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Django Reinhardt Biography

Home > Music > R > Reinhardt, Django > Biography

Born: 1910/01/23
Birth Place: Liberchies, Belgium
Died: 1953/05/16
Years Active: 1928–1953
Genres: Romani Music, Gypsy Jazz, Continental Jazz, Jazz Manouche

Jean “Django” Reinhardt was born January 23, 1910 in Liberchies, Pont-à-Celles, Belgium, and was a jazz guitarist and composer. Reinhardt is regarded by fans and critics alike as one of the greatest guitar players of all time and an important figure in the development of jazz music. Using only the index and middle fingers on his left hand, Reinhardt invented an entirely new style of jazz guitar technique, which was often referred to as 'hot' jazz. Reinhardt's most popular compositions have become jazz standards, of which include, “Minor Swing,” “Daphne,” “Belleville,” “Djangology,” “Swing '42,” and “Nuages.”

Reinhardt was surrounded by music as a child from the Romani Gypsy encampments that he grew up in close to Paris. Playing banjo, guitar and violin from an early age, Reinhardt was a natural when it came to music. 1928 marked Reinhardt’s early recordings, which were heavily influenced by the gypsy musician and banjoist Gusti Mahla, and guitarist Jean “Poulette” Castro.

By the time Reinhardt was 13 he was making a living performing and playing live music. At age 18 in Saint-Ouen, Seine-Saint-Denis, Reinhardt was injured in a fire which ravaged the caravan he shared with Florine "Bella" Mayer, his first wife. They were very poor, and to supplement their income Bella made imitation flowers out of celluloid and paper. Consequently, their home was rich in highly flammable material. Returning from a performance late one night, Reinhardt apparently knocked over a candle on his way to bed. While his family and neighbors were quick to pull him to safety, he received first- and second-degree burns over half his body. His right leg was paralyzed and the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand were badly burned. Doctors believed that he would never play guitar again and intended to amputate one of his legs. Reinhardt refused to have the surgery and left the hospital after a short time. He was able to walk within a year with the aid of a cane.

His brother Joseph Reinhardt, an accomplished guitarist himself, bought Django a new guitar. With rehabilitation and practice he relearned his craft in a completely new way, even as his fourth and fifth fingers remained partially paralysed. He played all of his guitar solos with only two fingers, and used the two injured digits only for chord work. From 1929 to 1933, Reinhardt was exposed to American jazz music, including the influential Louis Armstrong.

Around this time, Reinhardt met the violinist Stéphane Grappelli, which lead to the formation of the Quintette du Hot Club de France with Reinhardt's brother Joseph Reinhardt and Roger Chaput on guitar and Louis Vola on bass. This line-up produced the songs, “Georgia On My Mind,” “Nagasaki,” “Parce que je vous aime” and “Si, j'aime Suzy.”

As the 1930s came to an end, Reinhardt recorded with a number of American jazz musicians, such as Adelaide Hall, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Rex Stewart, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie in France. 1937 marked a long-term collaboration with Adelaide Hall, who opened a nightclub in Paris and asked the Quintette du Hot Club de France to perform regularly as one of the house bands at the club.

After the World War II, Reinhardt reformed his musical partnership with Grappelli in the U.K. 1946 marked a tour of the U.S. with Duke Ellington that ended with two nights at Carnegie Hall. The exposure to American audiences helped Reinhardt build a strong U.S. fan base. 1947 saw Reinhardt return to France and re-immerse himself into his Gypsy lifestyle. 1949 saw Reinhardt in Rome recording his album, “Djangology” with three Italian jazz players.

As the 1950s emerged, Reinhardt continued to play in Paris jazz clubs. His final recordings showcased a new musical direction for Reinhardt, with the assimilation of bebop and fused into his own unique style. Reinhardt died at the age of 43 after playing a show at a Paris jazz club and collapsing from a brain hemorrhage.