A fire roars with life on a cool summer night somewhere in the north of France, possibly even just over the Belgian border. Music drifts into the night air symbiotically with the smoking embers of the gypsy night light. The percussive attack of the guitar, chords creating a rhythmic blanket for phrases hot like shooting stars, gliss across a hushed campsite. Play passes around the circle; the sounds of a bass fiddle and violin can also be heard. Seasoned veterans cut over the changes like a barrage of explosives with their young proteges not far behind.
This is the scene among a camp of Romani Gypsies, an ethnic group originating in the north of India and eventually settling in the “the Zone” around Paris. Like many Gypsy tribes, they were forced into a nomadic lifestyle by religious persecution and economic pressure. The Romani specifically were known as being fantastic luthiers, and have always valued music in their communities.
Jazz manouche, or, more commonly, gypsy jazz, is a style of music that originated amongst the Romani people, French-speaking Manouche Gypsies, in the 1930s. Paris served as the incubator for this brand new “hot” form of jazz with the style quickly spreading to every end of the earth. It is unique as being the only form of jazz fundamentally designed for and around, of all instruments, the guitar.
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Rarely is there a single individual who completely defines, and is often (if not entirely truthfully) credited with the creation of, an entire genre of music. Elvis may have presented rock ‘n’ roll to middle America, but he did not invent it; Kurt Cobain may have become the face of grunge in the early ’90s but alongside a wave of celebrated contemporaries.
Credit for the creation of gypsy jazz is given almost entirely to Jean “Django” Reinhardt, a Romani Gypsy who, alongside brother Joseph Reinhardt and several others, formed Quintette du Hot Club de France with violinist Stéphane Grappelli (who later had his own celebrated career inside and outside of swing jazz) in Paris. While Gypsy music existed well before Django, his specific style, blending Gypsy music with American jazz, has gone on to define this genre in the collective conscience.
It’s important to note that gypsy jazz now refers to the music and legacy of Django Reinhardt, but not all Gypsies who perform jazz music, such as the Roma and Sinti, count themselves a part of “gypsy jazz.” According to expert Denis Chang:
“It is not to be confused with the idea of Gypsies playing jazz, which can easily refer to Roma playing bebop, or even some Sinti, such as pianist Jermaine Landsberger, who, while certainly inspired by Django, mainly play music that has little, if anything, to do with gypsy jazz.”¹
A caravan fire at the age of 18 left Django with a severe injury to his left hand. The third and fourth fingers of his fretting hand were permanently damaged, forcing him to solo using just two fingers! Originally a banjo player, his brother brought him a guitar to play while recovering in the hospital², and Django set about mastering a new instrument with a significant disadvantage.
This attitude, coupled with his extreme resolve, set Django apart and make him an absolute joy to study and dissect.
Django performed and recorded hundreds of sides until his death in 1953, leaving behind a staggering wealth of musical ingenuity and paving the way for several superseding generations of jazz manouche musicians who continue to carry the torch and celebrate his genius. Django’s catalog is a veritable goldmine — not only to enjoy as some of the most beautiful music ever recorded but also as a window into the development of swing, chordal improvisation, and powerful, powerful use of melody.
Let’s take a look at some notable recordings by Django Reinhardt.
“Django’s Tiger” is a standard part of the manouche repertoire. Its mid-tempo, allegro swing and feel make it a whimsical tune to play and listen to. As is the case in some of these songs, when Django specifically takes the head, it isn’t quite clear where it begins and ends. Although we can assume that the head covers one full set of chord changes, Django treats the head as a solo.
With a satisfying uplift, Grappelli’s fiddle enters at 1:07, providing a distinctly different characteristic from Django’s rhythmic arpeggios. Django continues to weave in and out of Grappelli’s lines, offering soft, tremolo-picked chords at 1:30 and a wonderful moment at 1:46 when he re-enters to trade “fours” with Grappelli.
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“Avalon” is a wonderful, up-tempo swing that stands out as a gem for several reasons. First and foremost, the group is augmented with horns, which provide a delicate accompaniment to the fierce rhythmic embargo that the backing guitars put on the track. Grappelli’s opening flurries are the stuff of legend. At 0:18, we are treated to a run that is so fierce it could lay its hands on any unsuspecting listener and draw them right in.
Django gives us a wonderful lead; the first 15 seconds are a 101-level crash course on how to play gypsy jazz. A melodic debut segues into some melancholy half bends at 1:07, a common employment. At 1:13, Django uses enclosures, or “upper/lower neighbors,” to outline the chord tones in his arpeggio. This is one of the fundamental techniques of manouche. A brief chord solo at 1:52 leads to a soaring trumpet aside, a rarity in this style. A tight cadence at just under three minutes brings this blistering tune to a quick halt and leaves us dying to hear more.
The first Django song I ever heard and possibly his most distinguished recording, due in part to its feature in Chocolat and other films, “Minor Swing” is a typical manouche minor blues with some simple but exciting substitutions during the turnaround.
The tune begins with a haunting, unison riff, the guitar and fiddle, and the crackling of the tape beneath. A light-hearted glissando from the bass ushers in a second pass of the melody with a short, walking interlude opening up the doors for Django’s “head” (solo as head).
A brilliant lead follows, employing many of his signature techniques, enclosure, quarter bends, and Wes Montgomery-style octaves at 1:17. This is followed at 1:22 by a blazing chromatic run used throughout his entire catalog. That line is one that makes us all question whether or not Django actually did lose the use of his other two digits!
Grappelli enters in time, providing the legato contrast he so often gives us after a lead by his opposite. At 2:13, we are treated to a, “Yeah, come on” from one of the musicians; this occurs again at 2:33 and at the end of the cut, enforcing the encouraged sense of community, and the rich musical culture created by the Romani lifestyle.
Recorded during the war years and featuring clarinetist Hubert Rostaing, “Belleville” is definitely a manouche staple. Each measure is more engaging than the last. Beginning with a fast arpeggio from Django with a call and response from the clarinet to lead into the head, the song dazzles until the end. During the B section at 0:22, Django provides a beautiful tremolo accompaniment to the lead voice. After another pass on A (with fun chromatic ornamentation from Django), the virtuoso jumps into one of his all-time best solos — rhythmically complex and beautifully realized.
At 0:48, he provides a grating respite from the smooth melody with a blocky pentatonic scale. At 1:06, Django creates a call and response between his own lead and some natural harmonics. This is such a lovely technique and far ahead of its time. You can almost hear the fusion footprints of Steve Howe in Yes’ “Roundabout.”
After a lead from the clarinetist, we get a four-bar drum solo, a rarity in manouche jazz as the drums are often replaced by two or three rhythm guitars followed by a recapitulation of the head and a brief outro from Django, which doesn’t fail to disappoint (as always). With a dazzling arrangement and spectacular playing from all, “Belleville” may be one of Django Reinhardt’s most perfect recordings.
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“Dinah,” a popular song introduced by Ethel Waters in 1925, is a great show piece for both Django and Grappelli. On this recording (of incredible quality), we get an exciting set of leads and some absolutely stunning comping from Django and the rest of the Hot Club.
Grappelli takes the head (lyrically, “Dinah, is there anyone finer”) before a haunting B section with some chromatic voice leading from the rhythm section. After another pass, Django launches into a very satisfying solo on the heels of a splash of harmonics from Grappelli’s fiddle. This lead is all Django, sustaining a refreshing voice from start to finish with some exciting sliding and bending unique only to him. A brief passage over the augmented scale at 1:36 provides some welcome dissonance in this consonant passage; it adds a dramatic flair without discouraging the casual listener.
This is a common employment in jazz manouche and part of what makes this style so listenable and exciting for musicians and fans of jazz alike. During the bass solo beginning at 3:02, we can hear pizzicato accents from Grappelli. This is a fabulous example of these musicians pushing the sonic envelope of their instruments and introducing new sounds to manipulate the hardware itself that would pave the way for future generations of innovators.
Composed by Django, and recorded many times throughout his career, this particular version, taken from his twilight years after he traded his Maccaferri for his electric guitar, is a complete gem. Featuring some incredible lead playing using artificial harmonics, we get a brief glimpse into how Django continued to develop his style after the advent of amplification. His playing here almost mimics the sound of a hot, compressed vibraphone or set of bells, reminiscent of hits like the Pied Pipers’ “Dream.”
The tune begins with the clarinet taking the head with a call and response provided by Django, his signature tremolo-picked chordal accompaniment entering at 0:25 and creating a lush texture beneath the melancholy drone of the reed. At 1:32, Django enters with his harmonics, which were way ahead of their time!
These runs are hard to pull off, even for a guitarist with four functional digits. It’s still hard to believe that Django played them using only his middle and index fingers. At 2:21, Django returns to using artificial harmonics, creating a sound that could easily be confused for a Fender Rhodes.
Within the attack and swell, the warmth of each note permeating the air and making each moment sweeter than the last, there is a deep longing, as well as in Django’s playing as a whole. Something about his later recordings has a special nostalgic quality that can only be appreciated with repeat listens.
Perhaps all that is why he decided to name this one “Nuages,” or “clouds” in English. Compare with these versions to hear the development over time from hot jazz to bop.
Django recorded several improvisations throughout his career that have gone on to become study pieces for many aspiring manouche guitarists. “Improvisation #1” has a set of dazzling chord solos, classical harmony, and incredible melodic runs. The piece opens with some repeated drones on the open strings, almost as if Django is sitting down, tuning up, and preparing to find his voice.
After a couple of introductory lines, Django launches into a beautiful chord solo at 0:24, ending on a pivoting half-step figure that evokes the sounds of his upbringing. At 0:48, Django plays a flurry of notes followed by another fabulous chord solo that combines his fast chromatic runs with tremolo chords and dazzling lines.
A pause at 1:30 indicates a departure after a brief run including some artificial harmonics (echoing what would come later in pieces such as “Nuages”). Django begins a passage that could easily be mistaken for Yngwie Malmsteen blazing through a harmonic minor scale — sans the wall of Marshall stacks and leather, of course — nearly 40 years prior! After more moody noodling, Django brings the piece full circle at 2:39 with a brief sequence of chords, a flashy line, and a gorgeous cadence on a Bm6/9 chord.
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Bibliography Chang, Denis. “Django Legacy – The Birth of Gypsy Jazz – Denis Chang.” Denis Chang. Denischang.com, 9 Aug. 2015. Web. 19 July 2017.  Dregni, Michael. Gypsy Jazz: In Search of Django Reinhardt and the Soul of Gypsy Swing. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.