Django’s Epiphone –
The William Markham Version
The Epiphone Company, prior to their acquisition by the Chicago Musical Company in the mid 1950‘s crafted 1000’s of quality guitars. Their acoustic Emperor Deluxe Broadway and Triumph Masterbilt models, along with comparable Gibson guitars, are considered to be the best factory made archtop instruments ever made. However one of the most fascinating guitars ever built by Epiphone was not one of the Masterbilt Acoustics but a natural 1946 Zephyr (electric) whuch was ckiamed as owned and played by the great Gypsy Jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.
As a player Django represents one of the all time peaks of Jazz Guitar supremacy. He was a talent that bordered on and sometimes achieved a state of pure genius. He did more than any other guitarist to create acceptance of solo virtuoso guitar and destroy the concept of the instrument as a device purely for rhythm. Players as diverse as Chet Atkins, Irving Ashby, Joe Pass, BB King, John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, Les Paul, Charlie Christian, and Wes Montgomery were influenced by him. Throughout his career Django almost exclusively used several of the French Selmer-Maccaferri guitars, easily recognized by their distinctive shape and sound. After WWII he sometimes used various American-made electric instruments which had been presented to him by makers and friends.
It was on Django‘s only visit to the United States in 1946 that it was claimed he acquired an Epiphone Zephyr #3442.
Duke Ellington was a fan of Django’s. They had met in Paris prior to WWII. In early 1946, “The Duke” invited him to visit the United States and tour with his band as a featured performer. Django accepted his offer and arrived in New York City in the month of October. Django did not bring his Selmer-Maccaferri guitar with him from France because he thought American guitar makers would vie with each other for the honour of presenting a suitable guitar to him. He was mistaken about this and as a result had no instrument to play on the tour. Fortunately Django had an old friend in the city on whom he could depend to help him, Joe Sinacore was a New York studio guitarist who served in the army band during World War II and later was to record with Illinois Jacquet . While stationed in Paris he met Django. The Gypsy could not speak English well but spoke Italian in addition to French. As Joe knew Italian as well as English he became Django’s unofficial interpreter and friend while he was in Paris. Django contacted Joe and told him he did not have a guitar for the Ellington concerts. Joe took him to the Epiphone factory located on West 14th Street in New York City. It was there that Django selected the natural Epiphone Zephyr #3442.
It is also possible that he acquired a large Electar amplifier at that time. According to Joe Sinacore the Epiphone Company gave the guitar to Django which is contrary to Charles Delaunay’s biography of Reinhardt.
This is not borne out by the pictures of Django with Gibson ES-300 which is amplified through a much larger speaker cabinet as seen in the Ellington Syracuse Concert – a separate case amplifier is seen adjacent.
Joe Sinacore, was a great jazz guitarist. Joe had played with many notable entertainers of his time … Dardanelle, Patti Page, Frankie Laine and Benny Goodman … and he was also friendly with the greatest guitarist who ever lived, Django Reinhardt. Joe also ran a guitar store, where he taught the basics of guitar set-up. Joe also played at the Hickory House NYC with the Dardanelle Trio – with Southern Vocalist Dardanelle on piano and vibes and occasionally Sandy Bloch or Bart Nazer on Bass
Guitarist Al Caiola worked with Epiphone Guitars and was one of the busiest and most respected session men in New York City during the 1950s and 1960s. At the age of 12 he was already a guitar prodigy and by his 16th birthday he was an established guitarist and performer throughout the Jersey City area. During WWII, Caiola joined the Marine Corps and became part of the Parris Island base band until he was assigned to active combat on the island of Iwo Jima. After the war he used the G.I. Bill to study music composition and theory at the New Jersey College of Music
After acquiring the claimed ‘Epiphone‘ Django travelled with Duke Ellington by train to Cleveland, the 1st stop on the tour. (November 1946). The concert was reviewed by the Cleveland “Plain Dealer.” Of Reinhardt, they said; “In the hands of this virtuoso the electric guitar acquires richer, magical qualities. His dexterity was remarkable, in intricate chords that were executed with such technical brilliance that the band musicians kept shouting “go to it Master.” not a very jive or hip term then but a more believable one would be ‘go man’ or ‘Go Maestro’
“The Cleveland Press” also reviewed the show, “Duke Ellington came to Cleveland yesterday…He introduced in this country for the first time the hottest guitar player in the world.”
After Cleveland the band played to enthusiastic crowds in Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, and closed with 2 nights (November 23rd and 24th) in New York City at Carnegie Hall.
After the tour Django worked at “Cafe Society” Uptown NYC before returning to France it is said taking the phantom Epiphone with him but would he have bothered with it after his contempt of their American ‘casserole’ guitars.
Reinhardt never returned to the United States. He spent the remainder of his life successfully touring the continent usually with small groups similar to the legendary “Quintet of the Hot Club of France” that he formed with violinist Stephane Grappelli in 1934. During this period the rare film footage of Django playing the natural Epiphone Zephyr through a large Electar Amplifier was made but that film is dated 29th May 46.
Django’s last important appearance was with Dizzy Gillespie in the Spring of 1953. The following May he died at the Hospital in Fountainbleu near his home at Samois from a stroke. He was forty three years old.
The Fred Sharpe Version of the Epiphone Story
In 1967 Fred Sharp, a noted guitarist and owner of the largest collection of Django Reinhardt recordings in the United States, was invited by Charles Delaunay, Django’s biographer, to come to Paris. Delaunay wanted to record Fred and Babik Reinhardt, Django’s son an accomplished guitarist in his own right. During their work together Babik learned of Sharp’s life long interest in his Fathers music. When Fred Sharp left France, he claimed Babik presented him with a bon voyage gift…Django’s Epiphone.
As noted in the “Plain Dealer,” Sunday, November 5, 1967, one of the treasures brought back from Europe by Freddie Sharp, the Cleveland heights band leader, is a 6 string guitar formerly owned by Django Reinhardt, the late, great, French guitarist. “I was overwhelmed when Babik Reinhardt, son of Django gave it to me as a bon voyage gift”, Freddie said as he displayed the cherished present.
“This is the instrument his father played in Duke Ellington’s Orchestra on his American concert tour in 1946. Django also played it at New York’s old Cafe Society Uptown Club where I heard and met him (he cliams).” Sharp, a guitar virtuoso himself, and his singing wife Iris, flew to France to tape a new record a new record with Babik’s studio Jazz band for Disques Vogue records in Paris.
It was an extremely happy merger of talents, “as well as a memorable experience”, the Clevelander reported. The recording date was arranged after a long exchange of letters and tapings with Babik and Charles Delaunay, production director of Disques Vogue releases. “Several mutual friends also recommended me to Delaunay for this project,” Freddie said. “He was impressed too, by the fact that I own 885 sides of Django’s Tapes and famous recordings. It is one of the largest collections in the United States.”
In Paris, Sharp met several noted musician who had been friends of Jean Baptiste (“Django”) Reinhardt, the Belgian born gypsy jazz musician who influenced guitarists throughout the world for over 30 years. “His son is one of the finest jazz guitarists on the contemporary scene,” Sharp commented. “Babik and his combo sounded so great at Le Club du Jazz in Paris that I am hoping to arrange a tour of the States for them.”
Freddie, who once toured in Red Norvo‘s and Jack Teagarden‘s orchestras, was asked if he plans to play Django’s guitar in future shows. “Oh no! Definitely not!” he replied. “I treasure this museum piece so much for sentimental reasons that I would not sell it for less than 50 million dollars. It has now conveniently disappeared like Django’s Gibson ES-300 but at least he was photographed frequently with that particular beast.
The Fred Sharp Version –
Babik Reinhardt presented Fred with the instrument, claimed that Django had played on his concert tour with Duke Ellington in 1946. Django actually played an ES-300 Gibson Electric Guitar with an unidentifiable amp and speaker Cabinet during the US Tour.
In 1967, my wife Iris, Babik and I had dinner at Restaurant Lucas on Rue Des Petites Ecuries, which is now a jazz club called The New Morning. After dinner and hours of struggling through my poor French and his not speaking English at all, Babik asked, “Il est possible pour tu a apporter un cadeau, pour instance, un guitar a l’etas unis?” So he proceeded to open the boot of his car and give me Django’s Epiphone.
By the way, when we got to his car, there was a parking violation ticket on it, which I took off and gave to him. He said it was an old one and he put it there himself, so as not to get another where he was parked.
We went back to London and I had friends of mine who ran an electronic representative firm pack the guitar like a piece of equipment for shipment to the United States and left it with them to be shipped. When we returned to our home in Cleveland, Ohio there was no guitar. I waited 3 months and finally got around to checking the small U.S. Customs office at the Cleveland Airport. They said they had it for 3 months with no consignee address on it? I proved it was mine and I asked about duty. They asked where in Europe it was made. I said it was an Epiphone and was manufactured in New York, to which they said, if it’s American, there is no duty! Anyhow, that’s the long and short of it. When I had a good look at the guitar I noticed that the fingerboard was rosewood and very grooved and pitted from Django’s apparently very heavy finger pressure. If you look at other photos of Django’s guitars, you’ll notice the heavy wear on the fingerboard.
Also the frets were badly worn. Django’s fix for worn grooved frets was to simply move the tailpiece over 1/16th of an inch, so the strings landed on an unused portion of the frets!! Right away, that sounds like a Gypsy FIX! The pick-guard was attached at the top next to the end of the fingerboard, but the other end had evidently lost it’s support bracket. Django or someone had sawed a one inch thick piece of broomstick, to make a large round wooden washer, and screwed it to top of the guitar and the large end of the pick-guard to it! The neck was terribly warped, too much to even adjust with the truss rod. I didn’t want to hang it on the wall, I wanted to play it, so I took the whole instrument apart, re-set the neck, planed the rosewood fingerboard, fitted new frets and 2 new mother of pearl square fingerboard inlays, did a cutaway on it, rebound the fingerboard, headpiece and body, fitted a 2nd matching pickup with controls, sanded, fine sanded and re-lacquered the whole instrument. Following that, it was playable for the next few months, until the neck warped again and I put it to rest in its’ case.
This sounds like a supreme act of vandalism to remove the traces of Django’s apparent disregard for the Epiphone instrument and yet it was claimed it was given so freely by Babik. Others claim the Duke’s tour manager bought Django a Gibson ES-300 without a cut out for that 46 USA tour.