Online Edition: Winter 2004

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Django

The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend

Michael Dregni

Oxford University Press ($35)

by Rick Canning

The great jazz critic Whitney Balliett once pointed out that virtuosity has always been a problem for jazz. That sounds wrong at first, especially to people who don't listen to much jazz, because every famous jazz musician, it seems, is a virtuoso. But Balliett's point is that technique is less important to jazz improvisation than it might seem to be. Jazz musicians don't need to be able to play flawlessly; they just need to be able to communicate. The larger a musician's technique, the stronger the temptation he faces to hide inside it—to play more rather than better. And listeners can hardly help but be dazzled by the fireworks: the scales and arpeggios, the augmented and diminished and inside-out chords, the glissandos, the lightning runs, the oddball intervals. It is dazzling, no question—if also, finally, a little wearisome.

Django Reinhardt, the jazz guitarist who died in 1953, was as dazzling a player as could be imagined, and his life and work is amply celebrated in this new biography by Michael Dregni. Reinhardt had technique enough for two guitarists, maybe three; everywhere he played, jaws dropped. And they're still dropping. To put on one of Reinhardt's recordings today is to be bowled over—but not by technique alone, or even primarily. What strikes the listener with greatest force is joy. Django loved to play, and that love is there in every bar. He amazed himself over and over. The recordings sometimes capture him whooping or laughing as he played, and it's no wonder: he made exuberant, amazing music.

With full use of only two fingers on his left hand (he was injured in fire at the age of 18), Reinhardt could nevertheless do anything he wanted to with a guitar. He was a natural, one of those musicians who seem to play as easily as they breathe. As an accompanist, he was brilliant and probably a little intimidating, with an unerring sense of rhythm, a driving, Gypsy-style tremolo, and a habit of lying low for several bars, then jumping out to hammer four or five passing chords. The impression is of a great vitality only barely restrained.

He was famous, however, for his solos, when the restraints came off and the personality and invention poured out. He had four speeds: slow, medium, fast, and super fast—so fast that sometimes his guitar seemed to buzz like a bee. Speed alone, of course, won't make a good solo, or a good soloist, but it will get a musician noticed; it's a sign of technical proficiency, after all. (According to Dregni, when Reinhardt first heard Gillespie and Parker he shook his head and said, "They play so fast, so fast.") Reinhardt's speed was all the more astounding because of his impaired hand.

But it's perhaps even more impressive that, with so much technique at his disposal, he was able to resist the temptation to rest on it. In Reinhardt's music, the dog almost always wags the tail. He had a superabundant musical imagination. He may or may not have been able to outplay all of his contemporaries, but he could definitely outthink them. Dregni quotes Baro Ferret, "the second best guitarist in Paris," on that point: "Technically, Django did not scare me. It was his mind. He had ideas that I would never have, and that's what killed me."

The result is a music that jumps, like Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, right out of the speakers. It's lively and rollicking, especially when Reinhardt is trading solos with violinist Stéphane Grappelli. Together, they formed a string quintet in 1934—violin, bass, and three guitars. The group was christened the Quintet of the Hot Club of France in early 1935, and the music they recorded over the next few years (Grappelli stayed in England during the war) sounds today at once old-timey and fresh. Swing was king in those days, and both Reinhardt and Grappelli swung so effortlessly that it's easy not to miss the drums and piano.

Django's story is a romantic one, and Dregni covers it thoroughly: his Gypsy childhood, living in a caravan, traveling with the seasons, stealing chickens, catching trout with his bare hands; his early years playing the banjo-guitar; his adventures down the seedier streets of Paris; his extravagant improvidence, gambling away his money or blowing it on big cars and white Stetson hats; his fear of flying, of dentists, of ghosts; his whimsical attitude toward commitments, especially gigs. The book is punctuated with backstage scenes of exasperated band members, ready to perform, asking each other "Where's Django!?" He's usually in a bar, or playing billiards, or just home in bed.

One of the most interesting chapters treats Reinhardt's happy days during the Occupation. Across Europe, tens of thousands of Gypsies were rounded up and killed, eighteen thousand in France alone. Jazz, too, was outlawed; it was degenerate, modernistique, mongrel. Yet Django, the Gypsy jazzman, flourished. He formed his Nouveau Quintette and played everywhere, for everyone—including Nazi officials, many of whom, it turned out, loved jazz.

After the war, the first new 78s to arrive from America brought bebop to France, and that meant the end of swing. Django was ready to move on musically, and he had long dreamed of going to the United States. In 1946-'47, he got the chance, touring the country with Duke Ellington, but apparently Reinhardt came with a few misconceptions. For one thing, he didn't bother to bring his guitar, assuming he would be presented with new ones. The music he made with Ellington, playing an electric guitar, was by most accounts excellent, but Reinhardt was disappointed with the experience, and homesick, too. Success or failure, however, the tour exposed him to the latest American jazz, and it helped to modernize his sound, as Dregni points out. His later recordings clearly show him moving in new directions, mastering bebop idioms and the electric guitar and sounding very different from the prewar Django.

According to the jacket copy, Dregni's book is the "first major critical biography" of Reinhardt, which means that fans have been waiting a long time. Unfortunately, unless they have a particular relish for alliteration and punchy writing, they probably won't feel the wait has been worth it. Dregni has clearly done his homework; his bibliography is impressive, and he appears to know everything about anyone who ever played music in prewar Paris. But his writing frequently gets in the way. One of his favorite, and most distracting, devices is the melodramatic sentence, usually isolated at the beginning or the end of section, the better to stop the reader dead in his tracks: "Django was haunted by nightmares of flames"; "It began with a broken string"; "Inside, was a simple 78 that went off like a bomb."

Still, though the writing isn't as strong as it might be, this book tells the whole story, and is full of insight about the man, his times, and his music. And in the end, it's the music that matters. If this biography spurs readers to discover or rediscover Django Reinhardt, it will earn its place on the bookshelf.

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Winter 2004 Table of Contents