Friday, May 14, 2010

Why Django Reinhardt is the Best Guitarist Who Ever Lived

The Romani gypsy people were a transient, lower-class folk who travelled around the land in caravans. To the French, Belgian and Hungarian upper-class, they seemed quite tawdry and bohemian, holding no real value and showing no potential in anything. The gypsies were content with their travelling lifestyle, seeing the countryside and leading a simple life with their family.

And a musical family they were. Fond of string instruments, the gypsies played their own brand of music, spawned from their hearings of American jazz from the West, and older, classical recordings from those in Europe. It is often called "classical jazz", but more commonly it is known as gypsy jazz. Django Reinhardt would be the first gyspy to bring the genre to prominence.

Falling in love with the violin, the banjo, and eventually the 6-string banjo-guitar at an early age, Django was surrounded by this music from the beginning. There is no sheet music in gypsy jazz; the gypsies had well-trained ears. Most of the methods and techniques you learned as a player were picked up from other travelers and family members. Django Reinhardt made his first banjo-guitar recording in 1928, when he was just 18 years old.

That same year, Reinhardt was severely injured in a caravan accident. A candle had been knocked over on his way to bed, and pretty soon the whole caravan was ablaze. He received both first and second-degree burns on one side of his body. In addition to his right leg becoming nearly paralyzed (and almost amputated), his left hand received serious burns. He could not even touch a guitar, and doctors predicted he would never play again.

While in recovery, Django received a gift from his brother Joseph; a brand-new guitar. For the next few years, Django would relearn his way on the instrument, utilizing his left-hand middle and index fingers, which had regained their strength. However, the other two fingers were permanently paralyzed, although he eventually learned to rest these fingers on the fretboard to use them for chord work. No one was ready for what was to become of this man.

In 1934, six years after his accident, Django got together with his brother Joseph, guitarist Roger Chaput, bassist Louis Vola, and a fellow violinist named Stephane Grappelli to form the Quintette du Hot Club de France. With three guitarists, a violinist and a bassist, it seemed a rather tawdry and odd group to those in pre-war Europe. Many were left wondering where the rhythm section was, and why none of these musicians could sing. Upon hearing the group for the first time however, one immediately recognizes the syncopation between the guitars: There is a downbeat ("boom"), and then an eighth note beat ("chick"), resulting in a boom-chick-boom-chick rhythm that would serve as the foundation of mountain and bluegrass music in America.

Django chose two guitarists for his accompaniment mainly because of how he functioned as a player. When it was just him and Joseph, he often complained how much space was lost in the overall sound when he switched from playing rhythm to playing lead. With an additional guitarist supplementing Joseph, Django could blend better into the rhythm mixture, while feeling more supported when taking solos. Django seemed to have a vision of where he wanted things to go.

The group wasn't as revolutionary as the man who sat in the middle. The reason that Django Reinhardt's skill has been unmatched since his heyday is not because of him overcoming his paralyzed condition. He possessed an uncanny harmonic ear, able to learn songs on the fly and distribute arrangements amongst the Quintette. With the ear came the enormous yearning to want to learn songs. With the learned-songs came the mutation of playing those songs in context to other songs. Eventually, Django developed a strength and precision in his right hand that would remain unmatched to this day. Here is a video (audio) clip showcasing the groups biggest hit, "Minor Swing":

Incorporating glissandos, crescendos, and devastating arpeggios into his solos, Django was a master of tension-and-release. Combined with the off-center, haunting sounds of the Romani, Gyspy and Jewish scales, the songs were full of energy, power and execution. Tempos of up to 150 BPM were often used; undancable rhythms that forced the audience into listening more attentively.

On the other hand, Reinhardt was able to caress slower, more sultry ballads with clever improvisation and emotion. The extra space in slower tempos allowed for more riffing and phrasing, which could amount to the vast array of tricks his fans love most about his ballads.

His legacy is also unmatched. His son Babik is still playing strong, and he has also influenced countless musicians, some of whom have no idea of him. His use of the acoustic guitar as a lead instrument helped guitarists like Eddie Lang find his place in America. The tremolo effect of rapidly picking one or more strings was essential in mandolin solos in bluegrass, and for many of the surf-rock riffs during the early 1960's music in America. His bell-like, crying tone has been revered by those like B.B. King, Willie Nelson, and Jerry Garcia, all of whom utilize a similar, soaring sound. His influence was carried far outside of jazz, his scales and fast runs eventually being recycled by heavy metal guitarists of the 1980's (such as Yngwie Malmseen). Jimi Hendrix named his Band of Gypsies after the late guitar master.

There was no one like him. He was known personally as a boarish, tardy, oblivious individual who would often show up late for gigs, or not show up at all. When confronted with a gig, he would sometimes be found in a pool hall on the other side of town, two minutes before showtime. Others recall times where they perused the countryside for him, only to find him snoozing under a tree ten minutes before he was scheduled to play a half-hour away.

He was one of the few big-time musicians who didn't have any demons fighting his will. He never used drugs, and often used gambling as a fix. He was aware of his power as a musician, but if it was nice outside or he received a call from a friend to shoot billiards, he would often forget the gig if it meant wisely spending his leisure time somewhere else.

By listening to him, he'll make you laugh, cry, and sing in a way that no one alive today can do. His rhythm and execution is seamless in every way, his ideas are fresh and from the divine, and he does it all with TWO FINGERS. Django Reinhardt is a legend; the best guitarist who ever lived.

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