He died right around the time my mother was born – and I read all about him in a guitar magazine when I was 13. He was my hero. I bought tapes and listened to anything I could find – it was Django Reinhardt in between Beastie Boys and Deep Purple and Dire Straits and Public Enemy and whatever else.
I was starting to get into some jazz – I grew up with things like Glenn Miller and The Buddy Rich Big Band, a few of the other old staples too: Sinatra, Benny Goodman, Bud Powell and Count Basie but apart from George Benson (and at that stage mostly his funk and pop stuff, the seventies and eighties material) I didn’t really know much at all about jazz guitar.
I did already know about Stephane Grappelli – so finding out that he and Django had played together, in that famous Quintette du Hot Club de France was what sealed the deal.
Me and my Django tape. I’d sneak listens to it down the back of the bus on sports trips while Pink Floyd and the Pixies, Violent Femmes and AC/DC played through the main stereo. I liked all that stuff too – in most cases it was my tapes the other players had borrowed and begged the bus-driver to play – LOUD – for everyone. But there I was hunched down over the red Walkman listening in awe as Django played these blistering solos, spry, full of humour and grace and skill. They sounded happy – those solos. Little runs. Just two fingers to put them into place (his fourth and fifth fingers had been paralyzed with burns).
And he looked cool too. Not much footage – not back then, pre-internet. Not many photos. But invariably looking benevolently down at the guitar, cigarette smouldering.
Django was born Jean Reinhardt. A gypsy – part of the Romani people. He was born in Belgium. He worked in France. It was the 1930s and 1940s and there are so many cheap compilations available now – and any record collection should have one or two records. That Hot Club stuff. A must.
Django wrote a handful of classic pieces – two handfuls even. Standards: Nuages, Minor Swing, Swing ’42, Daphne, Djangology…
Loads of people have written songs for him, covered his tunes, written pieces in his style – cited the influence. There are characters in films named after him, for him. If you haven’t then you should see Woody Allen’s Sweet & Lowdown. A strange and affectionate tribute. You’ll hear his music in so many movies – Woody’s Stardust Memories, Steve Martin’s L.A Story, The Aviator, Kate and Leopold, heck even The Matrix – well, too many movies to name anyway, there are hundreds of places where you can hear the music.
Most often you hear it – a version of it – in the playing of others. Robbie Robertson and Lindsey Buckingham and B.B. King and Tony Iommi are just a handful of different-sounding, distinctive players who have repaid the debt of influence in some way. Allegedly it was a Django Reinhardt record that convinced Iommi he could play after injuring his hand, losing the tips of two fingers.
So, we have Django Reinhardt’s gypsy-jazz to thank for Black Sabbath.
Something we probably take for granted. Or never realised, or never much think about.
Django’s pinches and runs are all over the Buckingham/Nicks record and the sound they would cultivate on the eponymous 1975 Fleetwood Mac album and then Rumours.
But it’s best if you hear it yourself – as he played it. Those wry, mournful songs – ballads with just a hint of cheek to them. A wink and a smile, but the feeling – first – that a tear might have dropped, would have had to as inspiration for the writing and playing of such pieces.
There are those names you hear about – and you wonder, after all these years, if they’re really that special. If it’s worth it – the world has surely moved on…there are other times when should know never to question history.
Time feels like it stands still when I go back and listen to a Django Reinhardt record. I’m 13 again. Curled up over the red Walkman, possibly even hiding the tape-cover from the rest of the world. Not for any shame. Just holding it close. So close. For that sound, profound, pleasing, beautiful, always seemed so special to me.
This was originally published as part of a series on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page.