Django Reinhardt a biography by Alain Antonietto

Even before this it seems that Django was already dissatisfied with playing melodies “straight” – i.e. note for note. Perhaps this had always been so with him. He was the inheritor of a tradition in which improvisation on violin or cymbalom played an integral part : in the czurdas and verbunkos of Hungary, for example, or the doïnas and horas of Roumania. Franz Liszt had been an ardent admirer of the spirit of this music. He wrote : “The gypsy performer takes the melody of a dance or a song and, without ever quite losing sight of the theme, freely abandons himself to improvisation, enriching and embellishing it with a profusion of musical touches, appogiaturas, chromatic passages and arpeggios. ”This description effectively prefigures the characteristics of Diango’s own art of musical paraphrase. For the style that little by little he forged for himself, though unique, did not come from nothing, but has its roots in several disparate musical traditions. At the age of fourteen in the Porte de Saint-Ouen, he had taken on board the instrumental approach and plectrum technique of the “old master” – Gypsies for the most part – of the banduria (Spanish mandolin), the banjo-lute and the guitar : Poulette Castro and his “Plectrum Quartet”, and the legendary Gusti Malha, composer of the famous Valse des Niglos whose musical spirit was to infuse the few wonderful waltzes which Django himself has left us. Django’s waltzes – like Chez Jacquet or Montagne Ste Geneviève, share with Malha’s a richness of harmonic texture ordinarily quite foreign to pieces in this popular idiom. Charles Delaunay wrote of them: “Shining through these little masterpieces is all the grace, richness and originality which Django brought to work in the musette orchestra and to which he give expression in later years after his conversion to jazz.”

The young Manouche was also a fine performer on the violin, and this gave him one more point access to the folk tradition he inherited. As witness his brilliant rendering of Hungarian gypsy pieces particularly the Czardas de Monti. It was this piece which had knocked sideways the Russian orchestra at the “Coq Hardi” in Toulon where Savitry had found work for Django and his brother.

Itchy feet were equally part of his inheritance during this period in the south they led him from one to another of the numerous gypsy camps along the Coast, where doubtless he would have had the chance to try his hand at the flamenco style – something outsidse his background experience. Among these Boumians (6) from the Paillon district in Nice or the part of Toulon known as La Rode, according to the painter Baboulène “were gypsy musicians who would play far into night. And Django, whose local reputation was confined to a few young music fans, was already clearly their master.” Besides, Django, despite his youth, was an experienced “pro” who could handle all the different repertoires : Neapolitan love-songs, “Spanish” numbers, current dance hits, musette (of course), and even recital pieces and Viennese waltzes. These gave him a foot in the door anywhere on the Coast, from sailors’ bars and Toulon brothels to better-class venues such as restaurants and casinos. Thus it was that he caught the eye of the accordionist (later bass player) Louis Vola who found him a place in his “Palm Beach” orchestra in Cannes.

Once back in Paris (probably in 1932) Django turned a new page in his life. Though he still played occasionally in dance bands such as that of Louis Vola, or in Russian night-clubs like the “Shéhérazade” – he had to live, after all – czardas, tango and musette waltz were no longer his main preoccupations other rhythms claimed his attention – jazz above all. But his wide-ranging musical curiosity took him to the Cuban and West Indian clubs then in fashion, such as “Melody’s Bar”, “Le Bal Nègre” in the Rue Blomet ,where the famous guitarist Don Baretto was appearing, or to “Le Chantilly” ruled by the “dobro” (metal guitar – “it was a National steel guitar, not a dobro – François”) of the Argentinian Oscar Aleman, who later formed with Django a partnership based on mutual esteem. And it was also at this time that the legendary pianist Stephen Mougin, hearing Django play in a musicians’ café, gave him a place for a time in his band at ‘Lee Acacias”. Mougin was a pioneer jazz pianist, an exponent of the most authentic black American music then available for listening. All these interests were in a sense experimental ; as Patrick Williams has aptly said :

“it was in jazz that Django at last met the music which, of all the music he had tried, enabled him to be most himself, which settled the shape of his world and his place in it, and which was the source of the delight which shines through all his improvisations.”
Django’s dazzling talents and personal magnetism made him, almost overnight, the cynosure of a world radically different from that which he had known – a world of artists, painters, musicians, writers and poets, among whom he soon became a familiar figure. He became friendly with the composers Henri Sauguet, Georges Auric and Francis Poulenc, and with the poets Leon-Paul Fargue, Pierre Reverdy, Robert Goffin and, of course Jean Cocteau – all of whom adulated him throughout his career. Robert Desnos, Michel Leiris, Alejo Carpentier, Brassaï, Anaïs Nin, Blaise Cendrars and Aragon were among the celebrities who, in the Thirties, applauded his talents. In these avant-garde intellectual circles he moved with surprising ease. He made up for his lack of formal – indeed, of any but oral – education by his lively intelligence and innate distinction. His social behaviour has been the subject of mach discussion, some of it rather prejudiced. We have to bear in mind the enormous adjustment Django had to make as a result of his adoption by the world of the Gadjés. Though he never broke entirely with the nomad life, yet he was putting behind him for ever the state of marginalisation which is a normal condition of that life. Sometimes his behaviour seemed bafflingly casual or whimsical – for which many blamed him. But it does no harm to remember that he had succeeded in a feat of cultural adaptation which his critics, if suddenly translated to a caravan in the mud of a gypsy encampment in the “zone”, would have been hard put to match. (Though the elegant Jean Sablon more than once ventured into just this risky country to recall a forgetful Django to his contractual duties).
In fact it was Jean Sablon, on the look-out for new sounds and himself a “crooner” before the word was invented, who was finally responsible for launching among the Smart Set “this swarthy, dark-eyed young man who knew so well how to make a guitar talk”. He engaged Django as his accompanist in several smart Parisian clubs such as the “Elysée Palace” and the “Rococo”, as well as the “Monseigneur” in London. For Django this was a double baptism – his first truly professional contracts, and his first experience of air travel – all involving adventures and misadventures for our gypsy hero. During an engagement in Nice, where he appeared on the same programme as Josephine Baker, Django’s St Louis Blues got the bird from an audience impatient to admire Miss Baker’s curvaceous banana-clad figure.

Sablon had found Django working in the newly opened “Boîte à Matelots” in Paris. “The musicians, wearing striped sailors’ jerseys, were installed in a mock-up of a fully-rigged ship. Among them was a guitarist who really stood out : Django Reinhardt. I went back often to listen to him and became friends. Sometimes I would go by late to pick him up and we would go together to the “Croix du Sud” in Montparnasse to hear the best saxophone player in Paris, André Ekyan.” And it was in this very club, favourite hangout of the jazzmen of the day, that the historic meeting took place between Django a Stephane Grapelli.

Grapelli had just returned from an Argentine tour (mainly as pianist) with “Gregor and his Gregorians” – a big “syncopating” dance band the day. Here in Montparnasse he was playing violin and even saxophone. But there can be no doubt that it was his violin playing that occasioned the visits of this brooding listener whose fixed stare began to make musicians nervous. Only after several visits did Django get up the courage to make an approach. At this stage he was hesitant and timid, expressing himself awkwardly to the self-confident Grapelli. It was to be some time before they got close enough to recognise in each other a common passion for music, an particular for Jazz. This wonderful shared enthusiasm was to hold them together throughout a long sometimes stormy professional relationship. Looking back today, Grapelli remembers :

“Jazz lovers rare in Paris at that time. And I had some doubt a playing such a modern music on so eminently classical an instrument as the violin. It was Django’s faith and Django’s genius that blew away my fears;”
His doubts are understandable. To be a jazzman in those days – and on the violin to boot – was no light matter. His first concert appearance with the Gregorians in 1930 was marked by demonstrations disapproval from the audience including a woman blowing a referee’s whistle. “Grapelly’s solo went virtually unnoticed in the uproar”, notes Hugue Pannassié, one of his earliest admirers.
As we have seen, Grapelli was impressed, almost from the first by Django – by his personality, by the acuity of his judgment, and by his playing. He now remembered, looking back, that this was not the first he had seen of him. He seemed to recall that Django and his brother were quite well-known as street musicians in the Rochechouart district, and since Grapelli had done his share of busking in his day, they had actually met one day in some narrow courtyard or other. And later he had again heard the two Manouches playing on the terrace of the “Can-can” café in Pigalle – a meeting-place for Parisian dance-band musicians. He seemed to remember Django, his hand still bandaged, and still, apparently, playing the six-string banjo.

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