At RSL Awards we adore the acoustic guitar, and we couldn’t think of anyone better to feature on Artists in Focus other than acoustic royalty, Mr Django Reinhardt.
Gypsy-jazz is a genre so many of us love, and we really do have this man to thank for it. In fact, some would go as far to say that every major pop music guitarist in the world will have, in some way, been influenced by Reinhardt’s style.
Quintette du Hot Club
It was in the Romani encampments of Paris that Jean Reinhardt (Django is a nickname!) would first pick up the violin, then the banjo, and then his beloved guitar. By 15 he was already making a living from busking in café’s, and that was before he even began dipping his toes into jazz.
And to think we almost lost this legend is unthinkable! Shortly after his marriage at the age of 17, Reinhardt almost died in a caravan fire. Thankfully, him and his wife survived, but not without serious burns to their bodies, including two of his most important fingers for guitar playing. Unfortunately, Django never regained full mobility back in to those fingers, which meant he had to adapt his playing and use the injured fingers for chord work only.
In the years of 1934 to 1939, Reinhardt and friend Stéphane Grappelli formed their famous Quintette du Hot Club de France and took the world of jazz by storm. They took European jazz and flipped in on its head. The group was composed of only string instruments, and to this day, their sound is what we all strive for when we think of the Hot Club sound.
World War II
And then World War II began, shaking Europe like never before. Quintette du Hot Club de France were touring the UK, and so Reinhardt rushed back to France immediately, leaving Grappelli in the UK. He tried his hardest to keep playing his music throughout the war, but being Romani AND a jazz musician, this was made incredibly difficult for him. During this war, Romani people were forced to wear a brown gypsy ID triangle on their chest, just like the pink triangle for anyone in the LGBT+ community, and the star of David for Jewish people. Jazz was also viewed as a particularly “un-German” counterculture, so you can imagine that for Django, his entire world was at threat.
Living in France, Reinhardt was able to continue his work, as there was far less policy surrounding jazz, but of course this was not without danger. When France became occupied by the Germans, Reinhardt tried to escape, only to be caught by a German solider. As luck would have it, this particular solider was a fan of jazz himself and so - not forgetting that Reinhardt was one of the most famous jazz musicians in Europe at the time – he let Django go free, and thus, he survived the war.
Django went on to continue his successes in America, playing with some of the best of the best like Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong. He was received so well – six curtain calls in ONE NIGHT will speak volumes for his popularity!
We are hugely excited that we were able to include a Django Reinhardt tune in our Acoustic syllabus, placing him into Grade 8. We’ve chosen “Minor Swing”, a song that became a Jazz Standard, and rightly so, for it is SUPER impressive! The song has no obvious melody, and is instead a mostly continuous improvisation over a sequence of chord changes. There’s plenty to get your head around with this one.