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1 October 2020-
Perhaps the greatest French musician of the 20th century, as well as one of the greatest in the world, is Belgian-born Gipsy Django Reinhardt. Many things about his life are truly outstanding — including the fact that he couldn't write...
And not just music: he couldn’t write period!
Although that wasn’t an entirely unusual thing for European Gipsies born in the early 20th century: their existence, for generations, had centered around traveling and undertaking small menial work on their path. Although hailing from Belgium, Reinhardt’s family quickly resettled near Paris, where he spent his youth. Learning to play the guitar by mimicking others, he discovered he had a knack for it — although probably not to the extent the rest of the world would eventually find out…
Then came the next big event in Reinhardt’s life: at age 18, a fire in his caravan almost killed his young family and burned two of his left fingers so badly that he was not able to use them properly ever again. Guitar players will tell you that it is somewhat difficult to play without those: the man still managed — till the end of his life, often creating sounds with only 3 fingers most artists were unable to with a full set of 5…
Discovering Jazz music in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, he rapidly became obsessed with this genre hailing from America, although he almost immediately started giving it his very own spin, based on Gipsy playing traditions that he had been perfecting since childhood — that and a touch of his own personal genius. Reinhardt and a young violonist called Stéphane Grappelli started a Jazz band which came to epitomize French Jazz in just a few years: the Quintette du Hot Club de France.
The Second World War stopped all that, naturally: being a Gipsy Jazz musician, Reinhardt was clearly prominently featured on Nazi hit lists, but managed to keep a somewhat low profile and/or was aided by occasional Jazz-loving German soldiers who protected him for much more ominous prospects. After the war finally came the moment Reinhardt had been waiting for for years: a tour of the United States, where Jazz had originated and still was its home. His wish was granted by none other than the great Duke Ellington, who invited him to play on tour with his orchestra.
That is when Reinhardt’s inability to read or write properly suddenly became a great hindrance: Ellington’s musicians were classically performers who could all read and therefore play music together. Reinhardt was not: that left him with only one option — play alone or with Ellington himself at the end of their shows, but never quite as a true ensemble.
Django Reinhardt died suddenly in 1953 at the tender age of 43. Nevertheless, he is remembered as a major artist and creator, despite having an injured hand to play with — and nothing to read from.