any guitar he played would have holes in the fingerboard.
Together Grappelli and Reinhardt created a new sound and revolutionized the way people think about how guitar and violin can be used in Jazz.
Photo credit for home page teaser image: Django Reinhardt in 1946. Photo © William P. Gottlieb.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2001