May 16, 1953 – Jean Baptiste “Django” Reinhardt was born on January 23, 1910 in Liberchies, Pont-à-Celles, Belgium, into a French family of Manouche Romani descent. His father was named Jean Eugene Weiss, but used the alias “Jean-Baptiste Reinhard” on the birth certificate to hide from French military conscription. His mother, Laurence Reinhardt, was a dancer. The birth certificate refers to: « Jean Reinhart, son of Jean Baptiste Reinhart, artist, and Laurence Reinhart, housewife, domiciled in Paris. Reinhardt’s nickname “Django”, in Romani means “I awake.” Reinhardt spent most of his youth in Romani encampments close to Paris, where he started playing violin, banjo, and guitar. His family made cane furniture for a living, but its members included several keen amateur musicians.
Reinhardt was attracted to music at an early age, first playing the violin. At the age of 12 he received a banjo-guitar as a gift. He quickly learned to play, mimicking the fingerings of musicians he watched. His first known recordings, made in 1927, were of him playing the banjo and guitar. Reinhardt was able to make a living playing music by the time he was 15. He received little formal education and acquired the rudiments of literacy only in adult life.
In 1928 in Saint-Ouen, Seine-Saint-Denis, Reinhardt was injured in a fire which ravaged the caravan he shared with Florine “Bella” Mayer, his first wife. They were very poor, and to supplement their income, Bella made imitation flowers out of celluloid and paper. Returning from a performance late one night, Reinhardt apparently knocked over a candle on his way to bed, igniting these highly flammable materials. While his family and neighbors were quick to pull him to safety, he received first- and second-degree burns over half his body. His right leg was paralyzed, and the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand were badly burned. Doctors believed that he would never play guitar again, and intended to amputate one of his legs. Reinhardt refused to have the surgery and left the hospital after a short time; he was able to walk within a year with the aid of a cane.
His brother Joseph Reinhardt, also an accomplished guitarist, bought Django a new guitar. With rehabilitation and practice, he relearned his craft in a completely new way, even as his fourth and fifth fingers remained partially paralyzed. He played all his guitar solos with only two fingers, and used the two injured digits only for chord work.
His lifelong friendship with violonist Stéphane Grappelli culminated into some of the best avant garde music ever made. He was a founding member of the Hot Club Quintet along with jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, playing American jazz in French clubs and went on to become one of the most renowned jazz and bebop guitarists of all time, his unique sound made him an international star, and he is credited with being among the first to elevate the guitar from a rhythm instrument to a solo instrument.
Although not a rock and roller persé, Django’s guitar playing influenced so many rockers and blues rockers that he deserves a shrine in Rock and Roll Paradise.
Virtually every guitarist from all genre cite Django as an influence from Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi to George Benson to Willie Nelson and Jimi Hendrix named his band the Band of Gypsys in honor of Django’s music.
Tributes and Influences
• Many guitar players, and musicians, have expressed admiration for Django Reinhardt, or have cited him as a major influence. Jeff Beck has described Reinhardt as “By far the most astonishing guitar player ever…” and “…quite superhuman… His electric playing in the forties is just humiliating. His lead lick–whew! I slow them down, and I still can’t grasp what he’s doing.
• Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, both of whom lost fingers in accidents, were inspired by Reinhardt’s example of becoming an accomplished guitar player/musician, despite his injuries. Jerry Garcia was quoted in June 1985 in Frets Magazine:
“His technique is awesome! Even today, nobody has really come to the state that he was playing at. As good as players are, they haven’t gotten to where he is. There’s a lot of guys that play fast and a lot of guys that play clean, and the guitar has come a long way as far as speed and clarity go, but nobody plays with the whole fullness of expression that Django has. I mean, the combination of incredible speed – all the speed you could possibly want – but also the thing of every note have a specific personality. You don’t hear it. I really haven’t heard it anywhere but with Django”.
• Members of Paul McCartney’s band Wings, both Denny Laine and Jimmy McCulloch have mentioned him as an inspiration.
• ”Django,” an instrumental guitar piece by renowned blues-rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa, is in his honor. The piece was influenced by the violin introduction of “Vous et Moi” (Blues et Mineur, 1942, Brussels), in which Reinhardt played the violin. Vous et Moi (You and Me) became the title of Bonamassa’s sixth album, where the track first appeared in 2006. Slightly longer live versions appear on LIVE…From Nowhere in Particular (2009), and in DVD from his 4 May concert at Royal Albert Hall.
• ”Django,” composed by John Lewis, has become a jazz standard performed by musicians such as Miles Davis. The Modern Jazz Quartet titled one of their albums Django in his honour.
• The Allman Brothers Band song “Jessica” was written by Dickey Betts in tribute to Reinhardt.
• Camel’s Andrew Latimer has talked of being influenced by Reinhardt.
Composer Jon Larsen has composed several crossover concerts featuring Reinhardt-inspired music together with symphonic arrangements, most famous are “White Night Stories” (2002) and “Vertavo” (1996).
• Dutch/Cuban composer and guitarist Leo Brouwer composed Variations on a Theme of Django Reinhardt for solo guitar (1984). It is based on Nuages, by Reinhardt.
• Django and Jimmie album by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard
The Lost Fingers, a French Canadian gypsy jazz band, owe their name to Reinhardt and the loss of his two fingers in a fire.
• Reinhardt is referred to in the opening sequence of the 2003 animated film Les Triplettes de Belleville.
• His legacy is referred to in Woody Allen’s 1999 Sweet and Lowdown. This spoof biopic features fictional American guitarist Emmet Ray’s obsession with Reinhardt, with soundtrack featuring Howard Alden.
• Reinhardt is portrayed by guitarist John Jorgenson in the movie, Head in the Clouds.
• In the movie Swing Kids, the character Arvid has his hand damaged by a member of the Hitler Jugend, but is inspired by Reinhardt’s example to keep playing.
• Noddy Holder of glam rock band Slade and his wife Suzan Price named their son Django in honour of Reinhardt.
• Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi recounted that he suffered an industrial accident at 17, and lost the tips of two fingers. His boss played a Django Reinhardt record to inspire him to pursue his dream of being a guitarist.
• Reinhardt’s music has been used in the soundtrack of many films, including in The Matrix; Rhythm Futur, Daltry Calhoun, Metroland, Chocolat, The Aviator, Alex and the Gypsy, Kate and Leopold and Gattaca; the score for Louis Malle’s 1974 movie, Lacombe Lucien; the background for the Steve Martin movie L.A. Story; and the background for a number of Woody Allen movies, including Stardust Memories.
• Reinhardt’s music has also been featured in the soundtracks of several video games, such as the 2002 game Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven, Mafia II and in the 2007, 2010, and 2013 games, BioShock, BioShock 2, and BioShock Infinite.
• Reinhardt’s music used in the 1978 film King of the Gypsies (film), and his long-time friend Stéphane Grappelli appeared in the film in a cameo performing as a violinist in a gypsy band. In the Martin Scorsese film, Hugo, 2011, a character who is credited as Reinhardt plays guitar in a combo in the station café. The character identified as Django is played by Emil Lager.
• ”Django” (1954) is a gypsy-flavored piece that jazz pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet wrote in his honor. Numerous versions of the song have been recorded, including one on the 1973 Lindsey Buckingham/Stevie Nicks self-titled debut album.
• ”Tango For Django”, a track on Robbie Robertson’s 2011 album How To Become Clairvoyant, is a tribute.
• Reinhardt inspired Harlan Ellison’s short story “Django”, published in the collections Shatterday and Dreams With Sharp Teeth.
• On January 23, 2010 the French and Belgian Google homepages displayed a logo commemorating the centenary of Reinhardt’s birth, who was born on 23 January 1910. The Django web framework is named after Reinhardt, as is version 3.1 of the blog software WordPress.
• The Belgian government issued a commemorative coin in 92.5% sterling silver in 2010 coinciding with his 100th birth anniversary. It is a silver 10 Euro coin with a color image of Django Reinhardt on the reverse side.
• He is mentioned in the opening line of The Statler Brothers’ song “Chet Atkins’ Hand”. The opening line starts with “Thank you Les Paul, thank you Django, thank you Merle….”.
• The movie Django Melodies by the French filmmaker Étienne Comar (fr) depicting Django’s life during War Time saw the light in 2016. The French actor Reda Kateb plays the part of Django.
On May 16, 1953, while walking from the Avon railway station after playing in a Paris club, Django collapsed outside his house from a brain hemorrhage. It was a Saturday and it took a full day for a doctor to arrive. Reinhardt was declared dead on arrival at the hospital in Fontainebleau at the age of 43.