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John Bohlinger on Django Reinhardt

John  Bohlinger on Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhardt, live in New York.

Photo by William P. Gottlieb

Our Last Call columnist considers his dream Rig Rundown subject.

“Django was music made into a man.” —Emmanuel Soudieux, Django’s bassist

My friend and colleague Chris Kies recently filmed a Pantera Rig Rundown. One could argue that Pantera is the reason that Rig Rundowns exist. Pantera, more specifically Pantera’s guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell, got Kies into guitar, and he eventually—along with former PG editorial director Joe Coffey—came up with the idea of filming guitarists with their rigs. So you have Hell’s own cowboy, Dimebag, via Kies to thank for the Rundown brand of infotainment.

When the Rundown team got together to yak about Kies’ white-whale interview during a Gig Rundown, I began to wonder what my dream Rig Rundown would be. The choice is easy, though filming it would require a DeLorean, a flux capacitor, and 1.21 gigawatts of power to take us back to 1946 when Django Reinhardt toured the U.S. with Duke Ellington.

Django Reinhardt remains my personal guitar hero. You’ll never hear a player who is more in command of the instrument. Django’s playing was creative and fearless, lighting fast, but never rushed, fiery but relaxed, showy but subtle and sweet. And as brilliant as Django’s playing was, the man was as remarkable as his music. Django seemed to embody everything beautiful and terrible about musicians, incarnating the bad luck, immense talent, shifty business practices, hubris, and laziness. He’d show up for scheduled concerts without a guitar or skip sold-out concerts to take a walk on the beach or whatever he felt inspired to do. Some days he’d refuse to get out of bed at all.

”Django seemed to embody everything beautiful and terrible about musicians, incarnating the bad luck, immense talent, shifty business practices, hubris, and laziness.“

Django Reinhardt was born in a Roma encampment near Belgium in 1910. As a child, the nomadic camp moved outside of Paris, where Django excelled at playing violin, banjo, and guitar, as well as stealing chickens. When he was 18, a fire engulfed his trailer one night, which paralyzed the third and fourth fingers on his left hand. During his 18-month convalescence, Django reinvented his guitar playing. In doing so, he created a new style of music dubbed "gypsy jazz," making him the first great European jazz musician.

During World War II, Nazis exterminated over a million people of Roma heritage and Hitler decreed that listening to jazz could get you sent to a concentration camp. Paradoxically, Django enjoyed the most lucrative period of his career, living and playing openly among Nazi soldiers, who used Paris as a party town during the war.

After the war, while on tour in Zürich, Django lost most of his money gambling in a casino. But in a quick reversal of fortune, he was contacted by a William Morris agent who told him that Duke Ellington would like Django and his musical partner Stéphane Grappelli to join him on tour in the U.S. Django selfishly chose not to tell Grappelli about the tour and went alone.

According to Reinhardt biographer Charles Delaunay, Django was accustomed to his brother Joseph carrying and tuning his guitar, so he arrived in the U.S. without luggage or a guitar. Django believed American companies would be throwing guitars and money at him when he arrived. He was wrong. An agent rounded up a high-action Gibson ES-300 that felt nothing like his sleek, low-action Selmer strung with light ”silk-&-steel” strings (.010–.046). He plugged into an amp he didn’t know how to operate, and oscillated between too loud and inaudible. Accounts say it took him five minutes to tune his guitar. At their Carnegie Hall concert, according to Delaunay, Django ran into boxer Marcel Cerdan on the street, and the two headed to a cafe. Consequently, the guitarist was two hours late. Django went back to Paris not long after the ill-fated show because, as Duke put it, “Somebody at the William Morris Agency had beat him playing billiards, and he got mad and left.”

Childish, selfish, brilliant, joyous, jealous, and vain, with little common sense, Django was a Zen-gangsta with an indomitable human spirit, laughing his way through life with no real goals, carefree, spending money as fast as he made it. He embodies everything I’d hope to be as well as everything I fear I might be