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Django Reinhardt

Django's Forgotten Era

By Wayne Jefferies

When Django Reinhardt and his quintet burst onto the jazz scene at the end of 1934, the impact on the development of the guitar was colossal. He will always be remembered for his achievements on the acoustic guitar and rightly so. But it is often forgotten that he recorded in a variety of settings besides the famed quintet, including various modern combos, during the last five years or so of his life. His recordings during this period, were mainly on electric guitar or amplified acoustic and have been too often ignored. I hope to redress the balance slightly.

Many people fail to recognise Django on his later recordings; partly because they associate him with the acoustic guitar only and partly because of the difference in the way he plays. But Django's style didn't just change overnight when he discovered the electric guitar. His style developed and matured gradually. The vast majority of his recordings show a mind of great imagination, an inbuilt sense of musicality and, perhaps especially evident on his early recordings, a complete mastery of technique.

Django's work on the early recordings of the quintet is so incredible that it's more than a little daunting. I can only imagine what it must have been like for musicians of the time, especially guitarists! This extract from "The history of the guitar in jazz" by Norman Mongan sums it up pretty well : "The quintets version of Sweet Sue recorded in 1935 has Reinhardt throwing everything at the listener : Chinese like double stops, harmonics, flashy multi-noted runs, the "Manouche" heritage present in the tremolo chords and on single strings. He throws off octaves and fast glissandi in a busy, thorough, driving style. Django had it all."

One of the criticisms levelled at Django's work by jazz purists has been the gypsy overtones of his playing. Considering Django's' background it's inevitable that some of this flavor would come through. In fact, this contributed towards his highly original style which was very new back in the early thirties.

Of course "Django Style" is quite common now, and "Gypsy Jazz" has become an accepted style of its own, although still sometimes derided by purists. For different reasons, I myself chafe at the use of the term "Django Style", because it implies that the Hot Club era is the be-all-and-end-all of Django's' music. Having said that it is easy to see why it had such an impact!

However the gypsy element in Django's playing gradually disappeared and even as early as 1939 his style was starting to move on. Listening to such cuts as Sweet Georgia Brown, Honeysuckle Rose, Twelfth Year, and his immortal interpretation of I'll See You In My Dreams, and comparing them with some of his earlier work, he had in a way, got a few things out of his system by this time. His style still retains its unique exuberance, and his formidable technique is still obvious, but there is a slightly more balanced feel.

During the thirties Django was at the forefront of the development of the guitar in Jazz. His records had begun to reach America, and many major American musicians would arrive in France to record with him, spreading the word of this amazing musician on their return to the USA. Who knows what effect he would have had on Be-Bop in America during the early forties, had he been able to get there, but just when he was at his peak, his career was radically affected by the outbreak of War. Cut off from the brewing pot of Be-Bop for six years , he was not privy to the developments of modern Jazz until it was well along the way. By which time the movements main guitar innovator - Charlie Christian had been dead from tuberculosis for four years!

However, throughout the war years Django's music continued to develop. During this period Django produced some memorable recordings including many of his own compositions such as Manoir de Mes Reves, Douce Ambiance and the classic Nuages. A particularly good recording session came just after the war in London, January 1946, at which eight great cuts were made. Reunited with Grappelli and Supported by a British rhythm section, he produced some of his best work on acoustic guitar. He seems to be brimming with ideas, still sparkling with flair and crackling with energy but sounding very solid and mature. His control of dynamics is masterful on this session, building up the tension and releasing it wonderfully on Nuages, soaring effortlessly on Liza,and again on the imaginative romp through Belleville. He even breaths life into the banal Coquette making it sound like the most marvelous tune! The original Melodie au Crepescule is here. This beautiful tune is a work of art, and Django's solo is exquisite.

At the end of the war recordings from the USA started to filter through to Europe and in 1946 Django at last went to America and heard the developments of the "new" jazz firsthand. It was here that Django played an electric guitar for the first time. Listening to the few tracks recorded with Duke Ellington it sounds as though Django has also got hold of a good amp for the day. He has that uniquely big tone, but very little of the distortion which is characteristic of his early attempts to record with electric guitar. Many such recordings appeared during 1947, the result of poor amplification and Django's naturally aggressive acoustic technique. Ironically this sound has become accepted in Django circles, and some players go out of their way to specifically imitate this sound.

Between 1946 and 1949 Django's recordings alternated between electric guitar and acoustic guitar, but his overall musical style continued to evolve. Many of his compositions of this time - such as Diminishing Blackness or Micro - reflect the growing influence of Be-Bop. In fact the middle 8 to Moppin' the Bride could have been written by Charlie Parker himself! By 1949 the Be-Bop influence on Django's playing is obvious. Listen to any of the famous 'Rome Sessions' or the 1950 recording with Andre Ekyan - Rienhardt makes both Grappelli and saxophonist Andre Ekyan sound dated. By this time Django was going exclusively for an electric sound. Ironically it was during this period that he fitted an electric bar pickup to his Maccaferri, and was able to produce a cleaner more archtop type sound. Indeed he once referred to the electric guitars in America as "tinpots". But he wanted the electric/archtop sound and obviously went out of his way to get it.

For me the best material of Django's 'modern' period was between 1951 and his death in 1953. Early in 1951, armed with his amplified Maccaferri - which he used to the very end - he put together a new band of the best young modern musicians in Paris; including Hubert Fol, an altoist in the Charlie Parker mould. Although Django was twenty years older than the rest of the band, he was completely in command of the modern style. Whilst his solos became less chordal and his lines more Christian-like, he retained his originality. I believe he should be rated much more highly as a be-bop guitarist. His infallible technique, his daring, 'on the edge' improvisations coupled with his vastly advanced harmonic sense, took him to musical heights that Christian and many other Bop musicians never came near. The live cuts from Club St. Germain in February 1951 are a revelation. Django is on top form; full of new ideas that are executed with amazing fluidity, cutting angular lines that always retain that ferocious swing. More new compositions appeared like Double Whisky and the brilliant Impromptu of which a breakneck version was recorded in May 1951. This is a tremendously exciting tune which I have never heard anyone attempt to play. It features great solos from the whole band and Django makes it plain in his chord comping that it's based on the sequence of Dizzy Gillespie's Things to Come making himself sound uncannily like Gillespie's big band ! Gillespie also used this chord sequence later for Be-Bop.

Unfortunately Django didn't record much in 1952, but he did cut four great tunes in January. Hubert Fol's appropriately titled Keep Cool and three Django tunes - A modern arrangement of his 1949 composition Troublant Bolero, the memorable Nuit de St. Germain de Pres - a cracking bop tune, popular in Django circles but otherwise sadly unheard of and finally another underrated tune that is rarely played even in Django circles; Fleche D'or. There is a hint of Ornithology in the melody and a strikingly modern solo by Django. The tune finishes on a dramatic solo guitar coda. A great favorite of mine, but barely anyone else has even heard of it!

Django died on the night of May 15th 1953, but in his final half year of life he produced some real quality music. A personal favorite is Anouman from the January 30th session. After a reflective piano intro by Maurice Vander, the bittersweet melody is played with great poise by Hubert Fol on alto. Reinhardt takes the middle 8, finishing his solo on ghostly sounding augmented triad arpeggio's. A hauntingly beautiful piece of music.

The March 10th session produced 8 absolute classics, including arguably his greatest rendition of Nuages. despite a couple of great swingers in Night and Day, and Brazil the whole atmosphere of this session is somehow permeated with a great melancholy. Evident on all the tracks is a strange mixture of sadness, beauty and depth. Manoir de Mes Reves has an air of quiet acceptance. It is very peaceful, but at the same time there is an almost unbearably desolate quality to it. As Norman Monyan observed, "its almost like he knew the end was coming".

Django's final recording session took place on April 8th 1953, and it produced a final four gems. It opens with the contemplative Le Soir, but Chez Moi picks up the tempo with a happy go lucky feel and I Cover the Waterfront again demonstrates his mastery of the modern ballad. Django's final statement committed to wax was Deccaphonie, an up tempo 12 bar improvisation, modern even by today's standards. A fitting epitaph perhaps.

Perhaps with a little more time Django would have been accepted as a modern guitarist. As it was many of his fans would ask him "why don't you play like you used to with Grappelli". How saddening it must have been for this great man, in a sense snared by his past genius, who only wanted to express himself through the music that he felt and loved. Django's influence on the modern movement could have been much greater with another shot at America. But it was not to be. Nevertheless his place in Jazz history is assured, and for many he will continue to be the greatest guitarist that ever lived.

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