Django ReinhardtJean “Django” Reinhardt was a guitarist, composer and band leader. He was born in Liberchies, Belgium on 23 January 1910 and died on 16 May 1953 in Samois-sur-Seine, near Paris. He was a member of the Sinti ethnic group (or Manouche, as it is known in the French cultural region) and is one of the founders and key exponents of European jazz.
Following the birth of baby Jean in 1910, the Reinhardt family spent several more years as travellers in caravans until they settled in a caravan park near Paris in 1918. Jean learned to play violin and banjo at an early age and then later guitar. He began his career as a musician when he was just 12 years old. He learned quickly, imitating the fingerings of other musicians, and it was not long before he was playing regularly in a dance hall in Rue Monge. His first recordings were made in 1928, accompanying accordionists Jean Vaissade, Victor Marceau and Maurice Alexander.
At the age of 18, Django married Florine "Bella" Mayer and the young couple moved into the first caravan of their own. On 2 November 1928, a fire broke out in the caravan and Django suffered severe burns. The injuries were so severe that at first doctors wanted to amputate one of his legs. Fortunately, Reinhardt recuperated from his injuries, although he did end up having to spend 18 months in hospital. His brother gave him a new guitar and from that time on he played continually. Reinhardt developed a new virtuoso technique in which his ring finger and little finger were hardly used since the tendons in those two fingers had shrunk due to the fire.
After being released from hospital, Django Reinhardt again played to audiences, first as a street musician and then gradually in cafés and hotels. He came into contact with the music of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Joe Venuti and jazz began to become a part of his repertoire that had previously consisted chiefly of musette and Sinti songs. His own style eventually evolved out of those three components and was later called gypsy swing or gypsy jazz.
In Paris in 1934, Django Reinhardt founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France, the first jazz ensemble made up solely of stringed instruments. The quintet consisted of the great jazz violinist Stephan Grappelli, Django on solo guitar and his brother Joseph on rhythm guitar, accompanied by a second rhythm guitar and bass. The ensemble was highly successful and Django gradually became a star of the European jazz scene. He never played the same solo twice. And as he could not read notes, he had his pieces written down by others. These included standards such as "Nuages", "Daphné", "Manoir de mes rêves" and the signature "Minor Swing".
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, the quintet was performing in Great Britain. Reinhardt’s companion Grappelli remained in London until the end of the war, while Reinhardt himself returned to Paris. In 1943, he tried to get into Switzerland, but was turned back at the border. His fame and popularity with the French people, as well as with some of the officers of the occupying force, kept him from being deported as a gypsy to a concentration camp as happened to many of his relatives. Until the war was over, he remained in Paris undisturbed, although he maintained a very low profile and avoided being in public.
After the end of World War II, Django travelled in the USA. There he went on tour with Duke Ellington and made studio recordings with the Glenn Miller Allstars and others. He spent some time in New York, playing regularly in the Aquarium jazz club and meeting the greats such as Al Sears, Shelton Hemphill, Junior Raglin, Lawrence Brown, Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges. Returning from New York, Django brought bebop to Europe. He tried playing electric guitar but was not entirely happy with the results and soon went back to his acoustic guitar.
In 1951, following two sojourns in Rome and various engagements in Paris and Brussels, Django Reinhardt moved to the town of Samois-sur-Seine near Paris. On 16 May 1953, he suffered a stroke and died there, where he was also buried. A commemoration celebration takes place every year in the town. There is also an annual Django Reinhardt jazz festival in his birthplace in Belgium, in Liberchies. Likewise in Germany and in the USA, Django Reinhardt memorial festivals are held each year.
After Django Reinhardt’s demise, his son Babik Reinhardt, from his second marriage to Sophie "Naguine" Ziegler, followed in his footsteps and was able to establish himself as a successful jazz guitarist. Django’s great-nephew, Schnuckenack Reinhardt, carried on the Reinhardt family’s tradition as an extremely successful violinist and composer. Lulo Reinhardt, Markus Reinhardt and Dotschy Reinhardt are other members of the widely extended Reinhardt family who are active and successful as musicians.
Django Reinhardt leaves behind a huge musical legacy which is well documented and available in various media. His music and particularly his extraordinary and unusual technique of playing continue to inspire musicians from around the globe.



Text: Robert Lippuner / Gypsy Music Network

Translation: Jamie Davies


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