Django Reinhardt (born Jean Baptiste Reinhardt, 1910) may not be the best guitar player ever, but he did more to promote the instrument than anyone thought possible. Django spent nearly all of his youth in gypsy encampments, and played several instruments professionally from an early age. When Django was 18, his home caught on fire while he lay sleeping, severely injuring him. He was pulled from the fire, but the burns paralyzed one of his legs and made his third and fourth fingers on his left hand inoperable. Doctors wanted to amputate his left leg, but he refused the surgery, and left the hospital against all doctors’ orders. His brother bought him a guitar, and he slowly learned to play the guitar again, without the use of his ring finger or pinky. Losing the use of those fingers on the right hand would not have been such a big deal for a right-handed guitarist, but the left hand generally uses all fingers for nearly every task. Within a year, he was able to walk again with the aid of a cane.
In 1934, Django formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France with Stéphane Grappelli, violinist extraordinaire. This would become one of the only successful all-string jazz bands ever formed (though there are many copyists around today who have this same arrangement). The setup was typically three guitars, a violin, and a double bass. Some video of them playing shows the style very well. Only a few minutes of Django playing on video have survived, but this video shows off his two-finger style in an up-close segment, along with showing the whole band in action on stage.
Before Django Reinhardt, the guitar was never thought of as a lead instrument. In jazz bands of the 20’s and very early 30’s, the guitar was only used for chords in the rhythm section, never for leads. Blues musicians used the guitar merely as a way to accompany their voice. In the Quintette du Hot Club de France, however, guitar and violin shared equal time as lead instruments, without even a hint of horns. Like most musicians of that time period, Reinhardt’s repertoire was mostly reinterpretations of famous songs from the day (Charleston-my favorite | Ain’t Misbehavin | Sweet Georgia Brown | Limehouse Blues | Dinah). He was also responsible for making the Selmer Modèle Jazz guitar famous. This was the first guitar to feature a cutout, making higher frets much more accessible to the solo guitarist.
This is definitely my favorite jazz music. The style, the pace, and the instrumentation are all right up my alley. Not to mention, Django could do amazing things with only two fingers on his left hand (technically, he sometimes used his crippled fingers for chords, but never involved them in his lightning-fast solo style). Being a French band, this was the first proof that jazz had exported. A French group was not only playing jazz, but playing it well.
Reinhardt was a very eccentric fellow, sometimes skipping out on high-paying shows (unannounced) to take a stroll through town or walk the beach. Stéphane Grappelli told stories of Django throwing a fit on stage because his name was not introduced first. I found out about Django Reinhardt because of the Woody Allen film Sweet and Lowdown (1999). The movie follows a fictional guitarist in the 1930’s and his obsession with Django Reinhardt (after seeing the movie, I was delighted to find out that Django was not fictional).
This video shows one of Django’s guitar solos in both sheet music and guitar tab form, real-time as they are played. Pretty interesting for guitarists to look at. Much of Django Reinhardt’s material can be streamed or downloaded for free if you search his name on archive.org.