(Credit: Jeromie Blum)

The life of Django Reinhardt: The most influential guitarist of all time

It is commonly said that one has to overcome hurdles in the path of success. But the question is, how many obstacles are too many obstacles? How many are beyond one’s control? How many of those are societal constructs? How many are unjustly and unnecessarily thrown at an individual by a hypocritic and vicious society? More importantly, if one succeeds to cross those bars, is the journey worth celebrating? Isn’t glorification a whitewash? Keeping these crucial questions in mind, let’s revisit the life of the famous Jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt.

Born as Jean in Belgium, Reinhardt was of Manouche Romani descent. The Romani people were a large group of gipsies who suffered a lifetime of persecution. Originating from the North-Western states of India, mainly Rajasthan and Punjab, their ancestors were Domas or scheduled castes and tribes who migrated in search of a better life. They primarily settled in three parts; Eastern Europe, Germany and Spain. The Manouches were Romani-French who had familial ties in Germany and Italy. Alas, their journey to more “liberal” lands was nothing but a disappointment. Victims of racism, the term ‘Romanichel’ itself is considered to be a slur to date. The French government marked these people by keeping an illegal ethnic database and many a time forced or bribed them to move out of the country.

The most marginalised communities in history have gifted the world some exceptional music and musicians – and the Romani community was one of them. Growing up in unofficial urban camps, Reinhardt inherited the rich cultural legacy of his tribe. Though the first instrument he picked up was a violin, he shifted to a banjo-guitar at the age of twelve, which he learned by observing the local virtuoso players. Amidst the filth and dirt of a poverty-stricken life, music made him feel like a king. Soon he started to earn some money by busking in streets and cafes, polishing his skills.

After his first recording opportunity in 1928, Reinhardt started attracting acclaimed European musicians including the British bandleader Jack Hylton who travelled to France to hear Reinhardt play and being immensely pleased, offering him a job on the spot. The universe conspired and snatched away Reinhardt’s dream before he could even join Hylton’s band. The caravan which Reinhardt shared with his wife caught fire one night, burning half of Reinhardt’s body. The injuries which were crucial to Reinhardt’s music were the scorched ring and little fingers. For most musicians, this would have been the end of all, but it was not enough to put off Reinhardt. He mastered the skill of playing with the other two fingers, sometimes employing his thumb as well. In fact, it was after this incident that his creativity soared to unbelievable heights.

Reinhardt’s life changed after he was introduced to American jazz by the French photographer and artist Emily Savitri. Going through Savitri’s record collection in a breath, Reinhardt discovered jazz luminaries such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti. During this phase, Reinhardt met the violinist Stéphane Grappelli who played at the Ambassador Hotel’s orchestra with Venuti. Given their similar backgrounds and taste in music, the two became friends and collaborators, forming one of the most sensational French bands of all time; the Quintette du Hot Club de France. Formed in 1934 Paris, it was a unique ensemble that contained only string instruments. Continuing up to 1939, the band released some exceptional compositions that stormed through America. Reinhardt even collaborated with jazz musicians such as Armstrong, Adelaide Hall, Coleman Hawkins, Rex Stuart and so on.

Django Reinhardt and Duke Ellington
Django Reinhardt and Duke Ellington. (Credit: William P. Gottlieb)

With the commencement of the Second World War, Reinhardt cut his UK tour short and returned to France while Grappelli stayed in the UK. Though Reinhardt found a quick replacement in the clarinet player Hubert Rostaing, he’s life in France became increasingly terrifying. Being a Manouche, he was as un-German to the Nazis as Jews. In fact, all German Romanis were made to wear a brown gipsy ID triangle that was sewn to their chest, hoarded into settlement camps and were sterilised routinely from early 1933. Reinhardt tried to escape France twice during the fall of the country but was caught red-handed both times. Fortunately, he survived the holocaust in which 600,000 to 1.5million Romani were killed throughout Europe.

Businesswise, Reinhardt profited in the war market as many American musicians fled the country, leaving a void to be filled. Once the nightmare of war was over, Reinhardt reunited with Grappelli in 1946 and undertook the long overdue American tour. Though the tour began grandly, it waned through the course leaving Reinhardt high and dry. Returning to his Romani life in France a year later, Reinhardt seemed to be a little aloof and broken down as he would refuse to leave his bed and often wander off to the park or beach instead of attending his sold-out concerts. Struggling with the disillusionments, Reinhardt still managed to record around 60 new tunes during his 1949 Rome visit and joined Benny Goodman in the US in the following year.

On 16th May 1953, Reinhardt collapsed from a brain haemorrhage outside his house while returning from the Paris club Oddly and it took the doctors one full day to arrive and declare him dead. One may question if this delay had its root in the society’s negligence of people like Reinhardt. Gone too soon, Reinhardt left his physical body at the age of 43 with the knowledge that his talent was insufficient to earn him full respect, and that he needed to look a certain way and speak in a particular manner to change the way people looked at him.

Needless to say, he has inspired several guitarists including Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi both of who sustained fatal finger injuries. Talking about his skills, Hugues Panassié wrote in The Real Jazz: “First of all, his instrumental technique is vastly superior to that of all other jazz guitarists. This technique permits him to play with an inconceivable velocity and makes his instrument completely versatile… Django’s ability to bend his guitar to the most fantastic audacities, combined with his expressive inflections and vibrato, is no less wonderful; one feels an extraordinary flame burning through every note.”

While John Jorgenson stated, “Django’s guitar playing always has so much personality in it, and seems to contain such joy and feeling that it is infectious. He also pushes himself to the edge nearly all the time, and rides a wave of inspiration that sometimes gets dangerous… Probably the thing about this music that makes it always challenging and exciting to play is that Django raised the bar so high, that it is like chasing genius to get close to his level of playing.”

While it’s true that he has been recognised as one of the most influential guitarists of all time, it does not mean that he has received the respect he deserved as a human being. He might be the West’s pride at the moment, but that doesn’t wash away how he was treated. Nor does it change the fact that his community is still looked down upon and victimised on a regular basis. Lastly, while it’s important to remember one’s contribution long after they are gone, respect and acknowledgement during a lifetime are far more pertinent.

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