Django Reinhardt

By Noël Balen

Sample translation by Lesley Lawn

“Man’s ear cannot hear the music of your existence; for them you lead a life of silence, their ear cannot discern any of the subtlety of your melody. Admittedly, you do not make a grand entrance with military fanfare, but this does not give them the right to say that your life is lacking in music. May those who have ears hear you.”  — Friedrich Nietzsche

 “Life is a journey” — Marcel Proust


Jazz enthusiasts are sociable, gregarious individuals, maybe a little inconsiderate at times, and quite overwhelming if given half a chance. They talk about their heroes using their first names, as if they were part of the family, and trace them down to the most intimate details of their life. Their admiration is boundless, their love infinite, they pick each other up on the minutest detail, and can talk for hours about an inspired semi-quaver.   They ramble on full of conviction, and gossip away shamelessly; blatantly awestruck, they admit their bad faith, defend their emotion, evoking their memories, which they embellish over time and maintain jealously. I count myself among them sometimes, my friends as well, and others I may meet during a concert or a festival have the same complicit look, the same enthusiasm and capacity for joy, an ability to be amazed that dates back to childhood. Our tastes or preferences may differ at times, but we are all unanimous in acknowledging the superlative importance status of Django Reinhardt.

There are many and various ways of accessing the world of this divine Manouche. But it is of little importance; whether we come to him by orthodox channels or by more alternative routes, Django (the first name is enough, no need to add his surname) seems like a distant cousin, an old uncle, one of the family, a member of the gang, a life long neighbor. Most of us came into the world long after he had left it, but we are convinced that we know him, that we have met him somewhere. It is a strange feeling of brotherly complicity.

If so many young guitarists and new bands appear to claim this legacy, it is because the school of gypsy jazz really does exist, a school whose reigning master is always embodied by Django himself, to the extent that, at times, his disciples venerate him so highly that their own emancipation is put at risk. This hero worship is even more harmful for those who uphold it without the necessary distance, since Django’s art belongs to a certain period in time. It is impossible to imagine living this music according to the same criteria, to play it in a range of fusions without acknowledging that it stems from a precise heritage, from a particular journey that is a result of courage in overcoming a disability, and of[musical] encounters that were as fruitful as they were improbable.

“Even though he is no longer with us, Django is still, never ceased to be a driving force, the spearhead, herald and hero of gypsy jazz, says Stochelo Rosenberg, “He is an incredible legend, a star that never ceases to shine.” For a long time, Rosenberg, an astoundingly brilliant young gypsy jazz guitarist, hid his own considerable personality behind his allegiance to the Reinhardtian ideal. By distancing himself from this attachment to the past, he has been able to rediscover the spirit of gypsy jazz without betraying the letter. This prolific Romani guitarist is more than conscious of the weight of the Django legacy, and insists that Django’s brilliance remains unattainable. It is a level of spontaneous creativity that it would be pointless to try and copy or recreate without appearing totally sterile: “ He is out of this world! I realized it properly when, for educational reasons, I was attempting to dissect the mechanisms of his music. In analyzing his refrains, I realized that there was no Django formula. Out of five or six recordings that I listened to, there were no two phrases the same.”

Other enormously talented musicians have come to the same conclusion. They might have copied the maestro when they first started out, but it was no more than an immersion, an initiation ritual in homage to history. The brilliant Boulou Ferré and his brother Elios come to mind here, not to mention the implacable Angelo Debarre or the effusive Raphaël Faÿs, or of course, the amazing Bireli Lagrene. Then there is also Christian Escoudé, another gypsy guitarist born into the clan who follows in the footsteps of René Mailhes or Lara Sollero, expanding on what they learnt from American jazz. Just as Django did in his time, they caught the breath of a complex and invigorating be-bop rhythm, and had no qualms about choosing other mentors such as Barney Kessel, Jimmy Raney, Tal Farlow or Jim Hall. Of course, the electric discharge from the binary form of jazz-rock and fusion music inevitably affected Django’s successors. To begin with there was Django’s own son Babik, an excellent guitarist who had broken away from the paternal influence and set out on the binary adventure without fear of incurring the wrath of the gypsy jazz community. When Babik Reinhardt died of a heart attack in November 2001, the loss was all the greater in that he deserved to have got more recognition when he was alive. This is a family where they die young, and with Babik’s death, another Reinhardt had gone without saying all he had to say.

In a curious mirror effect, the greatest admirers of Django, often the greatest champions of his music, are to be found beyond our frontiers, whether geographic or aesthetic. The Django message was recorded so that it could reach beyond the horizon. It is always a pleasure to realize that musicians of caliber are honest, lucid and humble; they know their art and know how much they owe their predecessors. Like guitarist Pat Metheny, explaining here his unbounded admiration for Django: “It is difficult to improvise well on any instrument, but with the guitar it is even more difficult because it is an instrument that adapts easily to clichés. In fact guitarists tend to play the same things over and over once they’ve mastered them, to the detriment of more spontaneous ‘scheme’. In my opinion, the king of jazz guitar was Django Reinhardt. He was most probably the one who went further than anybody in playing what I have just described…”

Another shape-shifting guitarist of note, John McLaughlin is just as complimentary; he considers Django to be one of the greats of the 20th century! He goes on to add, “Musically I am delighted to have come across him, even if I didn’t know him personally. He changed the guitar world forever and you can’t do better than that, I don’t think.” Many wise, sensitive and intelligent things have been said already about this extraordinary man, but all retain the feeling that Django will hold on to his secret for a long time to come, and that there is still much we can learn from him. His free spirit continues to roam and the mystery of his genius endures. Perhaps it is better that way.

“I Saw Stars”


23 January 1910. The men are sitting around the fire, the air is icy cold, the wind biting, and the shadow of the guitars dance in the leaping flames. Over in one of the caravans, the women are busy. Laurence Reinhardt, a spirited girl they call “Negros” for her black hair and dark smoldering looks, has just given birth to a seven pounds boy, blessed with a good set of lungs. Tomorrow his father Jean-Baptiste Vées will go and register the birth at the town hall in Liberchies. The child will be called Jean, registered under his mother’s family name of Reinhardt, but already the entire clan has renamed him “Django, ” the Romani for “I awake,” for he announces himself with his very first breath, takes his place in his family, and is not afraid to make himself heard.

The winter has been terrible, and unusually cold for this dank and foggy part of Belgium. Near the Mare aux Corbeaux, a dozen or so wooden Romani caravans are huddled together on a stretch of muddy wasteland, between the village and the Quatre-Bas crossroads. The Manouches have settled in for the winter, at the precise point where the three villages of Liberches, Luttre and Buzet meet. That way, they only have to move a few meters in order to comply with the Belgian law stipulating that they can only stay one day in each commune. A certain amount of cunning and cynicism is necessary to survive as outsiders in this farming community, the world of the “peasants,” as the Romani call them. They need courage and resilience too, as the travelers often have to endure very taxing conditions. For centuries the Romani have continued their nomadic life, often subject to harassment, expulsion, interrogation and at the mercy of the changes wrought by historical events. The Reinhardts belong to those early travelers who roamed the roads of Western Europe, and whose traces can be found in the valleys of the Rhine and Switzerland, the Swabian forests, the byways of Alsace and the plains of Lorraine. Their history is as much the geography of an itinerant people who learnt to escape, to hide and dodge their way across borders. In spite of their differences, whether the Manouches of Alsace, the Sinti from Piedmont, the Serbian Roms, the gitanos of Andalusia and Catalonia, they all share the same destiny. The enduring founding myths, the ability to adopt surrounding cultures, to take them on board and refashion them according to their own social codes, the tradition of secular orality, the signs and symbols that are understood without knowing their origin, the art of asserting freedom through transgression, the pride in being different - this is the glue that holds together a race that has spread to all points east, west, north and south.

Some manage better than others to integrate in the countries they travel through. The little group at Liberchies are among those Tziganes who know how to get themselves accepted, or at least tolerated, by the local inhabitants. The people here look forward to them arriving for the winter, the children are delighted that there will be some entertainment to liven up the village. Most of them make and sell baskets, the women also make lace, and the men are often involved in horse dealing, competing with each other to invent new ways of disguising a worn-out old mule or a horse that has seen better days.   They live off small time robbery and not [1]inconsiderable mischief. They predict the future to those who want to believe them, they snare rabbits, and they give shows where music is interwoven with magic tricks, where dance meets burlesque farce. Django’s father is one of those travelling artistes who commands respect. He plays the violin and the guitar with equal talent, is a brilliant juggler and does magic tricks at dances and private soirées organized by those they call gadjos, 1 the men and women they also call ‘peasants’, because they are born, live and die in the same place, having never contemplated other horizons. Their only opportunities to relax and have fun take place at village dances, in the warm fug of cafés and amid the rowdy chaos of the fairground. Every winter, the Reinhardts are hired to enthrall the public with their trail of magic illusion and comic plays, their voluptuous dances and their heart-rending songs. Their music has the midnight tang of dark alleyways, secret encounters, the taste of blood, sweat, rough wine and desire. The Tziganes are people of few words, and when they do open their mouths, the mystery only gets deeper. Their stories are full of lamenting virgins, dry stones, blazing forges, stolen grapes and leafy bowers, fables about red mountains, mud, salt, worn-out nags, starry handkerchiefs, tales of laughter and unexplained sorrow. The music is concealed in the silences, in the palm of the hand, the movement of the body, the dust kicked up by heels, in the wooden heart of the guitar, and suspended arpeggios. The Tziganes know no other music than that of suffering, love, solitude and hope. Their art is honest and uncompromising. They share it freely and the villagers accept it as such.

With hearty cheering and applause, and countless rounds of beer, the people of Liberchies celebrate the arrival of the new baby with gusto. Little Django is baptized beneath the high vaulted ceiling in the church of Saint-Pierre. The innkeeper Adrien Borsin and his wife are present at the christening, delighted to be chosen as godparents. The Reinhardts are happy here; they have managed to establish a bond with this farming community that over time has become accustomed to the ways of the Manouche.

For several years then the Reinhardt clan took up winter quarters on the marshy wastes of the Mare aux Corbeaux. There were enough willows and reeds growing there for them to make baskets for little or no cost. Negros carried on her basketwork and lace making, Jean Vées repaired musical instruments, patching up an old violin or mending a piano with whatever he could lay his hands on. Young Django, for his part, preferred to hang around the café run by his godfather Adrien Borsin, while his brother, born in Paris two years after Django, would play with other kids his own age. The two brothers had distinctly different personalities. Joseph, nicknamed Nin-Nin, had an easy going, calmly obliging nature, and very soon let his older brother gain the upper hand, for Django was more secretive, solitary, sometimes domineering, and did not take kindly to any form of hindrance or constraint. From a very early age then, Django asserted his independence. It was an irrepressible need for freedom that would remain with him forever.

[1]Manouche term for someone who is a “non-gypsy.” Sing. gadjo