A new double cd, The Essential Django Reinhardt, has just been released by Sony Legacy.
On the cd cover is a famous photograph of the great gypsy musician, cigarette dangling from his mouth, framed by a neatly trimmed pencil moustache. Here he’s playing an archtop guitar made by Levin, a Swedish company, though his most famous axe was his distinctive Selmer Maccaferri electric guitar, the one with the oval sound hole (thanks to an expert for that correction). These guitars are now very expensive. Musicians today usually have to buy copies. His left hand is severely scarred. Django, just 18, was badly burned in his caravan wagon after returning from a late night gig. His wife made celluloid flowers to supplement the family’s meager income. Django knocked over a candle when going to bed and the flowers caught fire. The third and fourth fingers of his left hand were burned and deformed. He only had nubs left. You can see it in the picture.
He had third-degree burns over most of his body. The doctors also wanted to amputate his right leg. Django refused. Within a year was walking again with the aid of a cane. The doctors also said he would never play the guitar again. Again they were wrong.
Django lived to be just 43 (b.1910, d. 1953). His last record for the Barclay label featured him with a bebop rhythm section, and is one of my favorite records of all time.
Though he died prematurely, his life was amazing. He stayed in France during World War II, preferring to stay there under Nazi occupation unlike his partner, violinist Stephane Grappelli, who left for London. As a Roma he faced deportation and the Nazi death chamber. And yet he was so loved and admired by all, including the Germans, that he not only survived but actually toured Germany during the war.
Django was also an expert billiards player. He made good money at it and would generously spend it all with his friends afterwards. Some in the pool hall didn’t even know he was a great musician. They only knew him as a good pool player.
Look at this famous image of Django’s hand while you listen to the first track on the cd, “Minor Swing”. As you look at his mangled hand will rather be reminded not only of Django’s genius, his supreme musicianship, but also the triumph of the human spirit.