Django Reinhardt

"Django Reinhardt’s had the ability to riff with abandon without compromising expressiveness and he could count among his admirers Duke Ellington, Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins." - Alan Goodman

© William P. Gottlieb Library of Congress

Django Reinhardt

Born into poverty, uneducated, rough, illiterate, Django Reinhardt was a budding banjo (six-string) and violin virtuoso as a child. He lived the first half of his life in a horse-drawn wooden caravan. By the time he was a teenager, living on the fringes of the city, he drifted into an area of Paris known as “the Zone” (by the Bastille).

In it, Django Reinhardt found cabarets, dancehalls, cafes, and brasseries, awash by the sounds of accordions and banjos, playing waltzes, polkas, and mazurkas. By the mid ’20s, this family environment was giving way to less desirable elements; pimps, whores, dance-hall girls, and roughians. This is the musical world into which Django Reinhardt made his entrance.   

With boundless energy, in a music environment brimming with unlimited opportunities, banjoiste Jeangot or Jiango Renard (as he was listed on his earliest records), easily found a place for his young jazz artists in the “Storyville” of Paris. Circumstances quickly took him away from it, when in 1928, at the age of eighteen, Django Reinhardt was trapped in a fire that had engulfed his wooden caravan. Flames scorched the left side of his body, and severely burned his left hand. Friends and family grieved at the loss of such a great and promising talent.

However not even this debilitating fire could diminish Django Reinhardt’s passion for music or prevent him from playing stringed and fretted instruments. Amazingly, out of sheer tenacity and practicality, within three years (now focusing on the guitar), he devised a unique system of fingering, relying heavily upon the index, middle finger, and thumb of his partially mangled left hand. It was after this period of convalescence that Django Reinhardt came under the spell of American jazz, and found in Louis Armstrong, the light which would guide his path.

By 1934, Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli were members of a select group of Parisian dance bands and had crossed paths a few times in and out of the recording studio. During a break while playing an afternoon tea-dance with Louis Vola’s eleven-piece orchestra, Django Reinhardt (as always, with guitar in hand) was joined by Stephane, and the two started playing together.

What we would come to know as the QHCF, grew out of a series of such informal encounters, eventually adding Django Reinhardt’s brother Joseph on rhythm guitar, bassist Louis Vola, and finally, Roger Chaput on second guitar. These innocent backstage jam sessions took on a life of their own, evolving into one of the most respected ensembles in jazz, internationally recognized and imitated to this day.  

1936 began with a bang for the Quintet. In January, the band performed its first foreign concert with a series of dates in Spain for the Hot Club of Barcelona. They shared the bill with one of the great men of jazz, multi-instrumentalist, arranger, and bandleader Benny Carter. Carter had accepted an offer from bandleader Willie Lewis in 1935 to join his band at the swank Chez Florence, in Paris.

With tenor saxophone boss Coleman Hawkins in Europe at the same time, these two jazz musicians toured the continent and recorded frequently (sometimes together). Because of the length of their visit (Hawkins, four years and Carter, three), they had a deep, personal influence on shaping the course of European jazz during the ’30s. Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli would record, perform, and jam with the two visiting Americans. 

In early 1936, EMI began a series of recordings to take advantage of the growing interest in jazz across Europe, England, and America. The moderate success of QHCF’s Ultraphone and Decca sides, gave the recording giant enough of a reason to warrant including the French string quintet in their lineup. Up until this time, the Quintet only existed for recordings and an occasional concert.

The EMI sides benefit from the latest recording technology, first class engineers and the largest distribution network in the world. Within one year, they’d record (and release) 30 sides that firmly established the group as France’s premier hot band and Europe’s first great jazz ensemble.

Across the channel, and on the other side of the Atlantic, reviewers (and guitarists) were at loss to explain Django Reinhardt’s playing. The articles are often filled with erroneous assumptions such as, “he played with finger picks”, or “the records have been sped up.” Wrong, but nonetheless, they provide a glimpse of the kind of commotion Django Reinhardt stirred up during his early years. 

He faced many of the same problems associated with Art Tatum. The major obstacle was that their styles were so personal, they were elevated to the celestial position of being “beyond category”.

Django Reinhardt and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France

(C) April 21, 1937

Exactly Like You is one of those recordings that’s right in the groove. Django Reinhardt gets all the solo space (one chorus), plus a taste during the last riff chorus. 

There are numerous ensembles throughout the history of jazz whose existence left an indelible mark on the genre. Some driven by great artists, others by a collective sound. Some groups aren’t really groups at all; they’re actually individuals whose artistry is of such magnitude that they’ve come to represent an entire school of jazz, and in some cases, to define jazz in its entirety.

Every decade had its unique brand of jazz, with a bounty of fabulous performers and groups. No age offered as plentiful a choice as the swing era. Ask a fan, musician, or critic, versed in swing, to single out a favorite, and that one simple choice could easily expand to a list. Add “special” or “unique”, the list diminishes greatly. Somewhere near the top one would surely find the famous ensemble led by guitarist Django Reinhardt, and violinist Stephane Grappelli in Paris during the 1930’s.   

In an era, synonymous with American big bands, jazz combos, instrumental stars, and singers, this Quintet of the Hot Club of France defined a style of music known as “Le Jazz Hot.” It played hot music during the swing era, a combination of pop and jazz standards from the 1920s and ’30s, plus a unique assortment of original songs. Its legacy is founded upon a series of 78 recordings produced in Paris during the middle and late 1930s. These sides were heard in all the major cities of Europe and America, even finding their way to Australia and Japan. They are still recognized today for their vitality, creativity, and originality. 

The QHCF was an all-string acoustic jazz band, propelled by two rhythm guitars (playing four to the bar), and a bass (playing two beat), guided by two incredibly gifted artists, one a violinist, the other a guitar virtuoso, who was a genius. The two co-leaders held a great love for jazz. More remarkable though was the profound understanding they mutually possessed of the American music. From this, they created a new style of jazz and brought to it a unique repertoire. Individually, they broadened the long held and expected form of expression of jazz on their instruments. Other than the music, they shared very little in common. 

Through numerous recordings, and live performance, the QHCF with Django Reinhardt would rise to the position of Europe’s greatest jazz orchestra, conquer England, and leave their mark on the birthplace of the music, America. 

The all-string composition of the QHCF has its roots, even if it is only a thread, in the Joe Venuti/Eddie Lang tradition (mostly via association of the instruments). Two first-generation Italian-Americans, brought up at the turn of the century with a fiddle and a guitar (and boyhood friends), they grew up with the sounds of Neapolitan music, waltzes, mazurkas, and classical music. With a natural gift to improvise (and swing), they combined this deep musical heritage with jazz and pop of the twenties and set the world on fire.  

You’re Driving Me Crazy is vintage QHFC! Listen for Django Reinhardt’s “Louis Armstrong style” bridge during his second chorus, the (buzz-saw) two bar guitar break going into Grappelli’s solo, and his shuffle-rhythm playing in the last chorus, while the two guitarists keep up their steady rhythm chunking. 

Tears is a haunting ballad from Django Reinhardt’s guitar, played finger style. The minor to major strains covers tears of sorrow and tears of joy. He was a master at devising these type of songs, and this is one of his best. No relationship to the King Oliver/Armstrong recording of 1923. -Mike Peters; liner note excerpt Django Reinhardt and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France (Mosaic Records). Mike Peters is a jazz historian, researcher and musician and is the author of The Django Reinhardt Anthology