Volume 1: Django Reinhardt. Belgian-Born Jazz Talent.
The influence of Belgium-Born jazz musician Jean “Django” Reinhardt cannot be understated. Faced with the major challenges imposed by the injury to his left hand, along with being a Gypsy living in Nazi occupied Paris in the early 1940’s, Reinhardt went on to become arguably the progenitor of French Gypsy Jazz along with Grappelli and other members of the Quintette du Hot Club de France.
Born Jean Reinhardt to a family of Manouche Romani descent in 1910, Django spent most of his life in Paris, taking up violin and Banjo from a young age and learning to play by imitating the musicians he watched at the encampment where he lived. By the age of 15, the young Jean had began to make a living busking in local cafes with his brother Joseph.
Reinhardt’s recording career began in 1928, accompanying accordionists such as Maurice Alexander and Victor Marceau as well as singer Maurice Chaumel. Towards the end of year, he attracted the attention of British Band Leader Jack Hylton, who offered Reinhardt a place in his band.
It was towards the end of 1928, that Reinhardt’s career, and life, nearly changed forever. On the 2nd November, Django accidentally knocked over a candle in his wagon suffering severe burns to half of his body. Crucially, the ring and pinky finger on his left hand were burned, leaving them paralysed. Reinhardt was told by doctors that he would never play guitar again. Despite this prognosis, he dedicated himself to relearning and remastering his craft, eventually developing a technique which made use of his left middle and index fingers for melody while his other two fingers were applied to playing chords.
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By Michael S. Alexander: Music Columnist
Following his rehabilitation, Reinhardt discovered Jazz after being introduced to the records of American artists, Duke Ellington and Eddie Lang. It was this new shared enthusiasm that would lead him to begin work with violinist Stéphane Grappelli, playing with the Quintette du Hot Club de France from 1934 until the outbreak of world war 2 in 1939.
Paris and the surrounding areas swiftly fell under the control of the Nazi endorsed Vichy France. Django was both a Romani and a Jazz musician which placed him in increasing danger as many Romani men were forced into slave labour or worse. Despite living under these unimaginable conditions, Reinhardt seized the opportunity to innovate, experimenting with early amplifier technology and releasing the song “Nuages” which became an anthem for the hope of French liberation.
From the end of the war until his death in 1953, Reinhardt continued to tour Europe and the US, switching to electric guitar and embracing be-bop in 1951. His influence on the genre of jazz is in many ways immutable. Perhaps somewhat less expected however is Reinhardt’s influence on the young Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath. Iommi also suffered a career defining accident being told that he would never play again. He took inspiration from Reinhardt’s life and they both proved their doctors wrong.
Be it his perseverance in the face of adversity or his genre defining technique and style, Reinhardt is without a doubt a true inspiration to many and the perfect person to start this series.
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