Biography of Django Reinhardt

Biography of Django Reinhardt

9 minutes reading

Biography of Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhardt, whose real name was Jean Reinhardt, was a French jazz guitarist who was born on 23 January 1910 in Pont-à-Celles, Belgium, and died in Fontainebleau on 16 May 1953. He is one of the most influential guitarists in the history of jazz. 

Django Reinhardt was followed by a large community because of his unique style of playing and composing, giving birth to a style of jazz that was different from others, gypsy jazz. He was seriously injured during a fire in his home and suffered lifelong consequences, notably a burn on his left hand, forcing him to find new techniques and a style of playing so particular that he fascinated his admirers. He even encouraged his fans to reproduce his disability and his technique.

Several of his descendants went on to pursue careers in music, including as guitarists: his two sons and his grandson.

The childhood of Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhardt was born in a caravan in Pont-à-Celles, Belgium. He is declared the son of Jean-Baptiste Reinhardt and Laurance Reinhardt, both from Alsace. His biological father, Jean-Baptiste Eugène Weiss, a violinist and pianist, did not sign the birth certificate with his real name in order to avoid French military conscription. Django therefore took his mother's name. Django Reinhardt came from a family of Sinté nomads, all of whom were used to travelling across Europe. He was raised largely by his mother and spent his youth travelling in France, Italy and Algeria to escape the First World War before his family settled in the French capital. 

Django fell in love with music by playing the violin. He discovered his uncle's banjo-guitar at the age of 12, which would be a determining factor in his future choices. A great fan of this instrument, Django Reinhardt worked ceaselessly by observing the musicians passing through his camp and acquired an extraordinary dexterity. In the same way as the banjo-guitar, Django began to play the violin and the guitar. He then started playing in the family orchestra directed by his father.

During his early teens, he began to play in the courtyards of buildings, in the street and then in various cabarets and balls in Paris, he also played in the homes of wealthy families, while preserving the pleasure of playing for himself. He was spotted by Vetese Guerino, a ballroom accordionist who convinced Django Reinhardt to accompany him. He made a name for himself among music lovers and in 1928 he recorded his first album with the help of another accordionist, Jean Vaissade. Django Reinhardt could not read or write, including his own name, so the labels were called "Jiango Renard, banjoist". That same year, Jack Hylton, a bandleader, was impressed by Django's virtuosity and proposed that he join his popular music band. Jack Hylton was to perform in London and Django Reinhardt was to accompany him, but fate had other plans. 

On 26 October 1928 in Saint-Ouen, in the Paris suburbs, a fire broke out in the caravan where the musician lived with his wife, seriously injuring the two occupants. Django Reinhardt was hit in the left hand and the right leg. He remained in hospital for almost 18 months with slow and difficult healing, which was later forced with silver nitrate. The doctors told him that he could no longer play the banjo, having lost the use of two fingers and his hand being paralysed, but Django persisted and worked with great determination, which enabled him to develop a new technique on his guitar, which his brother had brought him to help with the rehabilitation, as the banjo made too much noise in hospital.

Django Reinhardt's career

Django Reinhardt was released from hospital in 1930 with a completely new technique for the guitar, using only two fingers (index and middle) for his solos. As for rhythm, he managed to lay down chords using his ankylosed thumb, ring and little fingers. During his stay in hospital, the guitar became an integral part of the jazz orchestras, a new music from the United States. Django's discovery of artists such as Duke Ellington, Joe Venuti, Louis Armstrong and Eddie Lang was a turning point for the young guitarist who decided to devote all his time to playing jazz.

Django cut his teeth at the Coq Hardi in Toulon, at the Lido and at the Palm Beach in Cannes and then returned to Paris in 1931 where he played at La Boîte à Matelots and met several jazzmen such as André Ekyan, Alix Combelle, Stéphane Grappelli and Stéphane Mougin at La Croix du Sud. He played in their orchestra and also with the Italian-born accordionist Vetese Guerino. Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli founded the Quinquette du Hot Club de France together in 1934. This group was made up of these two, Joseph Reinhardt, Django's brother, as well as Roger Chaput, guitarist and Louis Vola, double bass player. This group, with its innovative music, was a huge success. During the following years, they recorded several records and played all over Europe with the help of their impresarios. They collaborated with the greatest musicians of the time: Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins and Rex Stewart, who tried on several occasions to test Django Reinhardt's instrumental technique and musical knowledge, but the guitarist won respect with his unfailing mastery. It was this same talent that convinced Jean Sablon, a singer who hired him and gave him access to recording studios in 1933.


In 1935, Django Reinhardt hired a young accompanist by the name of Henri Salvador, and they played together for two years. During the Second World War, he spent the war in the occupied zone, unable to fight due to his injuries. He performed in the programme of the young Yves Montand and also in Paris. He continued to record several songs such as Nuages with clarinettist and jazz saxophonist Hubert Rostaing, which later became a big hit. After many successes and a failed move to Switzerland, he returned to Paris and opened a club "Chez Django Reinhardt" and formed a new quintet with Hubert Rostaing on clarinet and Pierre Fouad on percussions. He was one of the first in France to understand be-pop, the jazz revolution that came straight from the United States and was driven by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

After the war ended, the Hot Club de France resumed touring and recording sessions. In 1946, during a tour of the United States, Django finally had the opportunity to play alongside Duke Ellington, both of whom were eager to play together. However, as Django Reinhardt did not speak English, he found it difficult to get used to the discipline of the Big Bands. Moreover, the collaboration with Duke Ellington did not go as planned, which was a real disappointment for the French guitarist. Despite these negative points, Django Reinhardt's presence in the United States and Canada was incredible for fans. He was the only non-American jazz star with Grappelli. Django then wanted to meet some of the big American stars, such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, but without success, all of whom were unavailable during his stay in New York.

In 1951, he moved to the Paris suburbs and it was a real revival for him, his playing was incredible and he regularly played with the best French be-boppers. Django Reinhardt was at the forefront of jazz. In 1953, Norman Granz hired Django Reinhardt for the Jazz at the Philarmonic tours. Eddie Barclay, a French producer, had him record eight tracks to showcase his talent to American fans. These eight tracks would undoubtedly leave their mark on the international jazz music scene and would be a source of inspiration for decades. He recorded his last album in 1953.

The death of Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhard died one month after recording his last album of a cerebral haemorrhage. According to an old gypsy rite, his wife burned all his personal belongings to erase all traces of the deceased. 

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