Fifty years after Django Reinhardt’s death, his music keeps him alive in Samois-sur-Seine
· Photography by Benoit Peverelli
The dentist is obsessed, but this obsession has made him a remarkably fine guitarist, one who can tango with the best of them. When another player sits down in the tent, the guitarists launch into a number and, with an almost feline instinct, one person plays rhythm and the other lead. These men have never met, but they collude like conmen in a conspiracy of intimacy and pure pleasure. There seems to be no saturation point, and the encounters are repeated again and again, well into the night and well past the bedtime of the official festival. When one player gets up to leave, someone else slides into the empty seat with the desperation of a gambler waiting for a table at a casino. A violinist or accordionist wanders through. By now the crowd has swollen around the mouth of the tent. There is a ten-year-old Romany, a baby Django, playing rhythm. He looks almost comical because the guitar is at least three sizes too big on him and he can barely get his creamy adolescent arms around the belly. But he is ridiculously good and as the music moves into the familiar percussive frenzy of “Djangology,” a tune written by Reinhardt, its rhythmic motor pumps its way into the crowd. The boy takes the sixteen-bar lead and smiles like an adult.
Manouche jazz is a fusion of gypsy music and American jazz. It marries the two idioms by combining the forms and practices of jazz improvisation, which is American, with the exotic Eastern European scale system and the simple, mostly minor melodies of the Romany tradition. It is distinguished from other kinds of swing by the delicacy of the sound and by the inclusion of tremolos, harmonics, and gypsy rhythms. Django played with the upper partials of a chord— the seventh, ninth, and eleventh—suspending, augmenting, and lowering them. Though this is standard practice for jazz, the Manouche sound is distinct because he also revoiced and restructured many of the chords. They are leaner sounding and, along with the acoustic instruments and the absence of drums, give the music its particular transparency and charm.
Django was born Jean-Baptiste Reinhardt in a caravan on the outskirts of Charleroi, in Belgium, in 1910. In the grammar of Romany culture, he never went to school and travelled more than 3,000 miles as a child before his mother, Laurence Reinhardt, parked their house near the Choisy gate in Paris. Like many Romany women, his mother, nicknamed ‘Négros’ because of her dark skin and raven hair, never married his father, though they did have another child together, Joseph. In a photograph of her from 1939, she is reminiscent of Ma Barker, all steel and leather, her expression calibrated to permanent fatigue and suspicion. Whatever softness might have been part of her had been worn away by a life that never saw comfort or stability, a life of defending and protecting her own. She was carried along by the grand sweeps of Django’s life and by the Ferris wheel ride that is gypsy life.
As a boy, Django played the banjo at local cafés and on the streets. At the age of twelve, he got his hands on a banjo-guitar, and was getting jobs within a year. By the time he was eighteen, he was living the frantic hand-to-mouth existence of a gypsy musician, which was threatened when, two weeks before the birth of his first child, he nearly died in a fire in his caravan. Django languished in a nursing home for over a year and eventually got most of his mobility back. But the last two digits of his left hand were permanently paralyzed. He taught himself to play the guitar with only two fingers, dragging the other two useless stumps along the strings and using them to dampen the sound. He developed a technique for playing unplayable octaves with his thumb that would become part of his signature virtuosity and the envy of all guitarists. Some fanatic Djangoists actually play with only three fingers.
When Reinhardt and Grappelli got together and formed the Quintet of the Hot Club of France (qhcf), in 1934, the idea of a string-based acoustic jazz ensemble was extremely radical. Until then, the guitar was pretty much relegated to the rhythm section, only occasionally taking a solo. Django moved the furniture. He got rid of the piano, sax, and drums, moved the guitar to centre stage, and designed a space for the violin. And he anchored it all with two rhythm guitars and a string bass. The sound was entirely new, so the music had to change as well. Django composed hundreds of songs that spotlight the guitar and developed a guitar technique and a style of improvisation that reminds me of Oscar Peterson’s or Art Tatum’s: completely organic in the context of the music, but supernatural on its own.
As a composer, Django was taken by the aesthetics of impressionist music, by the texture of the sound, and by the move away from the strict forms of harmonic composition dictated by the diatonic tonal system (major and minor). Debussy and Ravel were already experimenting with the whole-tone scale and with polytonality, the simultaneous use of different keys. Polytonality creates a vague tonal centre, and the ear wanders around not quite knowing what key the song is in. The basic key might be C, but you are also hearing, depending on the bass note, a number of other keys. The ground literally shifts beneath you, and one of the really liberating aspects of this technique is that the harmony can modulate from any one of these keys.
Django couldn’t read music, so he didn’t analyze Bach or pore over the scores of Debussy and study his composition techniques. But he had an extraordinary ear: he could apparently sift out which instrument in an orchestra was out of tune. He wouldn’t tolerate wrong notes and regularly dismissed musicians who committed that crime. And when he heard music, he intuitively deconstructed and isolated the sonorities. He listened to the vertical and the horizontal lines, to the melody and the harmony and their synthesis, and I imagine he would visualize them. In the same way that a mathematical theorem is articulated through its proof, so the calculus of music is unravelled through its architecture. Django was keenly attuned to the formal structure of a piece. He would have automatically calculated the number of bars in the thematic material, where it modulated, when it was repeated, whether it was inverted, how it developed. This made it very easy for him to copy what he heard and to imitate a compositional style, and he would spend hours at the piano improvising in the manner of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century composers. He loved Bach because of the contrapuntal nature of the music. Bach wrote music from the bottom up and then dressed the top with ribbons of sound.
“Rhythm Futur” is an unusual piece written by Reinhardt. It was ahead of its time and shows Django’s harmonic inventiveness. The piece uses two standard jazz chords, both in the tonality of C: a flat five in the bass, juxtaposed with an augmented five on top. These chords are not naturally compatible, though they’re from the same family. When played together, they destabilize the tonality of the piece. They might be used together in more conventional hands, but only in passing. Django sustains the harmonic tension for the first half of the piece, spinning out the melodic line in wild threads. In the less complicated ballad “Tears,” a traditional Romany song arranged and performed by Grappelli and Reinhardt, the introduction of a few American blues notes keeps a simple melody of regret from becoming sentimental.
Joselito Loeffler and Mito Loeffler are two professional gypsy jazz musicians from Strasbourg who are at the festival in Samois. They are sitting on the terrace of one of the only restaurants in town, which, incidentally, has one of the few legitimate bathrooms, and then, only for patrons. I had snuck in to use the facilities, and when I came out, found a spot among the crowd that was beginning to form.
Mito looks like what I’d imagined Django to look like before I’d seen pictures of him: modulated waves of black, black hair, angled cheekbones, moustache, copper skin like old naugahyde, and benevolent, ancient eyes. In fact, his cousin, Joselito, who is younger and lighter-skinned, looks more like the Reinhardt clan. Joselito is squatter and thicker than that family, his features generally less refined, his hair cut like a general’s, but he has the same prominent forehead, the same circumflex of a moustache, and the same leading-man lips.