The history of gypsy jazz begins with Django Reinhardt, though many would argue that gypsy jazz is Django Reinhardt.
Django was born in 1910 into a Manouche-Romany family and although born in Belgium, Django spent most of his childhood in the gypsy camps on the outskirts of Paris where he learnt to play the violin and later the banjo-guitar. By the time he was a teenager he was able to make a meagre living from performing music on both the bango-guitar and the guitar.
When he was 18, his caravan caught fire and he suffered severe burns over half of his body, resulting in paralysis of his fourth and fifth fingers. Whilst recuperating, his brother bought him a new guitar and Django set about re-learning how to play the instrument.
On hearing American jazz music, Reinhardt’s musical approach changed and he became fully absorbed with jazz, particularly the music of Louis Armstrong. Soon his interest in jazz led to him befriending the violinist Stephane Grappelli who had similar interests.
Grappelli and Reinhardt formed a group, Quintette du Hot Club de France, which made a number of successful recordings and toured countries around Europe. Grappelli and Django also performed at the artistic salon in Montmarte which became known as R-26. At the outbreak of WWII, Grappelli stayed in England whilst Django returned to Paris. Under the protection of Luftwaffe officer Dietrich Schulz-Köhn (Doktor Jazz) he was able to perform in France and Germany.
After the end of WWII, Reinhardt toured America with the Duke Ellington orchestra and performed to packed houses. He also performed in New York, including Carnegie Hall.
Django returned to France and continued to perform at the R-26 salon but by 1951 he retired to Samois-sur-Seine on the outskirts of Paris. He continued to play at Paris jazz clubs and one day, when returning from a gig in Paris, he collapsed outside his home from a brain hemorrhage and did not recover. He died at the age of 43.
Although widely mourned by gypsies across Europe, after a period of mourning he was largely forgotten by the gypsy community. (In Manouche culture it’s traditional to go into a long period of mourning and remembrance but after that the deceased is largely forgotten and not talked about, so that people can move on and focus on day-to-day survival.) Django’s brother famously gave up playing music altogether and only returned to it after being convinced by other musicians to continue Django’s legacy.
Many of the musicians who played with Django were touched by the spirit and feeling that he put into the music and many continued to perform, even to dwindling audiences, in order to keep the music alive. The resurgence in Django’s music only came about in the mid-late 1960s with the rise of the folk music and with the help of Stephane Grappelli and members of the Reinhardt family. In 1968 the first festival at Samois-sur-Seine celebrated Django’s life and music. In 1978 Stephane Grappelli appeared in a cameo in the movie King of the Gypsies. Since then, actors playing Django have appeared in the movies Sweet and Lowdown (the Woody Allen film, with music by American guitarist Howard Alden), Head In The Clouds (portrayed by real-life gypsy jazz guitarist John Jorgenson) and in the Scorcese movie Hugo (portrayed by actor Emil Lager).
Django’s music has frequently been used in movies, particularly by Woody Allen in Stardust Memories, Sweet and Lowdown and in the film Midnight In Paris, which also features original music by gypsy jazz guitarist Stephane Wrembel. Django’s music can also be heard in The Matrix, Chocolat and LA Story, as well as in the video game BioShock.
In the Seventies, Boulou and Elios Ferre continued the gypsy jazz tradition and performed across France and recorded the influential albums Pour Django and Gypsy Dreams, and later recorded the album Trinity with Danish bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen.
In 1980 a thirteen year old gypsy prodigy, Biréli Lagrène, recorded his first album, Routes to Django-live at the Krokodil. Lagrène became so famous that he soon left for America where he embraced fusion music, recording with American artists such as Jaco Pastorius and Larry Coryell.
In 1990, Channel 4 commissioned a documentary on Django Reinhardt and the Samois-sur-Seine festival, Django Legacy, with assistance from Django’s son Babik Reinhard and UK guitarist Ian Cruickshank. By 1992, gypsy jazz was further invigorated by The Rosenberg Trio (Live at The North Sea Festival) who later released the critically acclaimed studio album Caravan.
By 2001, Biréli Lagrène had returned to gypsy jazz with the virtuosic album Gipsy Project, followed by Gipsy Project and Friends. By this time, the town of Django’s birth, Liberchies in Belgium, began to acknowledge Django with an annual music festival in his honour, which continues to this day.
In 2008 the Selmer 607 album was recorded which included some of the great new generation artists on the gypsy jazz scene. The album features Adrien Moignard, Rocky Gresset, Richard Manetti, Noé Reinhardt and Sébastien Giniaux, taking it in turns to perform on one of the few Selmer ‘petite bouche’ acoustic guitars still in playable condition, the Selmer #607.
Django’s musical legacy continues to live on, both in the gypsy community and amongst non-gypsies from Europe to America, in the music of Biréli Lagrène, Frank Vignola and in groups such as The Rosenberg Trio, The Quintet of the Hot Club of San Francisco and Seattle-based Pearl Django.
To find out more about Django Reinhardt and gypsy jazz these books are recommended:
Gypsy Jazz: In Search of Django Reinhardt and the Soul of Gypsy Swing by Michael Dregni
Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend by Michael Dregni
These websites also feature a wealth of information on gypsy jazz: