December 11, 2004


GYPSY: The life of Django Reinhardt. (ADAM GOPNIK, 2004-11-29, The New Yorker)

“Django” is a Romany word—the first-person singular of the verb meaning “to awake.” It was the Gypsy name that Django’s mother gave him when he was born, in January of 1910, in a caravan on the road in Belgium. Romany families in those days seem to have given their children both a public name—the new baby’s was Jean—and a private name. (This was partly a time-honored way of avoiding conscription; the government not only never knew where you were but never quite knew your name.) Django’s family, Dregni explains, were Manouche—one of the two bands of Gypsies living in France in those days. (The others called themselves Gitans.) The Manouche, it seems, were the kind of Gypsies who caused other Gypsies to raise their eyebrows, draw in their breath, and ask if perhaps these people might not be just a touch too wild and unreliable. Django, Dregni emphasizes, was not merely “of Gypsy descent”; he was, and remained, an honest-to-God caravan-and-tarot-card Romany, illiterate until well into his adulthood (and only semi-literate even then), who, when he was a celebrated musician on tour in England, still liked to stroll off into the farmland to wring the neck of a stolen chicken or two.

Django’s father abandoned the family when the boy was still young, and Django bounced between his powerful mother and a fourteen-year-old Gypsy girl named Naguine, whom he stayed with, off and on, for the rest of his life. (A brief teen-age marriage to another Gypsy girl produced a child but not a permanent attachment.) They lived on petty theft, fortune-telling, and pass-the-hat music, and what food they could find; the Reinhardt family, in Manouche fashion, had a particular fondness for niglos—feral hedgehogs roasted whole with their needles on.

Django picked up a bastardized banjo-guitar when he was twelve, and from a Gitan virtuoso learned the stiff-armed, elbow-dependent technique that produced his loud, clear, ringing style. He was a prodigy, and quickly found work playing in a now long-lost world of popular dance-hall music: the Parisian bal musette. Musette was a popular urban style as rich in its way as Chicago blues or Argentinean tango, a complete alternative musical culture, a kind of marsupial jazz, driving and complex. Dregni relates its extraordinary Belle Époque history (it is the first terrific movie he outlines, if only Jacques Demy were around to make it): musette was born amid the rivalry of Auvergnat musicians with their bagpipes, Italians with their accordions, and Gypsies with their guitars, all fighting brutally until an alliance was made between the leading bagpiper’s son and the leading accordionist’s daughter. Soon the new style was firmly in place—swooning Italian accordionists, wailing French pipers, pumping Gypsy guitars.

That was the style into which Django was inducted from his very first notes. He did not struggle to get to jazz, as one might have thought, from a folk campfire or a tea dance. Instead, musette—with its driven, up-and-down pompe rhythms (the guitarist stroking his guitar and quickly palming the vibration) and its zigeunerweise minor-key laments, its thick chords, minor sixths and sevenths and ninths—already held within itself many of the elements of jazz. Django came at jazz from a full-fledged folk-art-pop music that already raged and swirled and drove, if it did not yet swing.

Yet Django, content to make whatever music was around, might never have been the man to crossbreed musette and jazz had the famous disaster of his life not happened. In October of 1928, he was caught in a caravan fire, which scorched the right side of his body and burned his entire left, or notemaking, hand. He was more than a year recovering. The pain must have been unbearable, and he permanently lost the use of his pinkie and his ring finger, except as a stiff claw to force around the fretboard. Not only did he have to learn to use his hand again; he also had to come up with an entirely new way of fingering chords, using two or, at most, three and a half fingers where he once had had five. Though Dregni tries to explain it, it still seems a fishes-and-loaves miracle that all those minor ninths and sixths were made by two gimpy fingers sliding up and down the fretboard. The accident was the turning point in Django’s musical life; it forced his hand in every sense, and, for a prodigy who had always let his fingers do the thinking, it was clearly mind-expanding when the fingers had to think again. Only after he was nearly stopped from playing music at all, it seems, did he become an ambitious, self-consciously searching musician.

It was in July, 1931, on a pass-the-hat gig in the South of France, that he first heard real American jazz. Historians teach us to be suspicious of “Eureka” moments, but there are moments when something happens to make one say “Eureka,” and this was one of them. Émile Savitry, an amateur painter on holiday in Toulon, heard Django play in an outdoor café, and invited him up to his apartment to listen to music, some early Armstrong 78s. Django was hooked, and transformed. “My brother! My brother!” he kept swearing, and he scarcely left the apartment for days. Shortly afterward, back in Paris, he ran into a tea-dance violinist of Italian descent named Stéphane Grappelli, who had had a similar epiphany listening to the records of Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. They immediately began jamming together.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 11, 2004 7:43 PM

I've never seen a film of Reinhart playing, though they must exist. I've seen a photo of his mangled hand, though & it really is hard to believe he played like he did with a hand busted like that.

I saw Grappelli once in Edinburgh in the late 80's. It was a swell show. He clearly still loved what he did.

Posted by: Twn at December 11, 2004 8:06 PM

I first heard some of Reinhardt's Hot Club of France recordings many years ago.

To get them, you'll have to pry my cold dead fingers from the few Reinhardt LPs I have.

His collaboration with Grappelli and many others produced some of the most infectious music I have ever heard, and love. And, I'm not an admirer of jazz.

Posted by: John J. Coupal at December 11, 2004 11:51 PM

As the Bros. Judd jazz correspondent, I'd recommend the Django CD "Nuages." It features many great Hot Club cuts as well as some tunes with Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter (and as great as Django and Grapelli were, for me it just doesn't get any better than Hawkins and Carter).

Posted by: Foos at December 13, 2004 3:50 PM
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