Think of 20th century guitar greats—Charlie Christian, B. B. King, Chet Atkins and Les Paul—they all have one thing in common. Each one of these legends acknowledges the influence of a gypsy guitarist born over a hundred years ago.
Django Reinhardt took Paris by storm in the 1930s and his intoxicating music continues to delight the world. Demonstrating how up-to-the-minute Django's music remains today, Apple founder Steve Jobs used one of Django's Gypsy Swing tunes to demo his company's hot, new device, the iPad.
This week Paul Mehling and the Hot Club of San Francisco join The Jim Cullum Jazz Band to celebrate the great Gypsy Jazz guitarist.
They say music and applause floated up on the damp night air from the village inn to the gypsy caravan where Django Reinhardt was born in the dead of winter 1910. Django’s mother gave birth alone in the family caravan, camped in rural Belgium while his father put on a show in a nearby village with his traveling troupe.
Shaped by Romany culture Django was schooled in the fine arts of ‘trout tickling,’ ‘chicken thieving’—and music. At 13 he began playing his banjo in ‘musette’ ensembles in Paris. Then Django’s life changed. He heard the violin-guitar duo of Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang on tour in Paris and fell in love with American jazz.
Django Reinhardt would develop his own powerful voice in jazz, all the more impressive because of the handicap he suffered when a caravan fire crippled his left hand—leaving him with only two fingers to note his guitar. He had a stunning technique and a ringing acoustic tone.
Jazz writer Gary Giddins credited Django as one of the rare "prime movers...who decisively changed the way jazz is played." Jean Cocteau described his playing as a "guitar with a human voice. And in a 1954 interview Django's violinist partner Stéphane Grappelli said, "He did more for the guitar than any other man in jazz...and jazz is different because of him."
The phenomenon of the Quintette of the Hot Club of France began with an impromptu jam session behind the bandstand at the posh Claridge Hotel in Paris. Both Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt happened to be booked in the same dance orchestra. Jazz was strictly ‘underground’ music at that time in Paris. Few self-respecting musicians let it be known they liked to play jazz.
One night Grappelli overheard Django playing ‘hot licks’ backstage while tuning up his guitar. The violinist jumped in, and soon a rhythm guitarist and bassist got into the act too. It was a novel sound—string-based ‘hot jazz’ instead of horns. Word began to spread. A group of jazz enthusiasts known as the ‘Hot Club of France’ took up their cause and started to promote Reinhardt's and Grappelli’s music. The Quintette of the Hot Club of France was enormously successful throughout France and Great Britain in the 30s. After the war Django toured America with Duke Ellington and became interested in "bebop," or modern jazz.
Django expressed his improvisational genius and advanced harmonic innovation on (by some estimates) nearly 1,000 recordings—nearly all of which are readily available today on CD reissues.
Today this sound, referred to as "Jazz Manouche" or Gypsy Jazz, is emulated by "Hot Club" groups playing around the world—in New York, San Francisco, Britain, Norway and elsewhere. Our special guest Paul Mehling hails from the SF Bay Area and has been called "the Godfather of American Gypsy Jazz."
Photo credit for Home Page: Django Reinhardt, 1940 Photo by William Gottlieb.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2012