Exactly 100 years ago, Sidney Bechet and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band visited England for the first time—and soon after, European musicians started playing jazz-inflected dance music. But from then to now, only one European-born instrumentalist has come to be widely recognized as a full-fledged giant of jazz: Django Reinhardt, who made his first recordings as a soloist in 1934 and subsequently became known throughout Europe. By the time of his death in 1953, his records, by turns fiery and tenderly lyrical, had won him lasting acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic—an acclaim that extends far beyond the tight little world of jazz. It includes such celebrated guitarists as Chet Atkins, Jerry Garcia, Merle Haggard, George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Les Paul, Doc Watson, and Willie Nelson, who calls him “the best guitar player ever.” 1

Born in Belgium in 1910 and raised in a horse-drawn Gypsy caravan, Reinhardt did not learn to read or write until adulthood and never learned how to read music. Sensitive about his lack of education, he concealed his self-consciousness by affecting a casual attitude toward his career, showing up at gigs and recording sessions whenever it suited him to do so, if he bothered to come at all. Philip Larkin, a staunch admirer, described him as “fond of gambling, too proud to carry his guitar, and almost entirely unreliable.”

The only thing about Reinhardt on which it was possible to rely was his iron determination to play the guitar as well as it could be played. A child prodigy who started performing at the age of 12, he permanently damaged the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand in a 1928 fire. This forced him to reconstruct his technique from scratch, which he did with awe-inspiring completeness.

Reinhardt started out playing Gypsy folk tunes and, later, commercial café music. Then, in 1931, a friend introduced him to Louis Armstrong’s 1927 Hot Five recording of “Savoy Blues.” Staggered by his first encounter with the greatest of all jazzmen, he cried out, “My brother! My brother!” By then, he was already playing a rudimentary form of jazz picked up from now-forgotten touring American bands that played in the raucous style of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. It was Armstrong’s vastly more sophisticated example, however, that emboldened Reinhardt to treat the guitar not as a mere time-keeping device but as a vehicle for solo playing. Save for Eddie Lang, he was the first major jazz soloist to play guitar. When Armstrong, Benny Carter, Duke Ellington, and Coleman Hawkins heard Reinhardt in Paris in the mid-’30s, they saw at once that his innovative style, which owed almost as much to European folk and popular music as it did to American jazz, had made him their equal, the only European instrumentalist whom they acknowledged as a peer.

No one has described his playing more vividly or succinctly than Richard M. Sudhalter:

His daredevil single-string solos, interspersed with rolls, glisses, rifle-shot punctuations and biting chordal passages, seemed to reflect his gypsy heritage. Certainly his tone, vibrato, and attack bespoke that background: in his hands the guitar sang a passionate, rhapsodic song.

Reinhardt’s chief problem was that his unamplified guitar was difficult to hear over a conventional rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums, especially in bands that also included horns. In addition, his steel-strung Selmer instrument lacked the sustaining power of the electric guitar, which was not taken up by jazzmen until Charlie Christian joined Benny Goodman’s band in 1939. Many features of Reinhardt’s playing, including the sharp, near-pointillistic attack of his picking and the mandolin-like tremolos that became his trademark, were designed to offset these deficiencies. So, too, was the unorthodox instrumentation of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, with which he performed from 1934 to 1939. This group, a drummerless “string band,” consisted of violin, three acoustic guitars, and double bass, a lineup transparent enough in timbre to let his solos stand out.

Similarly important was the presence of Stéphane Grappelli (1908–1997), the quintet’s other front-line soloist. A Paris Conservatory–trained classical violinist turned pop musician, Grappelli used a silken style that provided a perfect foil for the guitarist’s wilder improvisations. Grappelli’s level-headed demeanor also compensated for Reinhardt’s unpredictable behavior.

In December 1934, three weeks after their public debut, Reinhardt, Grappelli, and the quintet cut their first records. “Dinah,” the first tune to be recorded by the quintet, is characteristic of its approach. Reinhardt leads off with a four-bar solo introduction, after which the three rhythm players lay down a brisk, chugging two-four beat that swings in a quaint-sounding but nonetheless propulsive manner. The guitarist then charges through two choruses in which he paraphrases the tune without ever stating it from start to finish. Unlike Armstrong, whose solos were freely based on the melodies of the songs he played, Reinhardt improvised on their harmonies, flying up and down the fingerboard in roulades that sounded complex but could be played for the most part with his two good fingers. In addition, he sprinkles explosive chordal interjections whose effect is not unlike the riffing of a big band throughout Grappelli’s solo (“Having Django accompany me was like having a philharmonic behind you,” Grappelli said).

Reinhardt’s balladry was, if anything, even more striking. It was rare in 1934 for jazz instrumentalists to play very slow ballads—they typically favored more danceable medium tempos—but Reinhardt and Grappelli were just as adept at ballads like the guitarist’s own “My Serenade” (1937), which they played in a languorous manner that made it easier for him to show off his command of the chromatically altered harmonies favored by Hawkins, Ellington, and Art Tatum.

The composer-critic Constant Lambert heard the quintet in 1937 and described its leader as “one of the most brilliant technicians on the guitar I have ever heard…undoubtedly the most interesting figure in [jazz] band music since Duke Ellington.” But other listeners were less willing to accept his playing, or the sound of the quintet as a whole, on its own idiosyncratic terms. The influential critic and record producer John Hammond, for instance, admitted that “there is no other group remotely like” the quintet, but his praise, especially of Reinhardt, was grudging:

There really is a certain swing to all of the records they have made.…Reinhardt would be magnificent except that single-string guitar pyrotechnics are bound to become fatiguing in the long run.

Possibly in part for this reason, Reinhardt moved in new artistic directions as soon as his partnership with Grappelli was sundered by World War II. The group was touring England when war broke out in the fall of 1939. Even though both men were at risk of extermination by the Nazis, Reinhardt because of his Gypsy lineage and Grappelli because he was homosexual, they responded differently to the coming of war. Grappelli stayed in England, while Reinhardt returned to Paris and launched a new quintet. It is noteworthy that Reinhardt, unlike most of his fellow Gypsies, escaped Nazi internment. Indeed, he was never more popular or successful than during the war.

Did he stay out of the death camps by collaborating with the Germans? Only, so far as is known, in the formal sense of the word: His new band played for German soldiers on leave in Vichy France. To be sure, jazz was still regarded as entartete musik (degenerate music) by the Nazis, but it remained popular with the German people. For this reason, the occupying authorities were willing to look the other way at the racial background of France’s greatest jazz musician, so long as he was willing in turn to entertain German audiences.

Reinhardt also continued to record during the war, and these performances show how his stylistic inclinations were evolving. While Reinhardt himself continued to eschew amplification, his solo style now grew sparer and more clean-lined, as can be heard on “Swing 42” (1941), “Douce ambiance” and “Blues clair” (both 1943). He also made the first recordings of his two best-loved ballads, “Nuages” (1940) and “Manoir de mes rêves” (1943), whose long, sensuous melodies leave no doubt that for all his astonishing virtuosity, Reinhardt had a strongly pronounced romantic streak.

What he needed was the galvanizing challenge of working with an American rhythm section. He got it when Glenn Miller’s Army Air Forces Orchestra came to France early in 1945 (Miller himself had been killed on a military plane in 1944). Reinhardt recorded with Miller’s rhythm team, which featured the drummer Ray McKinley and the pianist Mel Powell, two of the top jazzmen of the swing era.2 The 78s that they cut together in Paris show that Reinhardt adjusted with ease to the more extroverted playing of his American colleagues—but again made it clear that an unamplified acoustic guitar was still hard to hear in a jazz combo containing both horns and drums.

Two years later, Reinhardt came to the U.S. for the first time to tour with Duke Ellington as a featured soloist, borrowing an electric guitar in order to be heard clearly in the large concert halls where Ellington’s band performed. He also visited the jazz clubs on New York’s 52nd Street and sat in with the instrumentalists who were then perfecting the style of avant-garde jazz known as bebop. Reinhardt had previously heard the early recordings of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in Paris, to which his response was a bewildered “They play so fast, so fast!” But the more often he worked with younger rhythm sections, the more fully he assimilated bebop, as can be heard in the recordings that he made in 1949 with Grappelli and an Italian rhythm section. Though Reinhardt played acoustic guitar at these sessions and cut lush versions of such popular French ballads as Charles Trenet’s “Beyond the Sea (La Mer),” his fleet-footed remakes of “Djangology” and “Minor Swing,” two staples of the quintet’s prewar repertory, were full of subtly boppish touches.

After 1949, Reinhardt switched permanently to electric guitar. His fame was in eclipse in France, perhaps because he had come to be identified with the unhappy days of the Nazi occupation. But Norman Granz, the American jazz impresario and a talent scout of uncanny acuity, sensed that the guitarist’s best days were ahead of him. In 1953, Granz invited Reinhardt to join Jazz at the Philharmonic, a now-legendary series of concert tours that brought together such noted artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, and Lester Young.

At the same time, Reinhardt taped an album called The Great Artistry of Django Reinhardt for Clef, Granz’s record label, on which he can be heard playing gorgeous remakes of “Nuages” and “Manoir de mes rêves” with a rhythm section of young French musicians. By now, the 43-year-old Reinhardt had mastered his amplified instrument. Its sustaining power added tonal richness to his playing, and, like Coleman Hawkins, another swing-era giant who came to terms with the bebop revolution, he salted his solos with idiomatic-sounding bop phrases while remaining fundamentally true to his long-established style.

It was evident that Reinhardt was more than up to the challenge of making a full-scale comeback, not merely as a nostalgia act but as an up-to-date jazzman. Alas, it never happened: Unwilling to put himself in the hands of the doctors who had subjected him to unimaginable suffering after his 1928 accident, he had allowed his health to deteriorate past the point of no return. Hypertension caused him to collapse and die of a cerebral hemorrhage just two months after taping The Great Artistry.

Today, Reinhardt’s reputation has never been higher, and his music is loved by critics, listeners, and musicians of all kinds. Still, it is the recorded legacy of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France that has turned out to be his chief claim on the attention of posterity. Those recordings have a powerful stylistic individuality all their own. Their versions of prewar standards such as “Night and Day” and “Sweet Georgia Brown,” though lacking nothing in musical sophistication, have a rough-hewn, at times almost folk-like sound that appeals to younger listeners who care little for jazz.

Whatever the reasons, Reinhardt’s music shows no signs of diminishing in popularity 66 years after his death. In America as well as Europe, guitarists such as Biréli Lagrène and groups such as the Hot Club of Detroit continue to play acoustic “Gypsy jazz” in a style closely modeled after that of the Hot Club Quintet. Its enduring value came as no surprise whatsoever to Grappelli, who outlived his colleague by 44 years and kept on playing to the end. “My life started when I met Django,” he said a half-century after the two men launched their collaboration. “Because in those days, before him, I was a musician, playing here, playing there; but I realized when I was with Django, we can produce something not ordinary.” And so they did.

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1 The best anthology of Reinhardt’s recordings is Rétrospective: Django Reinhardt 1934–53 (Saga/Sunny Side, three CDs), a 2003 French set containing 58 well-chosen tracks. It is out of print in the U.S. but can easily be obtained through Amazon and other online dealers. Except as indicated, all recordings mentioned by name in this essay are in Rétrospective.
2 These performances, which include “Hallelujah,” “How High the Moon,” “If Dreams Come True,” and “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” are on Paris 1945: Django Reinhardt with the [sic] Glenn Miller’s All Stars (Warner).