Django Reinhardt was born January 23, 1910, in Pont-à-Celles, Belgium, into a Belgian family of Manouche Romani descent. Django grew up in Romani encampments near Paris, where he learned to play violin and banjo-guitar. He grew proficient enough to earn his living as a musician by age 15, and in 1928 he made his first recordings on banjo-guitar. His playing attracted the notice of British bandleader Jack Hylton, who offered Django a job with his dance band.
Before Django could join Hylton, he was gravely injured in a fire that engulfed the caravan he and his wife shared. He was so severely burned that his right leg and his left hand were paralyzed. Refusing to have his leg amputated, he eventually recovered the ability to walk; the ring and pinkie finger of his fretting hand remained almost useless.
In the months following the fire, Reinhardt devoted his energies to re-learning the guitar. He successfully mastered an entirely new style of guitar playing, using his index and ring fingers and thumb to execute lightening-fast runs on the fretboard and his damaged fingers to aid in stopping strings for chord work.
Throughout the early 1930s, Django was in demand as an accompanist for vocalists, his dazzling technique already fully realized. By the mid-’30s, he discovered American jazz and had found a kindred soul in violinist Stéphane Grappelli. Their Quintet of the Hot Club of France, recording first in 1934, infused a distinct tinge of Gypsy influence that added spice to the jazz.
The Quintet gained wide renown for their remarkable music. Their recordings were issued worldwide, and they toured extensively. As World War Two began, they were in England; Grappelli remained in the UK while Reinhardt returned to Europe. There Django stealthily performed and recorded; he managed to avoid internment by dint of a jazz-loving Nazi looking the other way.
After the war, Django toured the US and elsewhere to thunderous acclaim, but he was curiously uninterested in fame and would occasionally not show up for sold-out concerts. By the 1950s, he was increasingly drawn to bebop, which he performed with his own flourishes. Django Reinhardt died May 16, 1953, after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. He was just 43 years old.- Andy Senior