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A Look At The Jazz Legend: Django Reinhardt

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A Look At The Jazz Legend: Django  Reinhardt

As war broke out in Europe for the second time in less than a quarter of a century, Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelli and their quintet, the "Quintette du Hot Club de France,” were touring the United Kingdom. All of Europe was on the move. The German march to Paris was swift. When more than two million of his fellow Parisians, had already left the city, Django Reinhardt hastily returned. “It is better to be frightened in your country than another one,” he said.

Born as Jean Reinhardt on January 23, 1910, in Liberchies, Pont­a­Celles, Belgium, he started playing the violin in his childhood. When he was 12, he received a banjo­guitar as a gift. Learning to play by mimicking the performers he watched, he was able to make a living out of it at the tender age of 13. 1928 marked the year of tragedy for the maestro. His house caught fire and Django ended up suffering first and second ­degree burns all over his body. The little and ring finger on his left hand was badly burned and became partially paralysed. Throughout his life, he would use only his two functional fingers for the solos, using the paralysed fingers just while holding chords. Shortly afterwards, his brother Joseph(himself an accomplished guitarist), gifted him a guitar. During his rehabilitation, he developed his own unique way of playing the instrument.

He was first exposed to American Jazz during the early years of the 1930’s. Collaborating with violinist Stephane Grappelli and incorporating his Romani gypsy influences, he came up with a distinctively unique sound which was later labeled as Gypsy Swing or Hot Club Jazz. With his brother, Grappelli, Joseph Chaput(guitar) and Louis Vola(bass), he formed the "Quintette du Hot Club de France.” They quickly gained popularity and fame as an ensemble string quintet, a rare distinction for the time.

The German occupation of Paris was particularly hard on him as the Nazis fundamentally condemned Jazz. On top of that, his ‘gypsy’ lineage and vagrant lifestyle were more than just frowned upon. Life in Paris was becoming increasingly vulnerable. Anyone could be killed or sent to the camps at the whim of any German officer. Django made several escape attempts but failed. His survived the war largely due to a few Jazz-loving officials such as Luftwaffe officer Dietrich Schulz­Köhn a.k.a. Doktor Jazz.

Post­war, Django toured the United States of America, eventually performing with the likes of Duke Ellington and Maury Deutsch. Upon his return, he eventually became more and more inclined towards his Romani ‘gypsy’ heritage and engaged upon a lifestyle which most professionals would not approve of. Skipping concerts to ‘walk the beach,’ refusing to get out of bed or wandering aimlessly in gardens became a regular occurrence. He still continued to play at Paris Jazz clubs and eventually picking up the electric guitar. After a performance at a local club, Django collapsed in front of his house. He suffered a brain hemorrhage. On May 16, 1953, Django Reinhardt breathed his last. His popularity remained limited among a select few aficionados. But in the 60’s, with the advent of Bebop and Rock ‘n’ Roll, there was a revival in interest in his music. His legend remains cemented to this day, as one of the greatest guitarists of all time. Festival De Jazz Django Reinhardt is an annual event held in his honour in his birthplace, Liberchies.