The Guitar Born in a Cart

By Vicente Mateu

That guitar that laughs and cries, the guitar with a human voice (Jean Cocteau)

The gypsies know what it is to suffer. And also how to convert that pain into music charged with vitality and joy beneath which that ancestral sadness remains buried. They are the sounds, today all but disappeared, that came from the outlying districts of the major European cities in the first half of the 20th century, a desolate landscape of carts and misery.  Jean Baptiste ‘Django’ Reinhardt (Belgium, 1910 – France, 1953) chose a guitar as a form of expression in a world at war that, in his case, opened another front with his own personal tragedy. His ‘medicine’ was to pervade the kingdom of swing with the aroma of the songs he listened to as a child in his tribal campsite on the outskirts of Paris. With his ever-present cigarette between his lips and trademark moustache, the jazz scene fell at his feet, creating a sub-genre solely for him and his ethnic group and writing the story of another six-string legend. Gypsy jazz, or 'manouche jazz' in French, had been born in a cart.

A rolling home that reached the end of the road too soon. It is the curse of the geniuses, or at least many of them, a fate that seems to be particularly merciless towards pioneers like Reinhardt. A stroke killed him in Fontainebleau just when Europe was recovering from the massacre on the battlefields and had just discovered the electric guitar. Unfortunately, he barely had time to experiment with an instrument whose possibilities had been multiplied -and amplified-exponentially by electronics. 

The electric guitar came too late for Django. On his 'unplugged' stage, the place reserved for the Marshalls was occupied by an acoustic bass and two rhythm guitars -one of them played by his brother Joseph- while Django's guitar engaged in a conversation with Stéphane Grappelli's violin. His 'conversation partner', who did know how to read a music score, is a fundamental figure in understanding why Reinhardt had such a great influence on jazz. His legacy has lived on in many other guitar greats who tried to follow his example, from Carlos Santana to Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsys, his individual tribute to the grand master.

With a very unusual line-up for the era, featuring only strings with no piano or any wind instrument, Reinhardt freed the genre from the bonds of tradition. But without the aid of a 'serious' musician like Grappelli, a gypsy who not only didn't know how to 'read' music but barely knew how to read and write at all might never have attracted the attention and earned the admiration of his peers. “Jiango Renard” was the name that appeared on his first recording with accordion player Jean Vaissade, impressed by the young kid with the talented fingers and an ear that more than made up for his 'academic' shortcomings. Like so many others, he started off with a banjo. Or something that resembled it.

That was the easy part. When he was just 18, Reinhardt had to face an even bigger challenge because of a stupid accident, the famous fire in the caravan cart where he lived with his first wife, who sold celluloid flowers. A candle turned it into an inferno and left the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand all but useless. The worst nightmare for a guitarist. Surely that caused him more pain than the leg they were on the verge of amputating.

Two years later, the young gypsy guitarist not only hadn't given up but had learned to make as much use of his index and middle fingers as if they were four. The other two barely served for chords and little else. Anybody else would have gone crazy; Django became a genius. His misfortune had revealed the way to draw new sounds from his guitar, defined by a very personal style of playing due to his damaged hand that made him 'unique'; his other 'style', the one that came from roots lost in the darkest of times, took care of the rest. 

It was during that era that he was fully introduced to jazz on hearing Dallas Blues by Louis Armstrong. Django was moving from club to club playing during the '30s until one owner, Pierre Nourry, paired him with Grappelli in the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, a brand that still remains active today. It was the leap to fame he was searching for, fed around the world by those vinyl 'bricks' with the historic Decca label in the middle. There are at least 250 recordings under his own name and thousands of tracks recorded over the course of his career.

From that period come some of his handful of original compositions, including Djangology, Bricktop and Swing 39. All of them composed, of course, with the help of Grappelli.

The crackle of those records barely lasted a few years before they were replaced by the bombardments of German artillery.   The war didn't stop Reinhardt, who preferred to return to France instead of staying with his band mates, including Grappelli, in London. While they were waiting there for the storm to blow over, he formed a big band with clarinet player Hubert Rostaing despite the risk that entailed during the Nazi occupation. Gypsies were concentration camp fodder, a danger he avoided through the protection of one of his potential jailers with a fondness for jazz.   How he managed to also become a legend of the French Resistance is another story. The fact is his music was indispensable for making nightlife in the French capital livelier.

managed to survive to welcome the avalanche of musicians from the U.S. who landed there after the liberation of Paris. The good times were back and the clubs filled with people anxious to forget the war. He finally got his hands on an electric guitar in 1946 and began practicing with it. A U.S. tour was awaiting him as featured soloist with none other than Duke Ellington, also one of the musicians responsible for his ‘fusion’ with the jazz world. However, something went wrong -there are many conflicting versions of the reasons why- and he returned to the Old Continent and back to his familiar life, including the peerless Grappelli. Once again, the violinist came to the aid of the guitarist, who never felt entirely comfortable with electric instruments and the new style in vogue, bebop.

His thing was swing, without a doubt. When he got home -in a manner of speaking, because he never stopped living like a nomad- he was a star to the audience when he shared a stage in Paris (1948) with the equally great Dizzy Gillespie. Django, however, overemphasized his tribal side in his later years. His performances became rarer and rarer and he barely left his retreat near Paris for an occasional tour, like the one in Italy that became one of his final recordings. He seemed to feel out of place at 40, wrapped up in fishing and little else, surrounded only by his 'people' whenever possible. It was as if he was aware the end was coming soon.

There is also unanimous agreement among the experts that Reinhardt never managed to play anything 'plugged in' at the same level of virtuosity that he achieved with his Selmer guitar, custom-made for him by the great Italian luthier Maccaferri. The same guitar he didn't have on hand when he met Andrés Segovia, another one of the juicy anecdotes that are part of his life story.

Surely, he just didn't have enough time to find the electric guitar he needed.  Django Reinhardt went through two wars and never stopped playing his guitar. To keep him quiet, it took a damned broken vein in his head to write the final chapter of his life too soon, and become the first among many legends with a place of honour in the Jukebox of Guitars Exchange.

(Images: © Cordon Press)