“We were starting the recording without him when the studio door half opened to admit our missing guitarist, hiding behind a newspaper. The red light came on and the band began to play. ‘Django produced his guitar from inside the newspaper and launched into a masterly accompaniment without knowing a note of the piece we were doing – and, what’s more, playing to perfection the breaks we had left open for him.”
By 1952, Reinhardt had begun to settle down with his wife, Naguine, their 2 sons and his elderly mother in a small house outside Paris in Samois. He continued to travel frequently to concerts. However, on the morning May 16, 1953, upon awakening Django called to his wife in pain saying he could not move. His wife called a doctor, but before the doctor arrived, Django felt better and got up and left the house to visit friends. As soon as he left the house, he collapsed. He was rushed to the hospital but never regained consciousness and died of a cerebral haemorrhage. Reinhardt is still remembered today as one of the all-time great guitarists in jazz music.
At the age of 19, I wanted to know what was going on in Europe. I think musicians should not stay in their own home countries; they should go out and explore other horizons. So I took a job on a boat that was going to Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany; on that round trip I learned a lot. We stayed one week in Le Havre, France, and I went up to Paris – that’s when I saw Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli for the first time, playing together with the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. It was a very enjoyable experience this man was a fabulous player.
As I think everybody knows, because of an accident, two fingers of his left hand were useless— but he did things on that guitar with three fingers that most players couldn’t do with five. His execution was really fantastic. Hearing him was a great inspiration for me, although I never tried to play that style, because I’m a finger– style guitarist mainly.
I started playing jazz on my guitar with fingers before anybody else did. When I came to America, everybody was playing that pick style. Laurindo commented, “I’m not actually a jazz guitarist. Not so far as the electric guitar is concerned, anyway. I love jazz – very much – but I feel that I can do more with the instrument by sticking to my own style. You see, I don’t feel the style of, say, Barney Kessel or Johnny Smith, so there’s no sense in my trying to play like them.”
Johhny Smith on Django Reinhardt
A funny thing happened with Django. He was staying at the Hudson Hotel in Manhattan, and I would go up in the afternoon and we’d mess around together, or maybe I’d take him round the city. And at this time Les Paul was at the Paramount Theatre so Django and I went down there to visit him in the afternoon. After that, Django invited me to join him at this club where he was working, the Cafe Society, Up Town and a real hoity-toity place. I didn’t even have on a tie and he hadn’t shaved, and I didn’t want to go in but he insisted – I had to be his guest for dinner. So we go into this restaurant and the place was full of people in dinner clothes and looking immaculate. They put us at a table way over in the corner – I guess to get us out of the way. So we sat there and all of a sudden Django picked up his knife and started banging on the table. People started looking around because by now dishes were falling off the table, and waiters ran over to try to quieten him down. They spoke French, so finally we found out the reason for the commotion: he was insulted because all the other tables had a little glass vase with a flower in it and our table didn’t. And he’s just tore up the joint because that was an insult!
We played together, but really, I was just listening because I’d heard him on record and I idolised this man from when I was younger. I’d save up my nickels and as soon as a new record came out I’d be right there. I used to play along with his solos and on the old record player they wouldn’t last long and I’d wear them out, so I kept having to get new ones of the old ones too. He really made me realise that the guitar was a musical instrument and not just something to scrape on.
But I never heard him in his true surroundings, which would have been a French Night Club, and I’m sure he would have been better there than on record. I think Django was not comfortable in America with the people he was working with – it was all organised quickly. He played beautifully, but I’m sure that wasn’t the true Django. A short while ago I had a letter from Don Gibson, with whom I’ve done a couple of records; and with the letter was a big newspaper write-up about how he had purchased Django’s guitar and now he owns that Maccaferri guitar that Django used – all authenticated – and it’s a really outstanding guitar.
Within all of us there lies a universal love and appreciation for the true artist. Django Reinhardt was an artist in every sense of the word, not only as a musician, but as a person. Being fortunate enough to have known him personally, I am very grateful for this opportunity to express my feelings for the father of the jazz guitar — and I have always called Django just that. I speak of Django as an artist not only for his contributions as a guitarist, but also for his creative talent, as these improvisations will bear out. He was a romanticist, which I believe to be the propulsion for all artistic creativity and in his sometimes light, sometimes forcefully expressive guitar performances, I’m sure you’ll find this quality foremost.
I have yet to meet one guitarist who has not been, at least to some degree, influenced by him. True, styles change as well as personalities; there is always new music to play and there are new stars to play it. But one thing never loses it place, appeal and value: a mind that remains young and fresh, ever seeking new ideas while adhering to those of proven value. This is a true indication of an artist; hence our Armstrongs, the Dorseys, Basies and Kentons, to mention but a few at random. I will speak only in passing of Django‘s handicap of having two immovable fingers on his left hand. It was of no importance whatsoever to this man, as he, in his own way, always managed to execute cleanly and beautifully any musical thoughts that came to his mind. I might add that this is what we all strive to do, no matter what we have to do it with, or on.
One of my most vivid recollections and a thrill I shall never forget, was the first time I heard a recording by Django Reinhardt. It was an inspiration as well as a challenge, for then and there I knew what the guitar could really mean as a solo jazz instrument. Consequently, I felt as though Django was my next door neighbour, although he spent practically all of his professional life in Europe. When I met him in New York in 1946, even though we did not speak the same language, I regarded him simply as my brother. If only all peoples of the world would learn to judge each other on merit alone, as musicians do, we we would surly attain the goals we so endlessly strive for. Django Reinhardt will always remain one of my most cherished memories, and, as true artistry has universal appeal, I know that you will enjoy listening to him as much as I have. Johnny Smith, Winner, Solo Guitar Division, Metronome and Down Beat polls, 1955
Even if I had complete command of the English language, and even if I knew how to be eloquent, I still don’t think I could come up with a word, sentence, or phrase that could adequately describe the way I feel about Django Reinhardt‘s playing.
I have never in my lifetime heard another human being perform with such fire and such love and such emotion.
He was in my estimation the most freely expressive spirit I’ll ever hear on the guitar.
Django was one of the most amazing artists of the 1st half of the 20th Century. He played “impossible” things on his guitar. The recordings that survive clearly indicate that he was years ahead of most of the people he was playing with. His influence first came to my attention when I was listening to Chet Atkins playing with Homer and Jethro on an old RCA country record around 1956. They were definitely “Django-inspired,” especially the mandolin player, Jethro Burns. Django could swing through the changes, and he’d really explode on the bridge. When he returned to the main theme, he would carry on to an even more exciting level, throwing in string bends and octaves that added the extra-special flourish that made Django one-of-a-kind. Charlie Christian used to rip through bridges like that, too, and he and Django helped form the literature upon which all modern jazz guitar is based. Django represents the universality of modern improvised music. There will never be another Django. His music, his guitar artistry, everything he was as a person, smacked of genius. I’ll bet he smiled a lot.
It was circa 1937 when I first heard Django on the radio Hot Club Of France. He shook me up! I had never heard anyone play that fast. He used what was called in those days the “tremolo gliss.” Guitarists to this day have been trying to perfect it to the extent that Django had. Arv Garrison and Oscar Moore are still the only guitarists I know of who come close to doing it. I never met Django, but when I was in Paris I heard about how he played for the kids on the streets – or anyone, for that matter. I feel that he inspired me and many others to venture forth with new ideas and play-play what comes from the heart. “To thine own self be true”-we learned it from Django.
Django was before my time, so I’m not an expert on the subject. But 2 things stand out:
1) Whatever he did had a lasting impact on guitar playing up to today; his input is still obvious.
2) Guitar players will be hard-pressed to blame the hands for not being up to the task of physical facility. Django, with a severe handicap in his left hand, demonstrated blinding speed, which should settle the question that the fountainhead of technique is not a physical but a mental source.
Django‘s music became important to me many years after the initial exposure. When I first heard him I probably was incapable of really seeing what he had to offer at that time, but that was based on my inexperience. Mostly, Django was a master improviser; I wouldn’t call him a “Jazz” player. He had great feelings and was very individual – because when he came out in those days he didn’t have a chance to listen to long playing records or meet many American musicians. Being in Europe, he did not have the stimulus and interaction of meeting many other people, so he developed quite a bit on his own. He just had a great Gypsy talent and a love for jazz, and it all just sort of came out to be “Django.” For me personally, he is a voice that I like to listen to; I’m more aware of the music than the guitar – what he is saying and the feeling and conviction and assurance behind it. His playing has surprise, unpredictability, moments of gentleness – then all of a sudden some fantastic, fiery run in the middle of everything. At this point in time, he maintains a position of being one of the few truly individualistic voices on the guitar, without it necessarily being what I’d call “hip jazz” or a part of any school or movement. As an indication of the way Django was, I once recall hearing that he was playing at a club in England or France, and he was taking a break, and someone drove by in a car and asked him if he would like to go to Germany. Django said okay and just got in the car and left-didn’t even go back to finish his set or get his instrument. Playing with Stephane Grappelli in Paris, and having a chance to get one of Django’s guitars, and meet his family, and just to be in that environment, I picked up a lot of vibrations of the feeling that those people that he knew and played with had for music. It was a very passionate, Gypsy feeling. Django today has become kind of a superstar in his own way, the way that the Marx Brothers, Mae West, and W.C. Fields have become. He symbolises the Gypsy spirit, the thing in everyone that wants to be free-to be an adult but not lose the childlike quality. Above all-and this is the inspiring part-he had already been playing guitar for some years before his injury, but the fact that he wasn’t able to use 2 fingers did not discourage him. Rather, he kept on and went on to be the guitarist that he hadn’t even been before the accident happened. He evolved to a point with his handicap that was far higher than he had before his handicap. His life, and the way that he continued, should be an inspiration to anyone to overcome adversity and rise above it.
Barney Kessel owned one of Django’s Selmer guitars, and he said it was difficult to play chords on and didn’t stay in tune very well. There are definitely some inherent tuning issues with that style of guitar. Sometimes, if you play an octave on the B and the D strings in the middle of the neck, the D string is flat and the B string is sharp. Django definitely developed a style to suit that instrument, although he played other guitars before the Selmer. The Selmer came out in 1932, I think, and he didn’t get his first one until 1934. So his style was already intact at that time. There are stories about when he came to America without a guitar, because he figured the Americans would be lining up to give him guitars to play. Well, they didn’t, so his tour manager bought him a non-cutaway Gibson ES-300 with a P-90, and he was really bummed out. He wrote back to his manager: “Don’t speak to me about American tin-pot guitars anymore!”
B B King
Django was one of my idols. He had a touch that made him Django Reinhardt and nobody else and as far as I’m concerned, one of the greatest in the guitar business. He’d identify himself on his instrument. Today we’ve got a lot of great guitarists, but most of them don’t identify themselves. But with Django, you knew without a doubt who he was the minute he’d start to play. And to me, it was sweet music; his guitar seemed to talk, in other words, I heard it. He played music that was sophisticated to me, but a layman like myself could still understand it. I’ve got more albums on him than on anybody; when I was in France I must have bought 50 records of the Hot Club Of France. I would never have the speed or the technique that Django had, but I love him so much that I’m sure if you listened carefully you could hear a little bit of him in my playing. I just wish everybody could hear him.
In the February 1974 issue of Guitar Player there appeared a picture of Django with me. During his tour with Duke Ellington, he came into Kelly’s Stable, West 52nd Street NYC where I was appearing with my trio and spent several evenings listening. He kissed my hands after every set, and he was a most gracious person. This was a highlight in my life, because when I first started playing guitar I listened to records of Django with the Quintet Of The Hot Club Of France. Like the other joints on the street, the club was a shoebox-shaped hole-in-the wall in the basement of a brownstone with a dingy canopy out front. The dimly lit, smoke-filled interior was crammed with small tables and hard wood chairs. The tiny stages of these shabby joints could only accommodate small combos. In 1945 the city temporarily suspended the cabaret licenses of 4 of these clubs, but not Kelly’s Stable, for allowing narcotics on the premises, However in 1946 these were the places you came to hear that new sensation called bebop, bop, or rebop that was pushing out the big band swing sound. Hawkins and Gillespie were playing at the Spotlite and Art Tatum was at the Downbeat.
I’ve always likened Django to pianist Art Tatum: Django’s flawless, incredible technique; totally uninhibited abandon in his improvising; his intense, fierce involvement in what he was performing; his absolutely full, imaginative use of the instrument; the tremolo effect and string bends I hear in so much of today’s contemporary music. Yet he had a romantic touch when playing the melody of a tune. He’s touched most of us; he’s always been there and probably always will be in one way or another as long as somebody’s playing lead-guitar solo lines. He was certainly an innovator who has fed many things to many guitarists. Django was the first I ever heard play octaves on the guitar. His long, flowing lines with sparkling bursts made for fascinating choruses. He may have, but I’ve never heard him play an uninteresting chorus. Lesson for today’s player: Learn your instrument as thoroughly as he did, so you’ll have command at the playing level, and you can bring out what’s inside of you no matter what bag you’re into. Throughout the years I’ve been playing he has provided me with many happy listening and learning hours. Hats off to “Django the Great”!
I remember as a youngster of 16 forming a group patterned after Django’s quintet. We called ourselves The Blue Blazers, and AI Quail was the other guitarist. Another fond memory is the all guitar jam sessions [in New York City] at the old Epiphone factory on 14th Street and at Eddie Bell‘s and Johnny D’Angelico‘s where young aspiring guitarists would get together and try out the new axes and try to “out-Django” one another. Django did it all. His playing of ballads with such warmth and sensitivity and his tremendous technique on up-tempo performances (in spite of his handicap) were truly unbelievable. And on that acoustic guitar yet! Recently I was involved in a recording project that required my listening to performances of a varied group of guitarists. Django was one of these, and his playing made it a labour of love. The passage of time has in no way diminished his greatness. His recordings should be required listening for every serious student of the guitar.
In Paris the legend of Django is alive. I don’t know if it’s the same in the USA, but here we have many places where you can go and listen to some good Django-type music. A lot of Gypsies are maintaining the tradition of his playing – you may have heard of the Ferret family. The influence of Django on guitarists today is the biggest I have ever encountered. A lot of his albums are available in Europe, and he is one of the first influences on the beginner. Here in France you’re not considered a good guitarist if you don’t play “Nuages” and “Minor Swing.” That may be ridiculous, but it’s the evident sign of a big popularity among the French audience. Django is the mentor of 1,000s of guitar players, and I know that the biggest names in guitar have all been influenced by him. Personally, Chet Atkins is my biggest influence (along with Merle Travis), and even if I have not been directly submitted to Django’s music, Chet has taught me everything about the Gypsy. If you find this strange, just listen again to Chet’s earliest recordings. Of course, I have many of Django’s albums at home and play them often. My dream is to play and improvise like he used to. But I have made up my mind, and I’ll keep on picking with my thumb and fingers. Recently, though, I have found the way to make my dream come true: I have discovered a then, 16 year-old guitarist who can play for you any of Django’s tunes! He, too, is a Gypsy, and his name is Raphael Fays. But the great thing is that he doesn’t copy; if you ask him to play a song 10 times he won’t play it the same twice. He can find unlimited ways to play the same tune. Raphael Fays
Charlie Byrd was born in Suffolk, Virginia, in 1925 and grew up in the town of Chuckatuck. His father – a mandolin and guitar player – taught him how to play the acoustic steel guitar at age 10, though he eventually went on to study with the renowned Sophocles Papas. He had 3 brothers, Oscar, Jack and one fellow musician, Joe Byrd. In 1942 he entered the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and played in the school orchestra there. By 1943 he had been drafted into the US Army for WW2 and subsequently saw combat, then was stationed in Paris in 1945 and played in an Army Special Services band. He returned to the US and went to New York, where he studied composition and jazz theory at the Harnett National Music School in Manhattan. During this time he began using a Classical Guitar. After moving to Washington in 1950, he studied classical guitar with Sophocles Papos for several years. In 1954 he became a pupil of the Spanish classical guitarist Andres Segovia and spent time studying in Italy with “the Maestro.” Byrd’s earliest influence was the Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt whom he saw perform in Paris
Michael Dregni – Gypsy Jazz
Jim Hall – “Django Reinhardt was incredible in different ways, especially when he accompanied, he was just great,” Hall further noted “He would use tremolos and all kinds of things. Harmonics. He used the whole instrument beautifully.”