Django Renamed: A celebration of a gypsy jazz master

Before Quentin Tarantino got his grubby mitts on it, the name “Django” actually belonged to Jean Reinhardt; a Belgian-born guitarist of Manouche-Romany descent (“Man-ouche” being a pejorative French term for gypsies). When Django was born, it was a Romany tradition to give children Gypsy names – their Christian names only being used in legal documents and other dealings with gadj (or non-gypsies).

“Django” translates, quite succinctly, to “I awake.” Not only is Django considered one of the greatest guitarists to ever play, he is one of very few European artists to have a major influence on an otherwise strictly-American art form: jazz.

Django was born into a gypsy family, complete with caravans and campfires, superstition and of course, music. Before settling in on the guitar, Django learned to play the violin and became proficient enough on the banjo-guitar to procure a steady number of gigs in Parisian dance halls, and a reputation as something of an “up-and-comer.”

Eighteen-year-old Django’s promising career as a Parisian musician was put on hold, however, when upon returning late one night after a gig, he accidentally dropped a candle in his caravan; a caravan his young wife filled with celluloid flowers she could sell at festivals and funerals. She got to safety, but before Django could, more than half of his body was badly burned.

Doctors initially wanted to remove his leg and told him that he would never walk again. Things looked bleak for Django’s playing, too.

The ring and pinky fingers of his fretting hand were rendered mostly paralyzed. Django would spend the rest of his life haunted by recurring pain and never regain full use of his damaged fingers.

He spent more than a year recovering in the hospital, and during that time, he taught himself how to play the guitar using only two fingers for single-note lines.

When Django returned to his gypsy encampment on the outskirts of Paris, he was able to walk with the use of a cane and play guitar without any audible handicap. He would eventually learn to play better with two fingers than most people could (or can) with four.

When he heard American jazz for the first time, Django was smitten. He took the valses and Romani folk songs from Parisian dance halls and gypsy encampments and infused them with the sounds he heard on Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington records. The result is known today as “gypsy jazz.”

Django’s was an all-string, sound; he wouldn’t play with a drummer (or brass, or woodwind-player for that matter) until later in his career.

To simulate the feel of American Jazz’s strong accentuation of the second and fourth beats in a measure of common time, gypsy jazz utilizes what is known as “la pompe,” which translates to “the pump” or “the push.”

The rhythm player(s) of a gypsy jazz group (usually guitarists both then and now) plays the chords in short, staccato bursts on beats one and three, while deadening the strings and giving them a percussive thwack on beats two and four. The resulting sound lends gypsy jazz some of its characteristic sound and a lot of its charm.

Django recorded fairly steadily from the late 1930s until his death in 1953. Sixteen years may not seem that long of a time musically (we haven’t really put that much distance between ourselves and Hansen or the Backstreet Boys, for example), but for jazz, and the guitar, everything was changing. When Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker put their compositions to record, and the radical new “Bebop” spread through Paris, Django’s playing would never be the same. Some of his last recordings show him experimenting not only with the subversive phrasing of his American heroes, but early prototypes of the electric pickup attached to his Selmer guitar.

After Django’s death, gypsy jazz remained quiet for about a decade. Rock ‘n’ roll was new and jazz was already on its way out of the realm of popular music.

Django’s son, Babik, did some recording, but mostly stayed out of the public eye.

Joseph Reinhardt, who held his post as Django’s closest friend and most trusted accompanist from the time they were both teenagers, vowed to never play again after his cousin’s death but was eventually cajoled into recording and performing.

Today, the “Manouche” scene is stronger than ever. Bireli Lagrene is often credited with bridging the gap between Django and contemporary audiences.

Stochelo Rosenberg and his trio are probably the closest thing to hearing a modern recording of Django himself. Angelo DeBarre, like Rosenberg, brings a traditionalist approach to the music, and never fails to impress with his mind-boggling virtuosity.

Even young guys like Frenchman Adrien Moignard or Argentine Gonzalo Bergara pay homage to the genre’s roots while simultaneously modernizing it.

Go check out the real Django, and look for “Django’s Tiger,” “Minor Swing,” or “Blues en Mineur,” recorded by him or any of these other artists. You won’t be disappointed.