Born Jean Reinhardt, Belgian-born Romani-French jazz guitarist and composer Django Reinhard’s influence on modern music and guitarists cannot be understated. His music crossed genre lines as well as country borders, making him one of the most accomplished musicians of his time. Dare we say it – he could even be considered the godfather of Gypsy jazz.
His guitar playing is beyond mind boggling. He would play effortless flurries of chromatic runs and arpeggios. And, he did it all with two fingers, which makes it even more spectacular.
But why two fingers? As the story goes, on the night of November 2, 1928, he accidentally knocked over a candle. It wasn’t long before the extremely flammable celluloid caught fire – a material his wife used to make artificial flowers. Even having survived the incident, half of Reinhardt’s body was burned. His right leg was badly damaged, and so was his ring and pinky fingers on his left hand (fretting hand).
Though doctors recommended he amputate his leg and even thought he would never play guitar again, they were wrong on both counts. He was eventually able to walk with the help of a cane, and so far as guitar is concerned, Reinhardt would go onto establish himself as a guitar legend still revered by many luminaries, like Jeff Beck, Jerry Garcia and Tony Iommi today.
Naturally, Reinhardt still had to adjust his technique, and he focused primarily on playing with his index and middle fingers. His injured ring and pinky fingers would only be used for chord work.
After Reinhardt’s wife, Bella Mayer gave birth to their son, Henri “Lousson” Reinhardt, the couple parted ways. Reinhardt played small gigs all over France, and he was eventually introduced to American jazz. Hearing the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington inspired Reinhardt to become a jazz professional.
In the mid to late 30s, Reinhardt would go on to compose, record and perform prolifically. He would even go onto collaborate with Adelaide Hal, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter and Dizzy Gillespie. He also did a radio performance and jam session with Louis Armstrong.
Reinhardt had odds stacked against him as World War II approached (the Nazis had a distaste for jazz music and Romani), but he managed to find his way back to France (under threat), and he started composing different styles of music.
Once the war was over, Reinhardt would go onto tour the United States for the first time. After returning home, he had a hard time adjusting to the post-war world and became quite unreliable, even if he was booked to play a sold-out show. Reinhardt would continue to record and perform but he would remain in France for the duration of his life.
Reinhardt’s all too brief life would end tragically at the age of 43. In the years leading up to his death, he retired in Samois-sur-Seine near Fontainebleau and played in Paris jazz clubs. He picked up the electric guitar and started incorporating bebop into his musical vocabulary, along with his own melodic approach. One night, after playing in a Paris club, he collapsed outside his home from a brain hemorrhage.
To this day, there’s virtually no guitarist that plays with the same speed, accuracy and expression as Django Reinhardt. Arguably, guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen have been more influential, but Reinhardt certainly deserves a place on any “best of” list, and if you haven’t heard his recordings yet, you’re in for a treat.