Tom’s Music Salon: Django Reinhardt

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2010 is the 100th birthday—the centennial—of Django Reinhardt’s birth.  He was born in a gypsy wagon in a suburb of Brussels in 1910. Although he only lived to be 43, dying in 1953, he wrote the book on gypsy guitar, invented new styles of gypsy jazz, and has legions of loyal followers around the world, both fans and musicians, who have his same pencil moustache and use the same Selmer Maccaferi guitar that Django made famous.

Photo by William Gottlieb -- you can see the scarring on his hand
Photo by William Gottlieb -- you can see the scarring on his hand (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Django means “hope” in the Roma language of the gypsies.  It is particularly apt for him because he was badly burned in a gypsy wagon when he was in his early twenties.  He had returned from a gig late at night.  His young wife was making plastic flowers which she sold at market to supplement the Reinhardt family income.  This was in the 1930’s.  Django lit a candle for more light (they had no electricity in gypsy wagon encampments), which touched the plastic flowers and caught fire; he was severely burned while rescuing his wife from the flames.

Django endured severe burns to his whole body.  His left hand—the fretboard (and business) hand of a guitar player—was badly burned. He lost the use of several fingers. As a result, he had to reinvent his playing, but developed an astonishing new technique using the nubs of his fingers.  People who hear his music could never imagine his disability.

During the war, in spite of being a gypsy on Hitler’s death list, he played in France and toured Europe.  He was so widely loved that he was allowed to live.  He was also a great billiards player and it’s been said that he played and made money in halls where people didn’t know he was the great gypsy guitarist.

The gypsies—or Roma—have been disenfranchised and persecuted and in WWII were killed by the Nazis.  Yet their music has brought joy to millions.  Django is at the top of the list. Now is a good time to listen and celebrate his greatness.

Selmer Maccaferi guitar Django made famous:

Another big fan of Django Reinhardt is Actor/Writer/Director Jon Favreau, who selected TWO of his songs as part of his Guest DJ Project set.