Let’s Talk About Django Reinhardt

by special guest blogger and my dad, Michael Voss

This year marks 64 years since the passing of arguably the greatest guitarist that ever lived. He was born in Belgium in a Romani gypsy caravan. He was named after his father, Jean, but he was known by his nickname. The name meant ‘I awake’ in the Romani language. He was Django Reinhardt.

young Django Reinhardt banjoDjango showed musical ability at a young age. He played violin with his family as they traveled across Europe in their nomadic lifestyle. Soon he would trade the violin for a banjo. He had no formal education or musical training, but by age fifteen he made his living as a musician. By seventeen he was making records with some of the prominent stars of the day. He was playing in some of the best clubs in Paris. His career was taking off.

Django Reinhardt gypsy caravanIt was about that time that Django married his wife, Bella. Bella made artificial flowers out of celluloid, a highly flammable plastic. One night when he and his wife were going to bed in their wooded caravan, Reinhardt bumped a candle into some of Bella’s artificial flowers. Within seconds, the caravan was engulfed in flame.

Bella and Django both managed to escape, but Django suffered severe burns to his right leg and left hand; his fret board hand. Doctors wanted to amputate his leg. They also told him that he would never play guitar, again. Django refused to listen to the doctors’ prognosis and went home to convalesce. Django’s brother, Joseph, bought him a guitar and Django went about learning to play with his damaged hand.

Within eighteen months, Django was able to walk with a cane. His ring and pinkie fingers on his left hand were useless, but he had relearned to play the guitar using his index and middle fingers. In spite of a disability that would end the career of most guitar players, Django rose to prominence in the Parisian music scene. I awake, indeed.

Stephan Grappelli was a violin Django Reinhardt Stephan Grappelliplayer in that music scene. He and Django where acquaintances for years but they became fast friends when they realized they had common interest in American jazz music. They would play the dance halls to make a living, but in their spare time they would get together with a few like-minded musicians and jam.

Jazz music was typically played with horns. There were jazz piano players, too, but a jazz band made up of stringed instruments had never been done. Combining Django’s gypsy swing with American jazz music, they came up with a new sound. They formed the band Quintette du Hot Club de France. To this day, if you hear the words “hot club”, it has something to do with the gypsy jazz sound and Django Reinhardt.

Django Reinhardt Duke EllingtonAfter World War II, Django would get to tour America with Duke Ellington. There, Reinhardt would meet many of his jazz heroes. He found that they were just as thrilled to meet him as he was to meet them. Apparently, word had gotten out on this side of the Atlantic about the gypsy guitar ace.

Django Reinhardt had come a long way from his days playing music in his family’s caravan show. He was a genius guitar player and a student of jazz. He had even invented a new style of the genre. It was on May 16, 1953 that he died of a stroke. He was only forty-three years old.

Fortunately for us, Django Reinhardt was prolific in the studio and the growth and diversity of his entire career is well documented in recordings. His recordings went on to influence entire generations of guitar players and they weren’t just jazz players.

Django Reinhardt noirThe country icon Chet Atkins, who ranks high on any list of great guitarists, spoke of the time he saw Reinhardt when he was touring with Duke Ellington in 1947.

Les Paul is high on the list too, and his biggest influence was Django Reinhardt. One of Les Paul’s favorite stories was about the time he met Reinhardt and showed him his “electrified” guitar.

Riley King talked about hearing a Reinhardt record that was brought back from Europe by a friend who served in the US Army. Riley’s stage name would become B.B. King.

Richard “Dickey” Betts of the Allman Brothers band wrote the song “Jessica” as a nod to Reinhardt’s guitar style.

DJANGO REINHARDTThe English virtuoso guitarist, Jeff Beck, yet another for the list, has a collection of Django Reinhardt guitars and artifacts.

Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney of The Beatles both cite Reinhardt as an influence.

A few months back, I wrote a column about some famous guitars. One was Willie Nelson’s guitar, “Trigger”. Willie said that he was initially drawn to that guitar because it sounded so much like Django Reinhardt’s guitar.

Finally, Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath was also a fan of Django Reinhardt. Tony worked in a factory as a teenager, but he knew his future was in playing guitar. On his last day in his factory job, a piece of machinery cut off the ends of two of his fingers on his fret board hand. The doctors told Tony that his guitar playing days were over. He was devastated.

Tony’s factory foreman came to visit Tony and he was carrying a record under his arm. He told Tony to give the record a listen. Iommi was not receptive at first. Listening to a record of a guitar player was the last thing he wanted to do right then.

The foreman insisted, so Tony played the record and was impressed with the guitar player’s skill. The foreman then told him that it was the great Django Reinhardt, who had lost the use of two fingers in a fire. This completely changed Iommi’s state of mind.

Django smilingThanks to technology, you can see what all the fuss is about. Click  the links to check out some of Django Reinhardt’s best:

Think about how the artist overcame catastrophic circumstances to become one of the greatest ever; it might just make you feel like anything is possible.




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