Django at Carnegie Hall NYC 1946
(Sat 23rd & Sun 24th November)
After the Liberation of Paris Django went on to headline at the Olympia with Fred Astaire. Then, at the very zenith of his career, he flew across the Atlantic to join Duke Ellington on an exceptional tour which ended with an unforgettable performance at the Carnegie Hall in New York. Much to everyone’s consternation, Django failed to show on the 2nd night, – an “acte manqué” for which the Americans never forgave him.
Originally known simply as “Music Hall” (the words “Music Hall founded by Andrew Carnegie” still appear on the façade above the marquee), the hall was renamed Carnegie Hall in 1893 after board members of the Music Hall Company of New York (the hall’s original governing body) persuaded Andrew Carnegie to allow the use of his surname.
Inset – The Main Hall (Isaac Stern Auditorium)
Carnegie Hall’s main auditorium seats 2,804 on five levels. It was named for violinist Isaac Stern in 1997. The Main Hall is enormously high, and visitors to the top balcony must climb 137 steps. All but the top level can be reached by elevator. The main hall was home to the performances of the New York Philharmonic from 1892 until 1962. Known as the most prestigious concert stage in the U.S., almost all of the leading classical music, and more recently, popular music, performers since 1891 have performed there. After years of heavy wear and tear, the hall was extensively renovated in 1986
Django’s New York City debut was widely promoted in newspaper ads and posters. The November 23 show was a sellout hit. Ellington was at his best, his band stylishly swinging throughout “Diminuendo in Blue,” “Magenta Haze,” a spirituals and work song medley, and “Jam-A-Ditty,” his concerto for 4 jazz horns. These were not lowdown blues or dance hall jazz but sophisticated music that only Ellington could write. And then Django took the stage. Jazz Hot’s Jimmy Weiser gave a full report for the fans back in Paris. “The hall was packed out. I can safely say that by far the greater part of the audience was made up of admirers who had waited for this moment for 10 years. Duke played as wonderfully as ever and announced Django at 10:30. He had no arrangement to play but was backed by Duke. This was something of a disappointment, for the public had expected to see Django and the orchestra onstage at the same time, nevertheless Django received a great ovation and took six curtain calls.”
The 2nd show was fraught with problems, however. Dressed in black tuxedos with tails, the orchestra entered followed by Ellington, who, in his usual refined and polished manner, sat down at his grand piano to rule over his dominion. The 1st set went like clockwork as always, the band playing as a well-oiled machine under Ellington’s command. But when Django’s turn came at the start of the 2nd set, he was nowhere to be found. Elllington hastily improvised a program to fill his slot, holding out hope that Django would still appear. Finally, a flustered Ellington gave up and regretfully apologized to the audience that Django was not playing that evening.
Suddenly, at 11 P.M., a taxi roared up to the Carnegie Hall stage door and Django hustled out. His arrival was whispered to Ellington, who, flushed and embarrassed, apologized yet again and announced Django. But Django was dressed in just a casual suit and did not have his guitar with him. Another electric guitar was found and hurriedly thrust into his hands. “They presented a guitar to him. Apparently, he had never played it,” guitarist John Pisano remembered. “It was all de-tuned. The strings were totally loose. They introduced Django and he had to tune it up. ‘Wr-r-r-r-rang!!!’ right on stage.” Once he was in tune and settled, Django played his usual set and, in Jazz Hot writer Weiser’s words “brought the concert to a close all the same, amidst thunderous applause.”
The Gypsy’s Personal Priorities
When Django was scheduled to play with Duke’s orchestra at Carnegie Hall in an 8:30pm concert. As was so often the case, he was running on “Gypsy time” and showed up two hours late. Despite his tardiness, he thrilled the audience which gave him a grand ovation that occasioned 6 curtain calls. When Duke Ellington later asked him for an explanation, Django stated that he ran into boxer and fellow Frenchman Marcel Cerdan (husband of Edith Piaf) on the street. Happy to run into a countryman in a strange city, the two repaired to a café and chatted intensely for over an hour.
Dukes Men on Stage at Carnegie Hall – with Fred Guy on Rhythm Guitar during Lawrence Brown’s Trombone solo
This was typical of Django who when not playing before audiences enjoyed the carefree traditional Gypsy life. This included whiling away the hours in small talk with his extended family, playing billiards, fishing and driving along country roads. In 1949, after his career had entered a slump (partly the outcome of critics’ anger at his Carnegie Hall lateness), he sold his Paris apartment, bought a Lincoln, attached a trailer to it, and head out to the open roads of France. Eventually he hooked up with a larger caravan that included his mother, who lived in an old Citroën that had been converted into a van. From his camps in the countryside, he’d venture into Paris for occasional gigs, always making sure to take some money from a fat wad of banknotes that he kept under his pillow.
Like most Gypsies, the younger generation of musicians tends to be more assimilated. One doubts that Lagrene or Rosenberg live this kind of life. However, there can be no doubt about the large role that Django played in their musical evolution. When listening to one of Django Reinhardt’s solos, you constantly hear all sorts of quarter-tones and half-tones that have a bluesy inflection. The strings are simultaneously plucked and pulled. The plucking yields the tone, while the pulling provides overtones and shading. It is also what gives the Reinhardt style its characteristic tremulous quality. It is a synthesis in many ways of the American blues and the Gypsy style, both of which emerge from the soul of deeply oppressed peoples.
Male Gypsies exist in a timeless macho continuum in which obligations and appointments are largely meaningless. In 1946, Django, dreaming of sitting with Hollywood stars by their pools, finally got to America for a 3-month tour. He travelled with the Duke Ellington Band in its private railroad car, and it played in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh before finishing up with two nights at Carnegie Hall. But on the evening of the second concert, Django ran into the Champion French Boxer Marcel Cerdan, who had a scheduled bout at Madison Square Garden, and, slipping into Gypsy time, went to a bar with Cerdan to drink and talk about life and France. When he suddenly remembered where he was supposed to be, he jumped into a cab and, because he spoke almost no English, ended up somewhere on the East Side. He got to Carnegie Hall at 11 o’clock and probably played the same four numbers, backed by the band, that he had played in Chicago – a blues, a variation of “Tiger Rag,” one of his own dreaming pieces, and “Honeysuckle Rose.” (The Chicago concert was recorded.) The applause was reportedly thunderous.
Ellington, in his autobiography, “Music Is My Mistress,” says of Reinhardt, “Among those I think of as citizens of Paris was Django Reinhardt, a very dear friend of mine, and one whom I regard as among the few great inimitables of our music. I had him on a concert tour with me in 1946, so that I could enjoy him the more.”
Marcel Cerdan said Django had a couple of drinks with him (Americano’s) that day, they met casually in the late afternoon on the 5th, Marcel had a walk this afternoon with some friends to buy some “New World” Christmas gifts for Edith. They spoke a long time together about their hands as Marcel had a broken hand in those days but however won the bout against Jean Pankowlack on October 20th, 1946 just before going to the States and Django too had problems with his left hand but they just laughed on that because in despite of that fragility both of them were “world champions” in their own category boxing for Cerdan and Jazz Guitar for Reinhardt…
Jack Solomon‘s was pretty much on the mark in his summation of Cerdan. The Casablanca Clouter was in no way a deception with his powerful arms and shoulders, his barrel chest and his gold-toothed rugged handsomeness. He was every inch a furious fighting man at 5’ 7” and 158lbs, a thinking man’s puncher whose strength and hitting power were allied to an imaginative mind and excellent footwork. How could his footwork be anything less? Playing league soccer for Casablanca had honed his speed and agility and taught him how to manoeuvre his way out of tight corners.
Marcel made his 1st defence against Jake LaMotta. Cerdan injured his left shoulder in the opening round of that famous fight, battling heroically until the pain forced him to retire at the end of the ninth round. Fighting LaMotta with two arms was a nightmare even for a man of Sugar Ray Robinson’s exceptional talent. How good was a handicapped Cerdan? As one ringsider noted, “Even with one good arm, he gave LaMotta all the trouble he could handle.”
Marcel Cerdan was already an acquaintance of Edith Piaf’s before they met up in New York. She had been introduced at the Club des Cinq, Paris in 1946. He was a boxer. Born in Algeria, he was remarkable in his talent and had rarely lost a fight. His fame equalled Edith’s but they belonged to different worlds. She went her own way, never imagining they would meet up again.
Piaf with Django – now, Marcel on the other Hand
Epi Or Gibson
It was claimed Reinhardt played a guitar which had been given to him in the United States, an Epiphone Zephyr #3442.
It was actually a Gibson ES-300
Charles Delaunay, who was the son of the unique and celebrated Parisian geometric colourists Sonia and Robert Delaunay, supervised most of Reinhardt’s recordings. This, he said, is what music meant to Reinhardt: “Life for Django was all music. He was full of constant enthusiasm when he played – shouting in the record studio when someone played something he liked, shouting when he played himself … When he was accompanying in the bass register he sounded like brass and in the treble like saxophones. He had a constant vision of music – a circle of music – in his head. I think he could see his music.” Reinhardt’s style had such presence and power and imagination that, in the manner of masters like Charlie Parker and Sidney Catlett and the Armstrong of the early 30s, he surpassed his very instrument. He created an almost disembodied, alternately delicate and roaring whorl of music. Charlie Christian, who flourished between 1939 and 1941, when Django was near the top of his powers, became the 1st consummate electric guitarist and, following Lester Young’s lead on the tenor saxophone, fashioned long, hornlike lines that had their own flawless logic and beauty. (Jim Hall, the paramount guitarist, still idolizes Christian, and Hall, in turn, is idolized by such contemporary guitarist, still idolizes Christian, and Hall, in turn, is idolized by such contemporary guitarists as Pat Metheny. Reinhardt’s utter originality largely confounds imitation.) But Reinhardt turned the sounds he played inside out, decorating them with his winging vibrato, his pouring runs and glissandos, his weaving and ducking single-note lines, and his sudden chordal tremolos and offbeat explosions. All these sounds were controlled by an adventurous rhythmic sense. Like Billie Holiday and Red Allen and Jimmy Rowles, he could leap ahead of the beat, or fall behind it or ride it mercilessly. This rhythmic sense was constantly coloured by his dynamics, which moved back and forth between flutters and whispers, talking tones, and cascades and roars. Two peculiarities shaped Reinhardt’s playing: he had enormous hands, and the 2 smallest fingers on his left hand – his fret-board hand- were permanently bent at the 2nd knuckle. (The had been burned in a fire in his caravan, and he was so badly injured that his wounds never healed properly.) The huge hand made the crippled fingers work nonetheless; thus the mysterious chords and melodic lines that no one had heard before. Reinhardt might start a medium-tempo ballad with 3 or 4 bars of slightly altered melody, played in single notes behind the beat, each phrase graced by his vibrato (almost a tremble), pause for a beat, and go into a brief mock double-time, rest again, drop in an abrupt, massive chord, and release a hissing upward run. Then he’d cut his volume in half and turn into the bridge with a delicate, fernlike single-note variation of the melody, letting his notes linger and bend and float on his vibrato. Just before the end of the bridge, he would loose another offbeat chord, let it shimmer for three or four beats, work through a humplike arpeggio, lower his volume again, and return to a single note variation of the original melody and come to rest. Almost all his solos in the 30s and early 40s have an exotic romanticism, a hothouse quality; the notes roll and echo with Eastern European and Spanish overtones. Armstrong and Ellington had taught him to swing and be cool, but he filtered them through his Gypsy mind.
Django, Gibson ES300 and Paul Whiteman
A review of the Concert on the 23rd, in part:
It also served to introduce Django Reinhardt to a New York audience, and, though he was well received, it was obvious that he was nervous and that his performance on this particular evening could have been equalled or even bettered by any one of many dozen top-flight guitarists playing in bands, studios, or on 52nd Street. Django did Rose Room, Tiger Rag, Honeysuckle Rose, and Body and Soul, employing all the time worn clichés in the book. Only on Improvisation No.1, – the blues, did he show any of the imagination and technique for which he is noted. Suffice to say, Reinhardt didn’t belong in the Hall that night.
This gives us a glimpse of the less than ‘warm’ reception Django received here in the US at least on that night. Django arrived in America without his trusty Selmer guitar, thinking that US Guitar builders of the day would present him with guitar – but it didn’t happen. This little review gives more insight into that quote of Django’s. The Carnegie Hall concert would have been the ‘big event’ on this tour, and getting a less than favourable review would not be something anyone would want to remember or anything that would take a career upward. I wonder who the dozen top-flight guitarists were that would have upstaged or equalled him? Les Paul was in NYC at the time, as was Tal Farlow, Herb Ellis was with Jimmy Dorsey in 46 and 47, Charlie Byrd was in town during that period too. George Van Eps and Barney Kessel were on the West Coast.
In the Les Paul ‘Chasing Sounds’ DVD he talked about meeting Django, who he called the ‘greatest guitar player’ he ever knew’. So, I’m not sure that the reviewer of the Carnegie Hall concert was all that correct. He maybe was a bit disappointed with the ‘wait’ or the way Django was incorporated into the show or perhaps too defensive of the American Artists.
Leonard Feather when reviewing the Carnegie Hall concert said patronisingly ” …..Django was a pleasant surprise because I had expected so little, but to others he was a big disappointment because they had expected too much.” He then went onto compare Django unfavourably with “….Oscar Moore, Barney Kessel, Chuck Wayne, Mary Osborne, Johnny Collins (Nat Cole Trio) and other top people in jazz on this instrument”..