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Django Reinhardt (1910-53)
One of the few genuine legends of the music, Jean Baptiste Reinhardt was born at Liverchies in Belgium. He was something of a prodigy and played professionally before his teens. When he was eighteen, though, afire in his caravan seriously damaged his hand and for the rest of his life he had to negotiate two clawed fingers on his fretting hand. The Django legend developed between the wars with the success of the Quintette du Hot Club de France. As a gypsy, he survived the Second World War only through the patronage of a Luftwaffe officer who admired his music. After the liberation, Django became an international hero, travelling to America to work with Duke Ellington. As erratic as he was brilliant, he seemed foredoomed to a short and glittering career, and he died aged just 43 at Samois, near Paris.
One of the Christian-name-only mythical figures of jazz, Django embodies much of the nonsense that surrounds the physically and emotionally damaged who nevertheless manage to parlay their disabilities and irresponsibilities into great music. Django's technical compass, apparently unhampered by loss of movement in two fingers of his left hand (result of a burn which had ended his apprenticeship as a violinist), was colossal, ranging from dazzling high-speed runs to ballad-playing of aching intensity.
Pity the poor discographer who has to approach this material. The Reinhardt discography is now as mountainous as his native Belgium is flat.
Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.
Told from three perspectives, that of saxophonist and clarinetist Hubert Rostaing who appeared on them as a member of the re-formed “Django Reinhardt et Le Quintette du Hot Club de France,” Gerarde Levecque, who arranged the big band music for the sessions featuring “Django Reindhardt et son Orchestre du ‘Boeuf sur le Toit,’” and bassist Pierre Michelot who participated on the recordings as part of “Django Reinhardt at ses Rythmes,” the following insert notes to the double disc Django Reinhardt: Peche a la Mouche [Verve 835 418 2] recount the story of the legendary 1947 and 1953 Blue Star sessions.
Should you need a beginning point for appreciating Django’s brilliance, these recordings will suffice nicely.
Clarinetist Hubert Rostaing reminisces about the July, 1947 sessions...
I can remember these 1947 sessions for "Blue Star" with Django very well. Most of them were at Technisonor studios in Paris, on the rue Francois, a tiny studio that belonged to Robert Sergeant. The American Forces Network rented the place from 1944 to 1946 for its broadcasts from France. After the Americans left, Sergeant took over again and we made several recordings for Eddie Barclay, who supervised the different sessions himself.
Although these sessions were not prepared, we already knew the new compositions that Django wanted to record. As soon as he made them up — picking them out on the guitar — he played them to us so we could share his happiness and discover them for ourselves.
We did not rehearse much at all. We practiced in each others' houses, in our dressing rooms when we played clubs; mostly we just played together in after hours jam sessions rather than in organized recording rehearsals.
On the days we recorded, if Django hadn't forgotten the time or the date, he often got to the studio before us to take in its atmosphere and listen to how his guitar
sounded in the room. Once in the studio, we decided on what tracks to record, and then the order of choruses and solos.
Often we did not do many takes of the same title. Generally, it went off without a hitch between Django and us — the only little problems were microphone placement. In this way we put quite a few numbers in the can during these sessions, and we still had time for a drink between takes.
Eddie Barclay gave us a completely free hand to choose the titles to be recorded. We were very happy with this since Django would only record music he liked. These were, of course, his own compositions, but also folk songs and current popular tunes— in fact any music he liked, which he adapted as it suited him.
Although we were a long way from today's studio techniques, we were happy making music for the pleasure of making
Hubert ROSTAING Paris, March 1973
“About the July - October, 1947 and March, 1953 sessions...
In the euphoria that followed in the end of the Occupation, Django Reinhardt decided to go it alone.
Fixing a rudimentary microphone to his guitar and acquiring a very basic amplifier lent strength to his idea. Now, for the first time, he could rival the volume of the trumpets or saxes and, even better, when he played chords he could create the illusion of an orchestra all his own.
Much in demand with American promoters, he left for the U.S.A., where he appeared with Duke Ellington's orchestra. He met with instant success and many fantastic projects were made. Nothing, it seemed, could stand in the way of them.
Alas, Django never knew how to cope with the demands of "civilized" life. After the tour with Ellington, all alone in a foreign country and left to his own devices, he discouraged his most faithful supporters, either through arrogance or timidity, and came back to Paris quite disillusioned.
After his disappointing adventure, Django wisely decided to reform his famous Quintet with Hubert Rostaing, and in July and October, 1947, he recorded "Topsy," "Moppin' the Bride," "I Love You," "Mono," "New York City," "I'll Never Smile Again," "Gypsy with a Song," and "Foile a Amphion," written in memory of adventures (as extravagant as they were untellable) we had during the Occupation on the shores of Lake Geneva.
Time passed....Dancing, forbidden during the war, was now all the rage and Jazz rediscovered its original vocation. Gradually, the concert-halls began to empty....
As for Django, he increasingly isolated himself from the outside world, that same world he so regally disdained. Fortunately, he discovered Saint-Germain-des-Pres and the young and talented generation of jazz musicians haunting its cellars.
After his initial amazement, Django settled in amongst them. He was given a warm welcome as room was made for him. For a while, there was the joy of a honeymoon between the Maestro reborn and people twenty years younger.
In the end, his legendary instability regained the upper hand: daily routine imprisoned him, eternal jamming wearied him; he felt that people lacked respect for him by treating him casually as a familiar acquaintance. In short, Django wanted to pull himself together again and take a rest away from the noisy, smoke filled cellars. He went to the countryside in Samois. There, relaxed, he divided his time between fishing, playing the guitar, and billiards. Since money was never one of his preoccupations, he lived the life of a pensioner...one without a pension, living off his copyrights alone. He had just turned forty.
It was then that Eddie Barclay managed to convince him to return to Paris to record. In a burst of pride, Django accepted. When he went to the studio on March 10, 1953, he wanted to prove once again that he was the best. And there, in the silence reminiscent of Pleyel, the Beaux-Arts in Brussels, or the London Palladium, the timid loner turned into an unparalleled soloist with such excellent musicians as Maurice Vander, Pierre Michelot and Jean-Louis Viale.
Django had found freedom again, and he went wild, exulting in it. This was a one man fireworks display. And yet there is something intangible that I find disturbing as I listen to this ultimate recording of "Nuages" — the most beautiful version he recorded — and the coda to "Manoir de mes Reves," so full of nostalgia. Something leads me to believe that Django, and many others of his people, had the gift of premonition.
Two months later, as if it were a last performance, the curtain fell, never to rise again. This record remains for us to remember Django Reinhardt's passing.
Gerarde LEVECQUE Paris, February 1972
About the 1953 session...
It was a time when Django wasn't much in demand anymore, so he stayed away. He wasn't one to force himself on anybody; he simply waited for someone to ask him to come and play. Why should he bother? He had a kind of fatalism that he owed to his gypsy origins, perhaps. In Samois he led a quiet life. He was rather nonchalant by nature, and he was happy playing billiards (he was very good at it) or else fishing and painting. Someone once told me a story that is rather revealing. After a performance at the Salle Pleyel, someone (maybe Charles Delaunay) went over to his caravan parked just outside Paris and offered to put on a concert. It was for the following Sunday, the money was good — he had to take part. So Django lifts up his mattress, showing a whole bed of banknotes, and says, "There's money here. I don't need any, I'm not interested." In my opinion, Django felt that having money was the same thing as having recognition.
But in 1953 he was more or less ignored. When he had a booking for two, three weeks at the Ringside (the future Blue Note) he didn't draw much of a crowd. The youngsters didn't come and listen to him and I had the feeling that he was wounded by this. But he said nothing about it. I even heard some musicians, whose names I won't mention, say that Django was past it, if not finished, just as he was going through so many changes! With Hubert and Raymond Fol, we played some records and he was in ecstasy, listening to Parker/Gillespie's big band and Bud Powell. The audacity of Bop just took his breath away. This music reaches deep down inside him and little by little, his playing evolved, you could hear it, without premeditation. The phrases that belonged to the Hot Club Django were still there of course, but they were transformed.
For some years, when Django was working, it was with some French musicians who were considered as representatives of the avant-garde: Hubert Fol, Roger Guerin, the only genuine boppers at that time, Bernard Hullin, Raymond Fol, Maurice Vander, Pierre Lemarchand and myself — on bass I followed Ray Brown, while others were still involved with the aesthetics of the "Swing Era." Benoit Quersin, Jean Marie Ingrand and Guy Pedersen came along later. If Django wanted these people to accompany him, then he had a very good reason....
He was a sight worth seeing when he came to the Club Saint-Germain in the evening. He was treated like a lord by his family, and a lord doesn't carry his own guitar. This was a job for his brother or one of his cousins. Django would pick up an instrument, tune it in 30 seconds since his ear was fantastic, and start to play. After turning his amplifier right up, he was so happy that everyone could hear him. It was a kind of revenge on years of frustration, for even with a powerful sound it was difficult to drown out the noise in a cabaret. Now, all he had to do was turn a knob, and early on, he used it maybe too much.
One of the things that made him most happy was seeing musicians like James Moody, Bobby Jaspar, or Don Byas come in. He loved instrumentalists who were loud, technically brilliant, and played with enthusiasm. To get back to the recording session itself, it should be said that it was one of a series of five: there were four sessions for Decca, where Django had a number of musicians with him — Bernard Hullin, Roger Guerin, Hubert Fol, Raymond Fol, Maurice Vender, Martial Solal, Sadi Lallemande and Pierre Lemarchand — and this one, the fourth session chronologically speaking. He was accompanied by just a trio on this one, probably one of Eddie Barclay's ideas. When we arrived in the studio, Maurice Vender, Jean-Louise Viale and I (all of us considered avant-garde players at the time), we thought we were going to record specific tunes and, in fact, we only got some well known standards into the can, together with some of Django's famous compositions. But the way his fingers made them sound, they could have been brand-new. As far as I'm concerned, this is the most beautiful version of "Nuages" he ever recorded. At one point he plays a phrase in such a way it makes me shiver when I listen to the record and every time I hear it I'm moved by it. Did he have a premonition he was going to leave us? I don't know.
What he plays on "Brazil" is quite simply fabulous. There you realize that Parker and Dizzy had made quite an impression on him. It stares you in the face. It's easier to find the classical Django, the orthodox one, on "Manoir de mes Reves" but he plays "Night and Day " or "September Song" like never before. The construction of each recording is identical: statement of the theme, improvisation, restatement of the theme. Django is the only soloist, unlike the situation at the Club Saint-Germain. Only "Blues for Ike" is stated on the guitar and bass. One, two, three takes at the most: he wasn't one to do the same thing twenty times over again. The first version was the best as far as he was concerned. That's when the mind is clear and the ideas are fresh.
As soon as he seemed to find a tape satisfactory, we moved on to something else. He didn't belong to the category of musicians who enjoy torturing themselves. Django didn't know what the word "problem" meant in music. His ear was extraordinary, he had an exceptional, if not unorthodox sense of swing, a limitless imagination, and faultless technique with just two fingers on his left hand. I've talked to other guitarists about that and they admitted they didn't understand how he could do scales; with two fingers it's impossible, it's unthinkable, and he did it. To execute a chromatic scale, you have to have perfect fingering, all the notes are next to each other; well, he went up the scale with a single finger, which takes fabulous synchronization between the slide of the left hand and the right.
From the start, Django had enormous talent, which he later developed by playing with other musicians. It was his way of practicing his instrument. And then he had a sense of music, period. His compositions gave rise to a new folklore that is still exploited by guitarists of his kind. I remember a recording session I was doing, it was in a theatre in Paris. I stayed behind once it was over, then Django came in with Radio Luxembourg’s Symphony Orchestra.
His pieces were placed in a different context, an unusual one, and it was extraordinary. He was completely original. Who were the other guitarists in 1953? Charlie Christian had been dead for a long time, and it was too early for Jimmy Raney, Barney Kessel and Tal Farlow. All his American counterparts I've played with had boundless admiration for him, and talked about him with great sincerity. Django was known all over the world. From the Sixties on, I toured a great deal in countries as far away as New Zealand and many musicians asked me if I'd known him. When I replied that I'd played with him, the questions started flying; "What was he like?" etc.
He was at a crossroads in his musical expression and open to everything new. He was using an electric guitar (not the contrivance he used to tinker with in the early Forties) with complete mastery, and changing his famous sound. This doesn't change the fact that this session, which I think he liked, met with general indifference when it came out.
Django intended to give his own answer to everyone who thought he was over the hill. He was bringing everyone up to date, but nobody could be bothered to look at the calendar.
Pierre MICHELOT Paris, March 1988”
The following video montage features Django on Brazil.