A King and a Mistress
The caravan was burning. What would later be called a tragedy was still, for now, just a fire. With a flicker of orange and a tiny pop the paper celluloid flowers burst, sold so cheaply and aflame so easily. These would not make it to their marketplace, the Parisian cemeteries. Django was late coming back from a gig, so his wife Florine had stayed up waiting. She distracted herself with her work.
How banal are the beginnings of disasters: a guitar discarded on a table; a hand rising fatigued to a forehead and then back to the table in a gesture never completed. A candle knocked over and a world alit.
The caravan burned—the lace curtains curling up and gone, the cast-iron stove swallowed in a bang—but Django and Florine would emerge alive though not unscathed. Important possessions were lost: a guitar, three suitcases, some rings. A small wardrobe and two charred fingers. It was 1928 and Django Reinhardt was eighteen, married, Manouche -- a French gypsy. He lived in the outskirts of Paris among other Manouche, also called Romani, and he played a secondhand banjo-guitar.
Music was his livelihood and had been since he was thirteen. Musette was his preferred style: a form traditionally played by gypsies that had begun to gain currency in French dance halls beginning in the 1880s. By World War II it had become the most popular dance style in France. It also proved attractive to those upper-class rebels itching for a way out of boxed-in waltzes and ballroom steps. More daring Parisian élites began to turn to smaller, smokier establishments in the Latin Quarter, like Django’s on Rue Monge, where Italian Gypsy Vetese Guérino had agreed to mentor the budding young musician.
2010 marked the centenary of Reinhardt’s birth. It was celebrated by a plaza created in his name in Paris’ 18th arrondissement, where rue Binet intersects the Avenue de la porte de Clignancourt—approximately at the site of the burning caravan. Today he is hailed as the only European to have reached the level of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. He was the European star of jazz. At the time, though, the fire in his caravan left him with severe burns on his right side from knee to waist, which would require over a year of recovery. In addition, the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand were mutilated. The doctors said he would never play guitar again.
It is more precise to call Django Reinhardt the European “king of jazz,” as Le Monde once dubbed him, rather than a merely French jazz star. Reinhardt’s entrance into the Parisian music scene was due more to chance than to intent. He was born Jean Reinhardt, in his parents’ caravan in Liberchies, Belgium, the Romani patron saint Sara-la-Kâli perched on the center wall. The family spent some time in Paris when he was quite young, but after his father abandoned the family, the mother led him and his brother through Nice to Italy, from Corsica to Algeria, before making their way back to Paris. In this his story mirrors that of many other Romani, and of the Romani people in general, condemned to an itinerant lifestyle for nearly a millennium. They are believed to have originated in India, according to linguistic connections between the Romany and Sanskrit languages. Scholars speculated that they originally formed part of an army of lower-caste Indians, engaged to battle Muslims led by Islamic leader Mahmud of Ghazni, when he invaded India in 1001. Some survivors migrated westward, some to Europe, some to North Africa. Europeans, believing their origin to be Egyptian, called them “gypsies”. European folklore claimed that Gypsies had forged the nails to crucify Jesus. Beginning in France in 1427, they were systematically expelled from European kingdoms, though less frequently granted special status as a people.
Historians have since traced the Reinhardt clan to 18th-century ancestors based in the Rhine River valley. Wanderers like the rest of the Romani, by necessity rather than by choice, his grandparents were forced westward by the Franco-Prussian War. Django Reinhardt, then, held no great patriotic pride for his adopted homeland of France, even as classified as a specific type of gypsy: Manouche, or French Romani. Where then to turn? Manouche poet Sarah Jayat put it succinctly in 1961, in her poem “Django”:
you have no king
no set of rules
but you have a mistress:
The musician slipped out of the national musette craze without a great struggle, once his accident made those brisk dancing chords impossible. His father had been a professional player of violin, guitar, and piano, touring through Belgium to Corse and Italy, and so the strains of these and of the accompanists’ instruments, the banjo and drums, had framed his son’s earliest memories. Django returned to this in convalescence before stumbling upon the new if remote phenomenon of American jazz. Louis Armstrong’s “Dallas Blues” opened the floodgates, followed by Joe Venuti and Billy Arnold’s Novelty Jazz Band. He was particularly struck by Eddie Lang, born Salvatore Massaro in Philadelphia at the turn of the century. Lang’s pioneering guitar style, melding a flatpicking rhythm with a bluesy lead, helped to establish him as the first major jazz guitarist. It is quite likely due to him that Reinhardt abandoned the banjo almost entirely, in exchange for the possibilities of the guitar.
Yet a not insubstantial hurdle remained: how to reach the level of his Yankee contemporaries with three-fifths of a right hand. (Critics have never agreed as to what extent the charred fingers were usable, if at all). It was probably inevitable that a new type of music emerge from this arrangement, though its popularity was hardly a given. Jazz scholars speculate that Reinhardt began by using his two functional, curled in fingers to fret notes on the upper two strings—B and E—while he abandoned fretting notes with his burnt fingers entirely, or used them just to play chords. His left hand often muted strings that went unused. Reinhardt only rarely played standard major and minor chords, exchanging them for minor 6, major 6, and major 6/9.
A surprising variety burst forth. “Minor Swing” is a fast-paced jig with a solo characterized by string bends and pull-offs, while the classic “Nuages” (‘Clouds’ in French) shows off his digital dexterity. His phrases tended to rise and fall, ascending over E7, descending over Am6, but ending in a different way each time—improvisation changed up the patterns. Reinhardt mastered what jazz musicians call “encirclement,” approaching a specific chord tone from the chords around, creating chromatic interest for each phrase.
This was all mostly idle practice, though, at least for the first few years. Things began to change in 1931 upon a fateful meeting with violinist Stéphanie Grapelli. Grapelli was working in the cabaret scene, taking on gigs for films as a pianist when he needed the extra cash. The two began participating in informal jams together, each finding in the other an ideal complement and a companion in musical taste. Their relationship solidified, the two took their partnership to the next level, establishing the Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934. Reinhardt’s guitar and Grapelli’s violin sloughed off the need for drums, horns, or piano, which up to that point had been a standard in jazz tunes. Instead they dreamed up la pompe—the pump—to give percussive rhythm to their songs. The two rhythm guitars played fast up-down strums followed by a longer down strum, setting a background beat for Reinhardt’s melodic yet still free-swinging phrases.
Traditional Gypsy music found its way into the Quintet, inserting chromatic runs and note embellishments played with a varying rhythm. Mixed with African-American “hot” jazz’s elaborated chord forms, bass lines, and percussive pulse, the new “gypsy jazz”—jazz manouche in France—struck a minor then major chord in the Parisian jazz scene. Their gigs began to rack in the highest ticket prices throughout Europe: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie were among the Americans lining up to record or play with him. Reinhardt and Grappelli continued to perform together up until September 1939, when Hitler’s invasion into Poland led the two to cut short a London tour. Reinhardt returned to Paris, where he believed he would be safer at a time when Romanis were being targeted by official Nazi policy, less systematically than Jews but substantially all the same. Yet when the city fell to the Germans, Reinhardt stayed. His recordings and performances became a kind of loophole allowing him to escape ethnic “purification.”
In occupied France, jazz was officially banned. But an underground record industry continued to boom. The titles of jazz records were often tweaked to hide their origins. Luftwaffe officer Deitrich Schulz-Kohn, known as “Doktor Jazz,” was only one of many German officials to cultivate a not-so-secret admiration of Django. He helped Reinhardt secure gigs throughout Parisian clubs, sometimes bringing along his German comrades. Photographs from the time reveal a slightly jarring image of German soldiers listening enraptured to a Gypsy artist, whose compatriots were perhaps simultaneously being hauled away in cattle cars. “It was really a golden age of swing in Paris,” Michael Dregni, author of the biography Django, has said in an interview, “with these gypsies living kind of this grand irony.”
While Boris Vian is best known today for his novels, the French polymath’s one consistent avocation was that of jazz. Born in 1920 in the well-off Parisian suburb of Ville d’Avray, Vian was involved in the Parisian jazz scene starting in 1937, when he began to play the trumpet and joined the Hot Club de France. He later played in a band with musician Claude Abadou, serving also as conductor at Tabou on Rue Dauphine, or at Club Saint-Germain on Rue Saint-Benoît. His novels (though widely lauded today) were initially met with little enthusiasm and a lukewarm critical reception, leading him to throw himself back into the jazz scene, where he continued to play and critique.
Indeed, Vian’s literary side gave him a unique angle from which to deconstruct the allure of jazz in France. He himself was hardly a sober-minded critic: he was apt to wax adoringly of Django Reinhardt among others. In one of his reviews, he wrote, “There are only a few French musicians who are of an equal class as the great American soloists. Django…is one of them.” Yet he also made an attempt to undress this mystique.
For the un-indoctrinated masses, Vian wrote in January 1948, jazz was merely the next catchy rhythm, suitable to be paired with a dance for eagerly awaiting youth. For a certain type of child, it could be a snub in the face of more straight-laced parents. It could also, though, serve as a sort of societal metaphor. A materialization of the good life, Vian called it, with all the rules of etiquette bored into any regular cinema-goer: “champagne, whisky soda, plunging necklines, furs—and twenty handsome musicians beating out a refrain, whose words the heroine murmurs half an inch from her beloved.”
In this sense, then, jazz was no longer a counter-culture or a sub-culture, something to react against or to. It became something to aspire to: just as Parisian élites hauled musette musicians out of their underground dance halls, the expansion of jazz unearthed a musical trend, dusted it off, and framed it prettily.
But it was more than this for some. Vian, a purist at heart, considered the noblest followers of jazz to be those who shed the social or cultural trappings surrounding it, yielding only to the sound. Reinhardt, to him, was among those seduced solely by the cascading rhythms and jangling chords of jazz, touched “by the senses, by its intelligence…but who seek to deepen, to understand, to acquaint themselves with it.” Vian admired Reinhardt as one who learned to extract from jazz its true substance, remaining faithful to it as a form, rather than as another sub-cultural trend. In this sense Reinhardt would not be the social warrior that some have tried to make him into, striving to re-appropriate an identity that history had so often trampled upon. Reinhardt was hardly against the popularization of the form he produced; but at the same time he tended to treat it rather myopically, in his intense fervor for the music. “Wine, women, and song,” wrote his biographer Pregni, summing up Reinhardt’s central preoccupations. There was to be no chromatic progression into music’s social ramifications.
And yet at the same time gypsy jazz can be said to frame a certain mood, urban if not national. The Paris of the thirties was beset by intrigue and uncertainty, a more measured follow-up to the glee of the twenties. This was coupled with the music scene’s tentative but eager improvisations and experiments. Gypsy jazz twisted all this together with a mix of Romani and American strains, rolling out the red carpet for another postwar trend—rock & roll. Artists from BB King to the Libertines would cite or cover Reinhardt. Some have gone so far to call him the most eminent guitarist, under the headline of “pre-rock & roll.”
If Reinhardt’s legacy is rock and all its endless permutations, the gypsy jazz form itself has trickled down to the present via different routes. The scene today hovers between mainstream and underground, emerging for events like the centennial of Reinhardt’s birth before dipping back down once again. Saint-Ouen, where his caravan was parked, is home to several bars with jazz manouche leaking out the windows. L’Atelier Charonne and other places around Rue Oberkampf have lent a squeakier sheen to the form, surrounded by young grungy-hip nightlife, and charging fixed prices for dinner and a show.
On a recent Tuesday night, Rodolphe Raffalli was playing at the Piano Vache in the fifth arrondissement. An institution in the contemporary Parisian jazz guitar scene and a sworn devotee of Reinhardt, Raffalli is heavyset with a sober expression and a ubiquitous post boy cap. He arrived with a partner to play the percussive drum-less background that Reinhardt dreamed up. Posters blanketed the dark oak walls of the venue: “Django: 20 ans forever” or “Death in June: 30th Anniversary Tour.” Patrons shot shot glares at those who whispered or shifted position too loudly. After Raffalli’s first crescendo’ed arpeggio the audience broke into applause. His phrases flowed into each other, though every so often shaken up by an errant twang. An energetic song was followed by a more tranquil one, with a pause between, as Raffalli wiped his brow and replaced his pick, red for yellow.
The crowd was not young but not old, the average age hovering around mid-thirties. It was a crowd that knew music, or at least jazz manouche, or at least knew that this was worth knowing. There were no furs in the audience or champagne flutes; plenty of skinny jeans and dark t-shirts, however. When it was over there was that one frozen moment, as there is always, as the lights switched back on, before anyone tries or wants to move. A crowd began to gather outside and cigarette smoke gathered around it. A Subway sign flickered wanly across the street and Raffalli prepared to leave, the manouche arpeggios barely lingering as he snapped his guitar case shut.