Today, in 1910, a guitar legend was born in Liberchies, Pont-à-Celles, Belgium, to a family of Manouche gypsies. Though born with the first name Jean, he was given the nickname “Django” which means “I Awake” in the Romani language. Django Reinhardt was drawn to music at an early age and initially played the violin. At the age of twelve, he was given a banjo-guitar as a gift and quickly learned the instrument, mimicking the Roma musicians that surrounded him in the encampments outside of Paris. By thirteen, he was making a living as a musician and by eighteen, he’d made his first recordings, playing banjo.
That same year, the caravan that he shared with his first wife, caught fire. Returning home late from a performance, Django knocked over a candle on his way to bed. His wife made imitation paper flowers as a way to supplement their meagre income and as a result, their caravan was loaded with flammable materials. Django received first and second degree burns all over his body. His right leg was paralysed and the third and fourth fingers on his left hand were badly burned. Challenging doctor’s claims that he would never walk again, he refused to have one of his legs amputated and was walking with the aid of a cane within a year.
His brother Joseph brought him a guitar and with practice, he was able to play again. He relearned the instrument to compensate for his partially paralysed fingers. In the process, he developed a completely new style of playing, using his two good fingers for solos and the injured fingers for chordal work.
Around this same time, Django discovered jazz music and was especially impressed with Louis Armstrong calling him his “brother.” He dropped the banjo and began focusing solely on guitar. He met the violinist Stephane Grapelli, and in 1933, the two formed Quintette du Hot Club de France. Their unique brand of jazz was performed solely on stringed instruments, contained a heavy Gypsy influence and therefore, was dubbed “Gypsy Jazz.” Here’s footage of the band playing live in 1939.
Django died in 1952 but to this day, guitarists from all genres consider him to be one of the greatest guitarists who ever lived. His influence and impact are still being felt. Django’s admirers include Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jerry Garcia, Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, Chet Atkins, Phish’s Trey Anastasio and countless others.
We’re ticketing a few events over the next couple months that also pay tribute to the great Django Reinhardt and the Gypsy Swing that he invented. If you’ve never listened to Django’s recordings, here’s one of my favorite songs, “Minor Swing.” Listen and enjoy. If you’re a musician, get inspired. Django was one of a kind. If you like what you hear, get out to one of the great events listed below and experience modern-day musicians as they capture the magic that Django was able to create with just six-strings and a whole lot of swing!
Friday, January 27 – DGiin Berkeley, California DGiin‘s music ranges from Paco de Lucia flamenco to Django Reinhardt gypsy guitar, violin and unforgettable vocals á la Edith Piaf. Most songs are originals with a few popular French moderns.
Friday, February 10 – STEPHANE WREMBEL & The Django Experiment Pawling, New York Born in Paris and raised in Fontainebleau, home of impressionism and Django Reinhardt’s music, one could call Stephane Wrembel a nomad…a gypsy…a world traveler; for the music he plays and his lifestyle are expressions of the gypsy way of life. Classically trained in a music conservatory starting at age four, Stephane’s life took a decisive turn in his late teens when he first discovered the music of Django Reinhardt and the Gypsies. He spent the next ten years of his life learning, playing, and expanding on this musical tradition. This hard work gave Wrembel the technique, but the time spent playing around the campfires and trailers of the Gypsies gave him the soul — both necessary ingredients for him to master his art form. Stephane’s education continued at the Berklee School of Music, graduating summa cum-laude. Soon after, Stephane made New York City his home base from which to continue his career. Career highlights include scoring the theme to Woody Allen’s 2011 Smash Hit “Midnight In Paris” and for Allen’s 2008 Golden Globe winner “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” recording his third album with the legendary David Grisman, touring the USA with master violinist Mark O’Connor and headlining to a capacity crowd at Lincoln Center.
Friday, February 17 – LUCO: Gypsy Nights! Seattle, Washington The word Gypsy conjures fascination and a timeless mystic. The rich heritage of its musical culture which began in India some 1500 years ago permeates the music of some of the greatest composers of the romantic and modern eras. Brahms and Dvorak were two great champions of Bohemian music (along with Mahler who was born in that very region.) Django Reinhardt has had a profound impact on conductor Christophe Chagnard‘s self-discovery as a conductor, composer and guitarist and Reinhardt inspired this ambitious project. One of the great challenges facing Chagnard in composing “Opre Roma!” was to merge the two contrasting worlds of Gypsy Jazz and Classical Music together: how to make an orchestra swing and made to feel that it is improvising while having the jazz guitarists stay synchronized with the orchestra? The riddle proved fascinating and you are about to find-out if these worlds can complete one another into musical fulfillment.
Friday, February 17 – The Lost Fingers Winthrop, Washington These irreverent gypsy jazz vagabonds will delight you with their surprisingly smart covers of 80’s classics. The Lost Fingers are a Canadian gypsy jazz music group based in Quebec City.The band’s name was inspired by gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt who lost the use of two fingers following a fire. Its members are Alex Morissette (backing vocals, double bass), Dr. Christian “Dirt” Roberge (lead vocals, guitar), and Byron “Maiden” Mikaloff (backing vocals, guitar). “Lost In The 80s,” their 2008 debut album, earned a platinum certification for sales of 100,000 within Quebec alone within 12 weeks of its release.
Friday, February 24 – Caravan of Thieves at the me&thee coffeehouse Marblehead, Massachusetts Gypsy Swinging Serenading Firebreathing Circus Freaks! For the past three years, this Caravan of Thieves has roamed the North American continent recruiting a family of avid thrill seekers at their high energy shows. Driving gypsy jazz rhythms, acoustic guitars, upright bass and violin lay the foundation for mesmerizing vocal harmonies and fantastic stories. It’s theatrical and humorous. It’s musical and intense. It entertains, dazzles and defies classification while welcoming the spectator to join the band throughout the performance in momentary fits of claps, snaps and sing-alongs. If Django Reinhardt, the cast of Stomp and the Beatles all had a party at Tim Burton’s house, Caravan of Thieves would be the band they hired.