Django and Les Paul –
How High the Moon
I first heard Django Reinhardt in 1935 when I was in Chicago on the radio.
In those days, we used to have to buy the records for the station ourselves. So my friend Harry Zimmerman went over to get the records one day, and he came back and said, “I want you to sit down, because I’ve got 2 players I want you to hear.” It was Django Reinhardt Stephane Grappelli. I just about went into shock; I’d never heard anything so great-and I didn’t realise he was doing all this with only a couple of fret fingers!
Then around 1946 I was playing at the Paramount Theatre in New York, and the stagehand yelled up to the dressing room, “There’s a fellow named Django Reinhardt here to see you.” So I said, “Send him up and send Jesus with him” you know, I thought it was a joke. He came upstairs with Johnny Smith, and of course I was very surprised. I considered him the greatest guitar player around. Django asked for a pick, so I reached in my pocket and gave him a choice of a whole bunch. He made me feel good, because he picked out the Les Paul pick and I doubt that he knew it was mine. Johnny Smith grabbed one of my spare guitars, and they started to jam, and I heard Django play for the 1st time in person. I was very honoured and pleased to have him in the dressing room there, playing it. It was a little hard for us to communicate, but we got along fairly well between all of us, we managed to figure out who was saying what.
Later I saw Django on the same trip with Duke Ellington, in Ohio. Throughout his whole tour, he hadn’t brought his guitar, so he was playing an electric Gibson ES-300, and it didn’t do him justice like his own acoustic Selmer Maccaferri.
When he got back home to Paris, he began to change his style, because he heard our way of playing over here. He even started playing my choruses and those of other guitarists here in the States. I told him he should never copy us, because we were copying him! Django had recorded a copy of my version of “Brazil” and also “How High The Moon.” But he was totally confused with the electric guitar; it was a real opponent to him, because he used a very stiff pick and was a down-picker.
Then in 1951, I landed in Paris and found Stephane Grappelli playing piano in a little bar. Stephane said, “If you find Django I’ll be surprised, because I haven’t seen him in 2 years.” So I gave $40.00, two $20.00 bills, to 2 cab drivers but I tore them in half. I said, “You get the other half when you find Django.” The next morning, Django called me from South France, and he was there the next day with me. We went to a music store and jammed, and he picked out a Selmer Maccaferri guitar for me with an amplifier and a pickup. He told me he was very depressed. He’d gone down to the Gypsy camp to fish and goof off, because the people were not accepting him. The club owners would say, “I’ll hire you for 5 dollars tonight, but the first time you leave that melody you’re going to be right out in the street.” So I talked him into playing again.
The last time I saw Django alive, we were riding in the back seat of a taxi, and he tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I could read music. I said, no, I didn’t, and he laughed ’till he was crying and said, “Well, I can’t read either. I don’t even know what a C is; I just play them.” I talked to Django at length about his fingers. And they were open wounds. He’d soften them with powder. ‘Till the day he died, those wounds never healed. When he got depressed he’d ask me, “Am I good?” I said, “I think you’re the greatest.” “Well, why is it I’m not accepted?” He couldn’t understand why. I told him, “When I was in Chicago, I got a violin, a bass, and another guitarist, and proceeded to copy Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli; I idolise you so much.” I ranked Django then and I rank him now, like [pianist] Art Tatum and [tenor saxophonists] Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, all the greats. When they died, they just closed the coffin; they just took it with them. They are probably the masters and always will be. Though today we find many more talented guitar players, we still don’t find any greater guitar players than the master. Oscar Peterson can become so great on the piano, but he still talks about Art Tatum as being greater.
Today, with guitar players who are real superstars, one will have the technique but no feeling, one can pick fast but can’t play slow, the other is slow but doesn’t have any speed, another won’t have the fire of Django. Reindhardt’s probably the only one who had most of this together. If you stop and think, when we were kids we had a choice of only Eddie Lang, Dick McDonough and Carl Kress (Below) and then the air got very thin there wasn’t anybody around.
Nowadays there are a million guitar players, and the calibre has improved, but the geniuses still remain few – guitarists who can make the instrument talk. You can turn on the washing machine if you want to hear technical things. It’s hard to beat a Rhythm Master, but it has no feeling. The 3rd time I went to Paris to see Django, he had just died. His wife had none of his records, no phonograph, no running water, no electricity, nothing.
So we went out and bought a gravestone for him, and clothes for her, and a phonograph, and all the recordings of Django we could find. Then I asked her if it was okay for me to get her some money, and she said she’d be very happy. So I called a publishing firm and the record companies, and said, “Look, I’m taking over his catalogue, and we want to send in an accountant to check it out.” This scared a lot of them right out of their shoes. They made a settlement for $10,000 with his wife.
I was only around Django 4 different times, but each time we spent a lot of time together – days and weeks. He was a very sweet man; he loved to laugh. We were very close and had a great admiration for each other.
The Paramount Theatre on Times Square opened on November 16, 1926. Today, only the lobby remains, now gutted, with the auditorium demolished. Paramount Theatre lobby was modelled after the Paris Opera House with white marble columns, balustrades and an opening arms grand staircase. Inside, drapes were red velvet, the rugs were a similar red. The theatre also had a grand organ, and an orchestra pit that rose up to the stage level. The ceilings were fresco and gilt. The railings were brass, and the seats plush. There were Greek statues and busts in wall niches. The rest rooms and waiting rooms were as grand as any cathedral. In the main lobby there was an enormous crystal chandelier. Over the years, many of the top stars performed there, including Benny Goodman, Harry James, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra and dozens of the era’s luminaries. After years of showing movies and shows, the Paramount Theatre was closed on August 4, 1964 with Alan Ladd in “The Carpetbaggers”. The auditorium was demolished and the entrance and lobby areas were gutted to make way for office and retail space.
The Paramount Theatre was in a separate building sandwiched between the Paramount Building and the headquarters of The New York Times, located at 229 West 43rd Street. The theatre entrance and marquis were on the Broadway side of the Paramount Building. After passing through a small lobby, patrons emerged into the Grand Hall, a sumptuous lobby modelled after the Paris Opera and located on the 43rd Street end of the theatre building. Measuring 150 feet long by 45 feet wide by 50 feet high, the Grand Hall had a gold domed ceiling that was supported by massive white marble columns; from the centre of the dome hung a bronze and crystal chandelier. At the west end of the hall was an elegant marble staircase that widened as it ascended to the mezzanine landings; behind the stairs were elevators to all levels of the theatre. By day, the Grand Hall was flooded with sunlight from a tremendous glass window along the street side, while at night it was illuminated by hundreds of sparkling electric lights. For those waiting to enter the theatre, a special amplification system brought music of the stage, organ and orchestra into the Grand Hall. Overlooking the Grand Hall was the Music Room where patrons could be entertained with concerts by a string orchestra and artists. From the lobby, one could enter the Hall of Nations to view a collection of 37 stones collected from various parts of the world, and a bronze bust of Thomas A. Edison, the inventor. In the basement was a lounge known and furnished as the Elizabethan Room; from this room one could enter the College Room (men’s smoking), the Chinoiserie (ladies’ smoking), and the Venetian Room (ladies’ cosmetics). Other public rooms were the Peacock Alley, the Club Room, the Hunting Room, the Jade Room, the Powder Box, the Marie Antoinette Room, and the Colonial and Empire Rooms.
The Paramount Theatre auditorium was the 1st movie palace in New York City designed in the “Chicago style” with opulent French Renaissance interiors, as compared to the restrained neoclassical Adam and Empire styles employed by theatre architect Thomas W. Lamb for the nearby Strand, Capitol and Loew’s State theatres. The auditorium was decorated with a colour scheme of ivory, rose-red and turquoise blue. Indirect lighting in 3 colours was installed around the proscenium facia, organ grille frames, the soffit of the balcony, and the main ceiling, supplemented by bronze crystal fixtures that hung from the ceiling along the side walls. The orchestra pit, designed to hold 70 players, could be raised and lowered on an elevator, and its platform could be automatically rolled onto the stage. The organ console was on its own elevator at the left side of the orchestra pit.
Despite its 3,664 seats, the auditorium was quite narrow and had only 4 sections of seats on the main floor, with additional seating in the mezzanine boxes and balcony. The narrow stage opening proved to be problematic over the years: when the wide-screen era arrived, some of the proscenium had to be removed to accommodate the larger screen.
How did you meet Django Reinhardt?
“I was at the Paramount Theatre, and the doorman downstairs yelled out: ‘Les, you have a visitor down here, name of Django Reinhardt.’ I thought he was kidding me, so I yelled back, ‘Well, send up Jesus Christ and a case of beer!’ Then in walked Django, who didn’t speak a word of English. I had a couple of guitars in the room, so we just started playing together. We played very similar, which makes it easy for one guitarist to know what the other is doing.
“He was touring with Duke Ellington and I was with Fred Waring, so our paths often crossed. Django would come over and we’d talk mostly about the people we learned from. He learned from an old Spanish gypsy fellow who hung around the fire at the encampments where he spent most of his youth, and he developed his down-stroking style.”
You advised him not to switch from acoustic to electric guitar, didn’t you?
“The biggest mistake Django made was not coming over to the States with his own musicians. In fact, he didn’t even bring a guitar or a pick, because he thought they would have better things here. When he played with Ellington’s band, they did not play the right kind of rhythm for him. He decided to change from acoustic to electric when he got back from the States in 1946. I advised him not to do it. He would have been better off staying with his own unique style than trying to compete with bebop. The truth is, Django didn’t know what he had.”
Were you close?
“I loved him as a person and as a player. We were very good friends, but we actually talked more than we jammed. During the war, he recorded from Europe and I recorded from the States. It’s a shame that we never sat in a recording studio together, it really is.”
Who would you say were the greatest musicians that you ever played with?
“I’d say Django and Art Tatum. I lived with Art. He was the king… He had so much technique. Sometimes I’d see him play and I had to walk out of the club – he was just too much. I couldn’t digest that much goodness. Django was spectacular. He had this incredible, natural fire and a heart of gold. He had this technique, but he played with soul too. I believe Django represented the biggest change in our times in terms of guitar playing.”