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The New Yorker
Jazz -- Seeing Music

September 11, 2000
by Whitney Balliett



Link to The New Yorker Magazine

he brilliant Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt was born near Liverchies, Belgium, on January 23, 1910, and died, of a stroke, in Fontainebleau, on May 16, 1953, after a pleasant day of fishing on the Seine. Between 1934, when he and the violinist and pianist Stephane Grappelli formed the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, and the late forties, when the electric guitar and bebop began closing in on him, he made hundreds of recordings, appeared all over Britain and Europe, and became one of the most famous jazz musicians in the world. Charles Delaunay, who created the first jazz discography and shepherded Django through much of his sometimes chaotic professional life, said of Reinhardt, during a visit to America in the seventies, "There were two personalities in him. One was primitive. He never went to school and he couldn't stand a normal bed. He had to live in a Gypsy caravan near a river, where he could fish and catch trout between the stones with his bare hands, and where he could put laces between the trees and catch rabbits. But Django also had a nobility, even though he could be very mean to the musicians who worked for him."

   Male Gypsies exist in a timeless macho continuum in which obligations and appointments are largely meaningless. In 1946, Django, dreaming of sitting with Hollywood stars by their pools, finally got to America for a three-month tour. He traveled with the Duke Ellington Band in its private railroad car, and it played in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh before finishing up with two nights at Carnegie Hall. But on the evening of the second concert, Django ran into the French boxer Marcel Cerdan, who had a scheduled bout at Madison Square Garden, and, slipping into Gypsy time, went t a bar with Cerdan to drink and talk about life and France. When he suddenly remembered where he was supposed to be, he jumped into a cab and, because he spoke almost no English, ended up somewhere on the East Side. He got to Carnegie Hall at eleven o'clock and probably played the same four numbers, backed by the band, that he had played in Chicago - a blues, a variation of "Tiger Rag," one of his own dreaming pieces, and "Honeysuckle Rose." (The Chicago concert was recorded.) The applause was reportedly thunderous. Ellington, in his autobiography, "Music Is My Mistress," says of Reinhardt, "Among those I think of as citizens of Paris was Django Reinhardt, a very dear friend of mine, and one whom I regard as among the few great inimitable of our music. I had him on a cenert tour with me in 1946, so that I could enjoy him the more."

   Delaunay, who was the son of the unique and celebrated Parisian geometric colorists Sonia and Robert Delaunay, supervised most of Reinhard's recordings. This, he said, is what music meant to Reinhardt: "Life for Django was all music. He was full of constant enthusiasm when he played - shouting in the record studio when someone played something he liked, shouting when he played himself When he was accompanying in the bass register he sounded like brass and in the treble like saxophones. He had a constant vision of music - a circle of music - in his head. I think he could see his music." Reinhardt's style had such presence and power and imagination that, in the manner of masters like Charlie Parker and Sidney Catlett and the Armstrong of the early thirties, he surpassed his very instrument. He created an almost disembodied, alternately delicate and roaring whorl of music. Charlie Christian, who flourished between 1939 and 1941, when Django was near the top of his powers, became the first consummate electric guitarist and, following Lester Toung's lead on the tenor saxophone, fashioned long, hornlike lines that had their own flawless logic and beauty. (Jim Hall, the paramount guitarist, still idolizes Christian, and Hall, in turn, is idolized by such contemporary guitarist, still idolizes Christian, and Hall, in turn, is idolized by such contemporary guitarists as Pat Metheny. Reinhardt's utter originality largely confounds imitation.) But Reinhardt turned the sounds he played inside out, decorating them with his winging vibrato, his pouring runs and glisses, his weaving and ducking single-note lines, and his sudden chordal tremolos and offbeat explosions. All these sounds were controlled by an adventurous rhythmic sense. Like Billie Holiday and Red Allen and Jimmy Rowles, he could leap ahead of the beat, or fall behind it or ride it mercilessly. And this rhythmic sense was constantly colored by his dynamics, which moved back and forth between flutters and whispers, talking tones, and cascades and roars. Two peculiarities shaped Reinhardt's playing: he had enormous hands, and the two smallest fingers on his left hand - his fret-board hand- were permanently bend at the second knuckle. (The had been burned in a fire in his caravan, and he was so badly injured that his wounds never healed properly.) The huge hand made the crippled fingers work nonetheless; thus the mysterious chords and melodic lines that no one had heard before. Reinhardt might start a medium-tempo ballad with three or four bars of slightly altered melody, played in single notes behind the beat, each phrase graced by his vibrato (almost a tremble), pause for a beat, and go into a brief mock double-time, rest again, drop in an abrupt, massive chord, and release a hissing upward run. Then he'd cut his volume in half and turn into the bridge with a delicate, fernlike single-note variation of the melody, letting his notes linger and bend and float on his vibrato. Just before the end of the bridge, he would loose another offbeat chord, let it shimmer for three or four beats, work through a humplike arpeggio, lower his volume again, and return to a single note variation of the original melody and come to rest. Almost all his solos in the thirties and early forties have an exotic romanticism, a hothouse quality; the notes roll and echo with Eastern European and Spanish overtones. Armstrong and Ellington had taught him to swing and be cool, but he filtered them through his Gypsy mind.

   The original quintet of the Hot club of France grew indirectly out of various string groups led by the violinist Joe Venuti and the guitarist Eddie Lang in the late twenties and early thirties. But its instrumentation of violin, solo guitar, two rhythm guitars, and bass was unique. From the beginning, it was swinging, lithesome group ad ease with big-voiced up-tempo numbers, twirling ballads, and direct haunting blues. It certainly presaged Benny Goodman's small groups, Arti Shaw's Gramercy Fives, and even the Modern Jazz Quartet (consider John Lewis's beautiful anthem "Django"). Grappelli and Reinhardt experimented ceaselessly with the quintet on his recordings. They used one or two violins, they subtracted a rhythm guitar, and there were violin-and-guitar duets, guitar-and-bass duets, and solo-guitar numbers. Grappelli occasionally played piano (he loved Art Tatum), and later in the quintet's life, if Grappelli was unavailable, one and sometimes two clarinets wee added. The original quintet (with some personnel changes) lasted from December 2, 1934, when it gave its first public performance in Paris, until September 3, 1939, when Britain and France declared war on Germany. The group had been touring Britain with great success, and Grappelli decided to stay in England, where he lived off and on for the rest of his life. Reinhardt and the remainder of the quintet took one of the last boats back to France, and they somehow survived and even flourished, despite the Nazi interdiction on Gypsies. (Django kept on the move, working in the South of France and in North Africa, disappearing occasionally into the Gypsy netherworld, and once trying to cross the border into Switzerland.) Grappelli and Reinhardt were reunited in England in 1946 (the first number they played together was the "Marseillaise"), and they made their last recordings in Rome in 1949.

   More than half off the hundred and nineteen numbers in the new Mosaic reissue ("The Complete Django Reinhardt and Quintet of the Hot Club of France Swing/HMV Sessions 1936-1948") are by the quintet or its variations and are full of such beauties as the spaces between Django's notes on "Solitude," and his rustling tremolos behind sweet Grappelli (who finally found his strength and fervor in the sixties, when he began playing worldwide to great acclaim); his delicate, barely audible opening chorus on "When Day Is Done"; the astounding train piece "Mystery Pacific," which has roaring staccato chords, played at a blinding tempo by three low-register guitars; his four exquisite choruses on "I'll See You in My Dreams," accompanied only by a bass; and the almost atonal notes in "little White Lies," with the clarinetist Hubert Rostaing's lifting "organ" chords behind Reinhardt. American music was outlawed by the Nazis, so "Exactly Like You" became "Pour Vous," "Little White Lies" became "Petits Mensonges," and "Dark Eyes" became "Les Yeux Noirs."

   In 1935, when the quintet was barely a year old, Django, already sought after, began sitting in on occasional recordings with visiting American musicians, among them Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Bill Coleman, Dicky Wells, Rex Steward, Barney Bigard, Eddie South, and Larry Adler. These recordings are not part of the Mosaic issue, but fifty-seven of them are on a DRG album, "Django with His American Friends." He is given solo space on roughly half the numbers, starting with the loose joyous resides made by Colemand, Shad Collins, and Bill Dillard on trumpets, Wells on trombone, Dick Fullbright on bass, and Bill Beason on drimbs. Django takes a floating blues chorus on "Bugle call Rag," while the trumpets riff softly in the distance, and he delivers one of his great shouts near the end of "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea." He had a full chorus on the classic slow blues "Hangin' Around Boundon," with Wells and Coleman behind him, and he fashions one of his pre-bebop solos on "Japanese Sandman." Bill Coleman reappears with a French-American group and Django solos on the slow "Big Boy Blues," backed only by the drummer, who plays a start press roll with his sticks. Then the Hot club Quintet accompanies the celebrated American harmonica player Larry Alder, who, despite his massive ego, was not much of a jazz musician. He pushed his melodies into odd shapes, and he had a harsh sound. But Django counteracts him on "Body and Soul," on "lover Come Back to Me," on a strange, fast "Melancholy Baby," and on "I got Rhythm," often working in his ringing low and middle registers.

   In 1939, Rex Steward, Barney Begird, and the bassist Billy Taylor arrived in Paris with the Duke Ellington band and set down five numbers with Reinhardt that remain timeless small band performances. Steward, dark and brooding, lover queer squeezed notes that he produced by pressing his valves halfway down, and Bigard, cheerful and circular, was the last of the rococo New Orleans clarinetists. Django's solos are easy and gentle: he sounds as if he had frown up with Stewart and Bigard. Listen, in particular, to the slow blues "Solid Old Man." Django solos twice, Bigard accompanying him - so the story goes - with whiskbrooms on a suitcase. His opening solo has several silences and he uses only five or six notes, but his second solo is full of little announcements and complex hilly phrases. Stewart stays mainly in his low register, releasing a tremolo and couple of tight half-valvings, and Bigard soars a little and finally lands down in his chlumeau register. Each of the four other numbers the quartet made has its special beauty.

   Reinhardt and Grappelli have turned up elsewhere in the past several months. In the movie "Sweet and Lowdown," Woody Allen's American guitar-playing hero regards Django with fear and awe. And Grappelli bursts out of the recorded background music of the dance comedy "Contact" at the Vivian Beaumont, with "My Heart Stood Still" and "Sweet Lorraine." Grappelli, of course, knew Django as well as anyone on earth, and here is what he told me in 1974: "Ah! The troubles he gave me! I think now I would rather play with lesser music and have a peaceable time than with Djangoo and all his monkey business. One time, Djangoo and I were invited to the Elysee Palace by a high personality" - probably Charles de Gaulle. "We were invited for dinnair, and after dessert we were expected to perform. Djangoo did not appear. After dinnair, the high personality was very polite, but I can tell he is waiting, so I saw I think I know where Djangoo is when I don't know at all. The high personality calls a limousine and I go to Djangoo's flat, in Montmartre. His guitar is in the corner, and I ask his wife where he is. She says maybe at the academie playing billiards. He was a very good player of billiards, very adroit. He spent his infancy doing that and being in the streets. His living room was the street. Alors, I go to the acadamie and when he sees me he turns red, yellow, white. In spite of his almost double stature of me, he was a little afraid. In the world of the Gypsy, age count, although I am only two years older than him. Also I could red, I was instructed. He have two days' barbe on his face and his slippers on, so I push him into the limousine and we go back to his flat to clean him up a little and get his guitar. Djangoo was like a chameleon; a toute seconds, he could change keys. He was embarrassed about everything, but his nature self came back, and when we arrived at the Elysee and the guard at the gate saluted the limousine, he stick up his chin and say, 'Ah! They recognize me.'"

   And here is a different Django. Phoebe Jacobs, who has spent much of her life smoothing the way for the likes of Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong, met Django two years before his death, when she was traveling in the South of France with Lucille Armstrong, Loud's wife and Moustache, the huge Parisian club owner. "Django seemed nervous and overanxious next to Moustache, even though it was probably because of who Lucille was," she said recently. "He patted Lucille's arm and behaved almost like he was smitten with her. And when he played for her, the tenderness the came out in his music was like a man stroking a woman's breast."End

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