Django Reinhardt, en 1946.
Django Reinhardt, en 1946. © Getty

10 (Little) Things You Might Not Know About Django Reinhardt

Let's explore the life and personality of this famous jazz guitarist.

Django. This name alone is enough to evoke one of the most important guitarists of French jazz. 

He was born Jean Reinhardt on the 23rd of January 1910, in Liberchies, Belgium. Reinhardt was a gypsy child and was immediately given the nickname, Django, which means "I wake up".

He wore simple, checkered suits and had a thin mustache; he was usually seen with a cigarette in his mouth. His virtuoso guitar playing mixed genres and gave rise to gypsy jazz.

A Painting Buff 

As a child, Django spent his time making small caravans from recycled materials, his mother hoped that he would become craftsman. She could not have known that his true talent was the guitar. 

He would later hear pieces by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, for the first time, in the studio of the painter Emile Savitry. In that moment he fell in love with jazz, but also for painting. He spent all of his life exploring these two disciplines. 

Exposition des oeuvres de Django Reinhardt à la Cité de la musique (Philharmonie) de Paris, en 2012.
Exposition des oeuvres de Django Reinhardt à la Cité de la musique (Philharmonie) de Paris, en 2012. © Radio France  /  Matthias Abherve

Genre Bending 

Django's father, Jean-Baptiste Vées, was a traveling artist. He worked as a violinist, guitarist and juggler. Although he left before Django's eighth birthday, Django grew up surrounded by gypsy music. 

Django began performing on the banjo learning repertoire from his family and his neighbours, that he would later masterfully blend with jazz. He showed an early interest in American music, but began his career playing very different music at dances and for variety acts. 

Le chanteur Jean Sablon, que Django accompagne régulièrement au début des années 30. Jean Sablon est le premier chanteur français à utiliser un microphone sur scène, en 1936.
Le chanteur Jean Sablon, que Django accompagne régulièrement au début des années 30. Jean Sablon est le premier chanteur français à utiliser un microphone sur scène, en 1936. © Getty

Regularly 'missing' 

Django had a thirst for freedom and independence. He was ruled by his heart and when he did not want to play he could not. You could wait for him, send a car, promise him a good fee, tell him that all of Paris had come to see him, but it would make no difference. 

This was not done out of spite. Django simply did not consider music to be a profession, but rather a way of life. 

This unpredictability was perhaps due to his nomadic upbringing, which he could never entirely leave behind. He lived for a long time in a trailer, then settled in apartments in Montmartre, Pigalle, and Saint-Germain-des-Prés. He always maintained a desire for freedom, and led a quiet, independent life.

Two Missing Fingers 

He was just 18 when he lost his little finger and left ring finger. He is already a famous musician on the Parisian dance scene, where he accompanied the accordionists. 

At 18, Django married Bella, a girl from his gypsy camp. But one evening, he inadvertently dropped a candle in their caravan, and only just escaped the fire that claimed their home. 

The entire left side of his body was badly burned and to spend 18 months in hospital. It only took him a few months to relearn his instrument, after leaving hospital, even with two less fingers. 

Django or Joseph?

Django had a younger brother, Joseph Reinhardt, who was also a talented musician. When Django was in no mood to perform on stage, he would send Joseph on in his stead. 

In November 1936, when Django's Quintet, the Hot Club de France was invited to Zurich, he disappeared. To avoid this news reaching the headlines, the other musicians in the band asked Joseph to pose as Django. The audience were none the wiser and the concert was a great success.

The Zurich trick gave Joseph a new-found confidence in his abilities; he no longer wanted to remain in the shadow of his elder brother. The relationship between the two brothers was complicated, and occasionally tinged with rivalry.

Django (en premier plan) et son frère Joseph sur scène avec le Quintette du Hot Club, en 1934.
Django (en premier plan) et son frère Joseph sur scène avec le Quintette du Hot Club, en 1934. © Getty

Charles Delaunay, The Man in the Shadows 

Behind the dazzling rise of Django Reinhardt lies the work and ambition of his manager, Charles Delaunay. Delauney came from a bourgeois background, and was the son of renowned painters (Robert and Sonia Delaunay). Charles was deeply passionate about jazz and wanted to promote French swing.

He was struck by Django Reinhardt's talent, and worked hard to develop the career of the guitarist. Where Django saw a music scene dominated by improvisation between friends, Charles Delaunay saw the opportunity to position him as the head of a French school of jazz and to launch a great recording career. 

Indeed, Delauney did turn out to be a masterful manager. During the Occupation, for example, when everything from the United States was banned and jazz was defined as "Judeo-Negro music" by the Germans, Charles Delaunay had the idea of simply making the titles of the songs Django performed more French; In the Mood became Ambiance, Dinah became Dinette and Lady Be Good was renamed Les bigoudis... even if no one was really fooled, Django's concerts escaped censorship.

Reinhardt and Grappelli, An Unexpected Duet 

Stéphane Grappelli, a violinist of humble origins, walked the same streets and frequented the same cafes as Django Reinhardt, in Paris. In the early 1930s, they performed in the same orchestra, that of bassist Louis Vola. It was during rehearsals that the pair really clicked, rather than on stage. 

During a break, as Grappelli was tuning his violin after replacing one of his strings, Django responded with some guitar chords. They improvised together and the genius duo was born.

The American Odyssey 

Django admired the jazz scene from across the Atlantic, while his recordings were enjoyed in the States. When Paris was liberated in August 1944, many Allied soldiers rushed to come and hear the famous gypsy guitarist.

Django was also invited to give a series of concerts in New York by Duke Ellington. He rushed across, ready to realise his American dream, but experienced bitter disappointment. He did not speak a word of English, and struggled to communicate. He even angered Duke Ellington by arriving late for a concert; he had met boxer Marcel Cerdan in a bar, lost track of time and then did not then give the correct address to the taxi.

No duets or recordings were made by Ellington and Reinhardt. Though the American public had hurried to see the ambassador of french jazz, they did not all appreciate his way of making music. Less than a year after landing in New York, he was on his way back in Paris.

Django Reinhardt et Duke Ellington.
Django Reinhardt et Duke Ellington.  © Getty

Almost Illiterate

Django received little to no schooling, so could not read or write. On his first recordings, he signed his name "Jeangot" or "Jiango Renard" because he did not know how to spell his own name. 

His illiteracy greatly complicated administrative situations, his travels, and also caused copyright issues. His heirs had to fight contracts that their grandfather had not understand or read.

Stéphane Grappelli later showed him how to sign his name, and clarinettist Gérard Lévêque taught him how to write. Django wrote them both touchingly sincere letters from the United States, in small capital letters, without punctuation or paragraphs.

Far From Carefree

During the Occupation of Paris (1940-1944), Django continued to perform on stage because he was protected by his fame and the admiration of some German officers. But when the German State asked him to play in Germany, he was forced to flee the capital and hid in Thonon-les-Bains, in the Haute-Savoie. 

Dans le film « Django », sorti en avril 2017, le réalisateur Étienne Comar raconte la fuite de Django (interprété par Reda Kateb) en Haute-Savoie, et sa tentative de passage en Suisse.
Dans le film « Django », sorti en avril 2017, le réalisateur Étienne Comar raconte la fuite de Django (interprété par Reda Kateb) en Haute-Savoie, et sa tentative de passage en Suisse.  © AFP
You are listening to :