Nothing could be odder than the convergence of these two “Django and Stéphane” – radically different in temperament and in background, each following the random paths of an uncertain artistic vocation, and yet finally coming together at the right place and the right time to give birth to a style, a body of work and a musical school. Was it destiny ? Or was it chance?
At first their partnership was only sporadic -occasional engagements or big-band studio sessions. These last weren’t the mammoth
“symphonic jazz orchestras’ which flourished at the period, but “hotter” groups under Michel Warlop or Guy Paquinet – nurseries of talent from which were to merge the cream of French jazzmen (Pierre Allier, Alex Renard, Noël Chiboust, Combelle, Ekyan, and more.) Grapelli was still having to content himself with the modest role allowed to the pianist at that time, but Django was already showing that special talent as an accompanist which soon brought him into demand among both musicians and, curiously at first, singers. It was Jean Sablon who first set out to make the French language swing. He was followed by Jean Tranchant, Jacotte Perrier, Micheline Day, Charles Trenet, and later by others less innovative or less well-known such as Aimé Simon-Girard, Germaine Sablon, “Little” Mirsha, Leon Monosson, etc; The list of those anxious to secure Django’s services goes on and on, despite the fact that he was as innocent of any idea of punctuality as he was clever at obtaining forgiveness. The pianist Michel Emer recalls a recording session which took place on March 14th, 1933 with the singer Eliane de Creus, one of the first to employ Django’s peculiar talents.
“We were starting the recording without him when the studio door half opened to admit our guitarist, hiding behind a newspaper. The red light came on and the band began to play. ‘Django produced his guitar from inside the newspaper and launched into a masterly accompaniment without knowing a note of the piece we were doing – and, what’s more, playing to perfection the breaks we had left open for him.”
This little anecdote perfectly illustrates both the quality of Django’s musicianship, and the gap that always existed between his almost sacred respect for music as such, and the extreme lack of seriousness towards Gadjdé social norms.
But if you are indispensable, you are always pardonable. And indispensable is what Django rapidly became in Parisian Jazz circles in the years 1933-34. The word was out – a new star was born. And everyone wanted a piece of him. One man who knew very well what was going on was Emile Savitry, Django’s faithful friend and patron, who was indefatigable in his efforts to secure recognition for his protégé and had the happy thought of introducing Django to one of the young organisers of the newly–founded Hot Club of France, Pierre Nourry. Django’s obvious talent was enough to persuade Nourry to include Django in the Hot Club’s first concert in February 1934. His instinct was right.
“Django Reinhardt was the revelation of the concert, wrote the magazine Jazz-Tango. He is a curious musician, whose style is like no other we know We now have a great improviser in Paris.”
However, the guitarist’s greatest fan was undeniably Charles Delaunay, whose recently-formed friendship with Django never flagged and who had been thinking for some time of launching a band under the aegis of the Hot Club. But it took a lucky chance to bring the project to fruition.
The enabling condition for the birth of the future Quintet was the orchestra which was put together by the go ahead Louis Van to play for the bloodless thés-dansants at Claridge’s Hotel in the Champs Elysées The group included the pick of the Parisian jazzmen, but clearly there could be no question of wild jazz performances in this palace of discreet luxury. Milk-and-water “table music” was the order of the day. For the musi-cians, the intermission were a welcome relief which soon took an interest of their own. “We were alternating”, Grapelli remembers, ‘with Manual Pizzaro’s Argentinian Orchestra. Django and I used to take our breaks stretched out on dusty sofas in a big disused room behind the stage. Ofcourse, Django kept his guitar with him and sometimes he’d idly play a few notes to himself behind a screen. One day while I was tuning my violin we spontaneously started playing Dinah, just like that, to amuse ourselves…and once we’d started, we never stopped. Over the days the others began to join in – Django’s brother Joseph, Roger Chaput, and Louis Vola on bass. We were both fascinated by the sound we were making, and of course we played other pieces. From then on, we couldn’t wait for the intermissions.” After hours they would repair to a late-night musician’s hangout, the “Alsace” brasserie in Montmartre, to carry en the good work. None of the participants suspected the fame that lay in store for an all-strings group that come together in such a haphazard fashion.
The break-through might never have happened if organisers of the Hot Club had not found out what was going on and exerted themselves to promote the idea of “Jazz without drums or trumpet”. Even then, things didn’t go smoothly. In September 1934 rehearsals were organised at the “Florence” with a view to a recording audition with the Odéon company. But the firm decided against releasing the two sides that were produced by “Delaunay’s Jazz Quintet”, finding them decidedly “too modern”, despite Django’s precaution of adding a vocal refrain “to make it more commercial”. It was a bad setback for the musicians. but failed to discourage the enterprising Pierre Nourry who was more determined than ever to promote, come hell or high water, this “new hot Jazz sound’ And this was how the group was described on the poster for the famous concert at the Ecole Normale de Musique on December 2nd, 1934 – the event which definitively marked the launch of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France and from which can be dated their rise to fame. The audiences of the day, alarmed by the noisier forms of Jazz, fell victim at once to the charms of this new music. There were still doubters, such as critics John Hammond or Hugues Panassié, who found the sound too “gypsified”, or the critic who called Django “a clown with a mandolin” – but soon everyone was joining in the general fervour.
Even so, for some puriste, the ornamental virtuosity of the guitar and the smooth charm of the violin militated against the idea of true musical authenticity solidly rooted in the Jazz tradition. This was a misunderstanding based on the supposition that the only real interest of the style lay in its brilliance of execution – a sort of musical hedonism. And this idea has been perpetuated by some of Reinhardt’s most faithful latter-day followers, themselves guitarists, who see in Django only a model of instrumental virtuosity. This stereotype does little credit to their idol.
Of relevance to this point is Grapelli’s special contribution to the Quintet’s development. One of his greatest merits is that, by his innate sense of proportion and the high quality of his musical inspiration, he was able from the first to resist any tendency to “folklorisation” in the Quintet. And though his violin playing has a certain seductive quality, this was never allowed to compromise the jazz-based orthodoxy of the group. It must never be forgotten that the success of this famous string combination was due above all to the perfect fusion within the group of musical temperaments which were widely different, even antagonistic. Its greatness lies in its ability to reconcile contrasting talents in a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. If either of the soloists had, from whatever consideration, deviated stylistically from the mean, the delicate balance would have been wrecked. It is not inconceivable that it was Django’s savage expressionism and fierce intransigence which prevented Grapelli’s playing from deteriorating into what some might have seen as a facile and bloodless charm ; while Grapelli represented for Django an anchor which held him firmly moored to the jazz spirit, as well as to the alien world of the Gadjés. Nothing would have been easier, after all, than for Django to squander his talent in “gypsified” performances that were neither folklore nor jazz. Yet the great Manouche, throughout his career, was rigorously exacting in his approach to music – which continues to surprise those who see in Django only a musical box of tricks. And it was this musical seriousness which held him faithful to the jazz spirit – Manouche jazz, certainly, but impeccable in its taste. If teamed with another Gypsy sharing identical social, cultural and musical values, he might well have yielded to the temptations of showy virtuosity, there would have been no brake on his unstable social behaviour, and the-result would have been his eventual disappearance into the anonymous world of the nomads, just one more Gypsy musician.
None the less, it was at first difficult for Django and Stéphane to make a living playing “their” music alone. “In my time”, Grapelli recalls, “I’ve tried to reach all sorts of audiences. And even with Django we’ve had to play tunes which had nothing to do with Jazz.” Fortunately there remains little trace in their joint discography – or in the Djangology whose essence is contained in these discs of the concessions they had to make to the tastes of night-club owners and their monied customers, who were all too ready to see
Stéphane simply a brilliant salon recitalist and in Django an astonishing virtuoso, “a Liszt of the guitar” as he was called by one journalist of the period.
The general public, however – which moves, as we know, in a mysterious way – got it right. As did the musicians’ community, including American jazzmen passing through, or settled in Paris who as one man went overboard for Django’s exuberant inspiration. In 1935 alone the clubs where Dango was working attracted visits from soloists of the order of Louis Armstrong (at the Brick lop” in Montmartre), Coleman Hawkins and Arthur Briggs (at the “Stage B” in Montparnasse), Benny Carter (at “Chez Florence”), Bill Coleman. Big Boy Goodie, Fletcher Allen, and many others. What jam sessiona ! What memorable choruses lost for ever !
These evanescent glories can no longer be recaptured. However, what has survived, (almost miraculously, given the methods of the recording industry of the day), is a mass of discs. Fortunately, once his genius as a creative improviser was recognised, Django’s work has always been a dominant concern of French Jazz discographers. And interest in the Quintet of the Hot Club of France though it existed only sporadically as a group — very soon spread to foreign shores.