Belated Birthday: Django Reinhardt, Heavyweight Jazz and Gypsy Swing Aficionado, Turns 104

By Ian Holubiak on Jan 24, 2014 04:04 PM EST

The guitar is a tricky instrument. Most play it but few master it. And those who reach master status are often known on an international scale.

From Jimi Hendrix to recent birthday boy Joe Pass, the guitar speaks myriad languages, settling in various nooks and crannies of the mind.

For me, I've always likened music to color--certain pieces, scales or compositions evoke different hues, in which harbor different moods and feelings. Call it a kind of emo synaesthesia.

Perhaps one of the more colorful musicians I've come across in the last few decades (because I am behind on the great gypsy jazz catalog) is late Django Reinhardt, who would be celebrating his 104th birthday today.

Maybe it was the inadvertent loss of feeling in two of his fingers, from a caravan fire, that contributed to Django's seemingly incorrect guitar technique. His unconventional blend of swing and Roma musical tradition elevated him to that very same international fame I mentioned. And I've since erected him a permanent fixture in my own jazz realm.

When he was young, Reinhardt learned to play the guitar vis-à-vis the banjo. He was largely self-taught and compositionally ignorant; he had his pieces transcribed for him, a rare deficiency of the time as most musicians were trained to do this.

In 1928, his caravan caught fire. He lost sensation in two fingers on his left hand, which took him some two years to recover from.

It wasn't until this tragic accident that Django would maneuver around his vestigial appendages to learn a whole new style of playing.

In 1930, his reintroduction to the Parisian club circuit gave way to his new style.

Throughout his life, Reinhardt produced his own original music, which married his affinity for jazz with his penchant for swing.

Some of his most famous tunes include "Djangology," "Bricktop" and "Swing 39." In fact, this is when the terms "gypsy swing" and "le jazz hot" were coined.

During World War II, Reinhardt had to circumvent the Nazi influence pervading most European countries of the time. As he was considered a Roma--a gypsy, gasp--the Nazi's deemed him, along with his entire community, unfit to coexist with the Aryan race.

It was during this time the gypsy jazz laureate toured with Duke Ellington in the American market, failing to win commericial American appeal.

After the war, Django jammed with Dizzie Gilespie, recorded a few final pieces, and ultimately, died from a brain hemorrhage--or stroke, the circumstances of his death have been hotly debated.

And although the jazz heavyweight lacked praise here in the Americas, it did not prevent him from yielding a major influence on both jazz and swing. Regarded now as one of the most prominent European practitioners of America's greatest art form, Django remains an omnipresent force swirling around jazz, swing, and guitar music.

Happy true belated birthday, then. Here's a good vintage recording of the late Django Reinhardt's "Djangology."

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TagsDjango Reinhardt, Jimi Hendrix, Joe Pass, Djangology, Duke Ellington, World War II, Nazis, Swing 39, Bricktop, gypsy swing, le jazz hot, Dizzie Gilespie, Paris, Roma Community, Gypsy, Gypsies

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