Known best for his “Minor Swing” Django Reinhardt had quite the musical career. Let’s take a look back at his life and accomplishments.
Django Reinhardt (French pronunciation: [dʒɑ̃ɡo ʁenɑʁt]; 23 January 1910 – 16 May 1953) was a pioneering virtuoso jazz guitarist and composer who invented an entirely new style of jazz guitar technique (sometimes called ‘hot’ jazz guitar) that has since become a living musical tradition within French gypsy culture. With violinist Stéphane Grappelli, he co-founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France, described by critic Thom Jurek as “one of the most original bands in the history of recorded jazz.” Reinhardt’s most popular compositions have become jazz standards, including “Minor Swing“, “Daphne”, “Belleville”, “Djangology”, “Swing ’42” and “Nuages“.
Jean “Django” Reinhardt was born 23 January 1910 in Liberchies, Pont-à-Celles, Belgium, into a family of Manouche gypsies. Reinhardt’s nickname “Django” is Romani for “I awake.” Reinhardt spent most of his youth in Romani (Gypsy) encampments close to Paris, playing banjo, guitar and violin from an early age. His family made cane furniture for a living, but included several keen amateur musicians.
Reinhardt was attracted to music at an early age, playing the violin at first. At the age of 12, he received a banjo-guitar that had been given to him as a gift. He quickly learned to play, mimicking the fingerings of musicians he watched. His first known recordings (in 1928) were of him playing the banjo. During this period he was influenced by two older gypsy musicians, the banjoist Gusti Mahla and the guitarist Jean “Poulette” Castro. By the age of 13, Reinhardt was able to make a living playing music. As a result, he received little formal education and acquired the rudiments of literacy only in adult life.
At the age of 18, Reinhardt was injured in a fire that ravaged the caravan he shared with Florine “Bella” Mayer, his first wife. They were very poor, and to supplement their income Bella made imitation flowers out of celluloid and paper. Consequently, their home was full of this highly flammable material. Returning from a performance late one night, Reinhardt apparently knocked over a candle on his way to bed. While his family and neighbours were quick to pull him to safety, he received first- and second-degree burns over half his body. His right leg was paralysed and the third and fourth fingers of his left hand were badly burned. Doctors believed that he would never play guitar again and intended to amputate one of his legs. Reinhardt refused to have the surgery and left the hospital after a short time; he was able to walk within a year with the aid of a cane.
His brother Joseph Reinhardt, an accomplished guitarist himself, bought Django a new guitar. With rehabilitation and practice he relearned his craft in a completely new way, even as his third and fourth fingers remained partially paralysed. He played all of his guitar solos with only two fingers, and used the two injured digits only for chord work.
In 1929, Reinhardt’s estranged wife Florine gave birth to a son named Henri “Lousson” Reinhardt (aka Lousson Baumgartner).
Discovery of jazz
The period between 1929 and 1933 were formative years for Reinhardt. He decisively abandoned the banjo-guitar in favour of the guitar. He was particularly impressed with Louis Armstrong, whom he called “my brother”. Shortly afterwards he made the acquaintance of a young violinist with very similar musical interests—Stéphane Grappelli. In the absence of paid work in their radical new music, the two would jam together, along with a loose circle of other musicians.
Formation of the quintet
In 1934, Reinhardt and Parisian violinist Grappelli were invited to form the “Quintette du Hot Club de France” with Reinhardt’s brother Joseph and Roger Chaput on guitar, and Louis Vola on bass. Occasionally Chaput was replaced by Reinhardt’s best friend and fellow Gypsy Pierre “Baro” Ferret. The vocalist Freddy Taylor participated in a few songs, such as “Georgia On My Mind” and “Nagasaki“. Jean Sablon was the first singer to record with him more than 30 songs from 1933. They also used their guitars for percussive sounds, as they had no true percussion section. The Quintette du Hot Club de France was one of the few well-known jazz ensembles composed only of string instruments.
In Paris on 14 March 1933, Reinhardt recorded two takes each of “Parce que je vous aime” and “Si, j’aime Suzy”, vocal numbers with lots of guitar fills and guitar support, using three guitarists along with an accordion lead, violin, and bass. In August of the following year recordings were also made with more than one guitar (Joseph Reinhardt, Roger Chaput, and Django), including the first recording by the Quintette. In both years, it should be noted, the great majority of recordings featured a wide variety of horns, often in multiples, piano, and other instruments.
Reinhardt also played and recorded with many American jazz musicians such as Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Rex Stewart (who later stayed in Paris), and participated in a jam-session and radio performance with Louis Armstrong. Later in his career he played with Dizzy Gillespie in France. Reinhardt and the Hot Club of France used the Selmer Maccaferri, the first commercially available guitars with a cutaway and later with an aluminium-reinforced neck.
When World War II broke out, the original quintet was on tour in the United Kingdom. Reinhardt returned to Paris at once, leaving his wife behind. Grappelli remained in the United Kingdom for the duration of the war. Reinhardt reformed the quintet, with Hubert Rostaing on clarinet replacing Grappelli’s violin. In 1943, Reinhardt married Sophie “Naguine” Ziegler in Salbris, with whom he had a son, Babik Reinhardt, who became a respected guitarist in his own right.
Reinhardt survived the war unscathed, unlike many Romanis who perished in the Porajmos, the Nazi regime’s systematic murder of several hundred thousand European Romanis. He was well aware of the dangers he and his family faced, and made several unsuccessful attempts to escape occupied France. Part of the explanation of his survival is that he enjoyed the protection of (surreptitiously) jazz-loving Nazis such as Luftwaffe officer Dietrich Schulz-Köhn, nicknamed “Doktor Jazz”.
Reinhardt’s problems were compounded by the fact that the Nazis also officially disapproved of jazz. Reinhardt became interested in other musical directions, attempting to write a Mass for the Gypsies and Symphony (since he could not write music, he would perform improvisations to be notated by an assistant). His modernist piece Rhythm Futur was intended to be acceptably unjazzlike.
United States tour
After the war, Reinhardt rejoined Grappelli in the UK, and then went on in fall 1946 to tour the United States as a special guest soloist with Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, when he got to play with many notable musicians and composers such as Maury Deutsch. At the end of the tour he played two nights at Carnegie Hall; he received a great ovation and took six curtain calls on the first night. Despite Reinhardt’s great pride in touring with Ellington (one of his two letters to Grappelli relates this excitement), he was not really integrated into the band, playing only a few tunes at the end of the show, backed by Ellington, with no special arrangements written for him. After the tour he secured an engagement at Café Society Uptown, where he did four solos a day backed by the resident band. These performances drew large audiences.
Reinhardt was reportedly given an untuned guitar to play with (discovered after strumming a chord) and it took him five whole minutes to tune it. Having failed to take along a Selmer Modèle Jazz, the guitar he made famous, he had to play on a haphazardly borrowed electric guitar, which failed to bring out the delicacy of his style.
Django Reinhardt was among the first people in France to appreciate the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, whom he sought when he arrived in New York. They were both on tour at the time, however.
He had been promised some jobs in California but these failed to materialize and he got tired of waiting. He returned to France in February 1947.
 After the quintet
After returning to France, Reinhardt spent the remainder of his days re-immersed in Romani life, having found it difficult to adjust to the modern world. He would sometimes show up for concerts without a guitar or amp, or wander off to the park or beach, and on a few occasions he refused even to get out of bed. Reinhardt was known by his band, fans, and managers to be extremely unpredictable. He would often skip sold-out concerts to simply “walk to the beach” or “smell the dew”.
In Rome in 1949, Reinhardt recruited three Italian jazz players (on bass, piano, and snare drum) and recorded his final (double) album, “Djangology”. He was once again united with Grappelli, and returned to his acoustic Selmer-Maccaferri. The recording was discovered and issued for the first time in the late 1950s.
In 1951, he retired to Samois-sur-Seine, near Fontainebleau, where he lived until his death. He continued to play in Paris jazz clubs and began playing electric guitar, despite his initial hesitation towards the instrument. His final recordings made in the last few months of his life show him moving in a new musical direction; he had assimilated the vocabulary of bebop and fused it with his own melodic style.
While walking from the Avon railway station after playing in a Paris club he collapsed outside his house from a brain hemorrhage. It was a Saturday and it took a full day for a doctor to arrive and Reinhardt was declared dead on arrival at the hospital in Fontainebleau at age 43.
Reinhardt’s second son, Babik, was a guitarist in the contemporary jazz style. His first son, Lousson, was more of a traditionalist, but followed the Romani lifestyle and rarely performed in public. Reinhardt’s brother Joseph had initially sworn to abandon music on hearing of Reinhardt’s death, but was persuaded to start performing and recording again. Joseph’s son Markus is a gypsy violinist. There is now a third generation of direct descendants Reinhardt’s grandson (by his son Babik), David Reinhardt, leads his own trio; his grandson by Lousson, Dallas Baumgartner, is a guitarist who follows in his father’s footsteps by traveling and keeping a low public profile.
For about a decade after Reinhardt’s death, interest in his musical style was minimal, with the fifties seeing bebop superseding swing in jazz, the rise of rock and roll, and electric instruments taking over from acoustic ones in popular music. Reinhardt’s friends and sidemen Pierre Ferret and his brothers continued to perform their own version of gypsy swing.
There was a revival of interest in Reinhardt’s music from the mid sixties, with acoustic music having become popular through the folk movement. Several of Reinhardt’s near-contemporaries recorded for the first time in the sixties and seventies, for instance Paul “Tchan Tchou” Vidal
In 1973 Stéphane Grappelli formed a successful Quintette-style band with British guitarists Diz Disley and Denny Wright. Grappelli would go on to form many other musical partnerships, including John Etheridge and Nigel Kennedy. He was also to acquire his own emulators, for instance Dutch violinist Tim Kliphuis.
New generations began to emerge, for instance, Jimmy and Stochelo Rosenberg and their relatives from the Netherlands. Another musical clan is the Reinhardt brothers and cousins from Germany, distant relatives of Reinhardt’s. Boulou Ferré, son of “Matelot” Ferret, was a child prodigy who entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 13, and studied under Olivier Messiaen. He continues to perform, with his brother Elios, and can mix bebop and even classical music with gypsy swing. Biréli Lagrène and Angelo Debarre were other prodigies.
Most of the above-mentioned are Roma who learned music by the ‘gypsy method’, involving intense practice, direct imitation of older musicians (often family members) and playing by ear, with little formal musical study (or, indeed, formal education of any kind). Since about the late 1970s, study materials of a more conventional kind such as workshops, books and videos have become available, allowing musicians worldwide to master the style.
Non-Roma prominent gypsy-style guitarists include John Jorgenson, Jon Larsen (and his Hot Club de Norvège, established 1979), Joscho Stephan, Andreas Öberg, Frank Vignola, George Cole, Stephane Wrembel and Reynold Philipsek. Their music is sometimes jokingly referred to as “Gadjo jazz”, where Gadjo is the Romani term for a non-Romani. Young players such as Adrien Moignard and Gwenole Cahue represent the rising generation. Another sign of the rising popularity of gypsy jazz is the increasing number of festivals, such as the Samois-sur-Seine festival (started about 1980), and the various DjangoFests held in the USA.
Reinhardt in popular culture
Reinhardt has been portrayed in several films, such as in the opening sequence of the 2003 animated film Les Triplettes de Belleville. The third and fourth fingers of the cartoon Reinhardt are considerably smaller than the fingers used to play the guitar. Reinhardt’s legacy dominates in Woody Allen‘s 1999 Sweet and Lowdown. This spoof biopic focuses on fictional American guitarist Emmet Ray’s obsession with Reinhardt, with soundtrack featuring Howard Alden. He is also portrayed by guitarist John Jorgenson in the movie Head in the Clouds.
Reinhardt is the idol of the character Arvid in the movie Swing Kids, where the character’s left hand is smashed by a member of the Hitler Jugend, but is inspired by Reinhardt’s example to keep playing. Similarly, in real life, Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi suffered an industrial accident at 17, where the tips of his right middle and ring fingers were amputated on the last day of his job at a sheet metal factory. His boss, in an effort to encourage Iommi to follow his dream of being a professional guitarist, played a Django Reinhardt record for him for inspiration.
Reinhardt’s music has been used in the soundtrack of many films, including in The Matrix; Rhythm Futur, Daltry Calhoun, Metroland, Chocolat, The Aviator, Alex and the Gypsy, Kate and Leopold and Gattaca; the score for Louis Malle‘s 1974 movie, Lacombe Lucien; the background for the Steve Martin movie L.A. Story; and the background for a number of Woody Allen movies, including Stardust Memories. (MnHe also appeared as a character in Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown. Reinhardt’s music has also been featured in the soundtracks of several video games, such as the 2002 game Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven, Mafia II  and several times in the 2007 game BioShock. Notably, not only was Reinhardt’s music used in the 1978 film King of the Gypsies, his long-time friend and violinist Stéphane Grappelli appeared in the film in a cameo performing as part of one of the gypsy bands.
Reinhardt has been the subject of several songs, most notably “Django” (1954), a gypsy-flavoured piece that jazz pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet wrote in honour of Reinhardt; numerous versions of the song have been recorded, including one on the 1973 Lindsey Buckingham/Stevie Nicks self-titled debut album; it also appears on Joe Bonamassa‘s 2006 LP You & Me. The lyrics of the Norwegian song “Tanta til Beate” by Lillebjørn Nilsen mentions Reinhardt several times.
He is mentioned in Jump Little Children‘s song “Mexico”: “I won’t let you leave, not with all my Django, Emmylou and Steve“.
In the novel Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds, the characters Wendell Floyd and André Custine mention having played music with Reinhardt.
At the end of the 2009 NCIS episode “Hide and Seek,” Dr. Mallard mentions that Agent McGee’s prized autographed Django Reinhardt album “Crazy Rhythm” was mysteriously destroyed.
In 2010 the French and Belgian Google homepages displayed a logo commemorating the centenary of his birthday on 23 January 2010.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Actors Alexander Siddig and Nana Visitor named their son after Reinhardt.
Reinhardt is loosely suggested as the main character in the music video for “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” by Brian Setzer.
The Django web framework is named after him, as is version 3.1 of the blog software WordPress.
“Twango”, a track on Duane Eddy‘s album Road Trip, is a tribute to Reinhardt.
“Tango For Django”, a track on Robbie Robertson‘s album How To Become Clairvoyant, is a tribute.
Many guitar players, and musicians, have expressed admiration for Django Reinhardt, or have cited him as a major influence. These include British rock guitarists Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and Eric Clapton, all three of whom are regularly listed by publications such as Rolling Stone or Guitar Player Magazine as being within the top 10 greatest or most influential guitar players (often with Reinhardt, himself). In fact, Jeff Beck has described Reinhardt as “By far the most astonishing guitar player ever…” and “…quite superhuman…”  Other notable guitar players influenced by Reinhardt, include Bob Dunn, Leon McAuliffe, Jimmy McCulloch, NWOAHM guitarist Synyster Gates (Brian Haner Jr.) of Avenged Sevenfold, classical guitarist Julian Bream; country artist Chet Atkins, who placed Reinhardt #1 on a list of the ten most influential guitarists of the 20th century (and himself fifth); Latinrocker Carlos Santana; blues legend B.B. King; Pete Townshend of The Who; Australian acoustic guitar player Tommy Emmanuel; The Wiggles‘ Murray Cook; Pierre Bensusan; Phish‘s Trey Anastasio; The Libertines‘ Carl Barat, Shawn Lane; Hank Marvin; Stevie Ray Vaughan; Derek Trucks; Mark Knopfler; Les Paul; Joe Pass; Peter Frampton; Denny Laine; Bill Nelson; Jon Larsen; Steve Howe; Charlie Christian; Frank Vignola; Barney Kessel; George Benson; Wes Montgomery; Martin Taylor; Michael Angelo Batio; Richard Thompson; Robert Fripp; René Thomas; and Jeff Martin. Willie Nelson wore a Django Reinhardt T-shirt on tour in Europe in 2002, stating in an interview that he admired Reinhardt’s music and ability. Willie pointed out how Reinhardt’s Hot Club quintet paralleled the hot jazz & country fiddle sound of 1930’s Western Swing bands Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies and Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.
Jose Feliciano attributes his unique style to, in part, that of Reinhardt’s. In 2009 he composed an album inspired by those musical influences and entitled it Djangoisms.
The Grateful Dead‘s Jerry Garcia and Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, both of whom lost fingers in accidents, were particularly inspired by Reinhardt’s ability to become an accomplished guitar player/musician, despite the diminished use of his own permanently injured hand following an accident.
A number of musicians have even named their sons Django in honour of, or respect for, Reinhardt. They include Dawelie Reinhardt, David Crosby, former Slade singer Noddy Holder, Jerry Jeff Walker, Richard Durrant, as well as actors Nana Visitor, Alexander Siddig and Raphael Sbarge. Jazz musician Django Bates and singer-songwriter Django Haskins were also named after him.
Songs written in Reinhardt’s honour include “Django,” an instrumental guitar piece by renowned blues-rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa. The piece was influenced by the violin introduction of “Vous et Moi” (Blues et Mineur 1942, Brussels) where Reinhardt himself played the violin. Vous et Moi (You and Me) became the title of Bonamassa’s sixth album where the track first appeared in 2006. Slightly longer live versions appear on LIVE…From Nowhere In Particular (2009), and in DVD from the 4 May concert at Royal Albert Hall. “Django,” composed by John Lewis, which has become a jazz standard performed by musicians such as Miles Davis. The Modern Jazz Quartet titled one of their albums Django in honour of him. The Allman Brothers Band song “Jessica” was written by Dickey Betts in tribute to Reinhardt — he wanted to write a song that could be played using only two fingers. This aspect of the artist’s work also motivated Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, who was inspired by Reinhardt to keep playing guitar after a factory accident that cost him two fingertips. Composer Jon Larsen has composed several crossover concerts featuring Reinhardt-inspired music together with symphonic arrangements, most famous are “White Night Stories” (2002) and “Vertavo” (1996).
Not only did Reinhardt put his stamp upon jazz, his “hot” string band music also had an impact upon the parallel development of Texas’s western swing string bands, which eventually fed into the wellspring of what is now called country music.
In 2005, Django Reinhardt took 66th place in the election of The Greatest Belgian (De Grootste Belg) in Flanders and 76th place in the Walloon version of the same competition Le plus grand Belge.