Django Reinhardt: Europe’s Greatest Jazz Musician

Django Reinhardt was born Jean Reinhardt on the 23rd January 1910 in Liberchies, Belgium, into a family of Manouche Romanies – gypsies. Interestingly, the Manouche’s trace back to Northern India, and have, since the late fifteenth century, resided in North-western Europe. He spent most of his youth in Romani encampments nearby to Paris and developed an early interest in music; Django began learning the banjo-guitar at 12. By the age of 15, Django was earning a living as a musician.On the 2nd November 1928, Django was with his then wife, Florine “Bella” Mayer sharing a wagon amongst a gypsy caravan when he knocked over a candle. The resulting fire that ensued severely burned Django – over half his body was burned. Moreover, Django’s fourth and fifth fingers were badly burned, hindering his guitar playing. With the loss of two fingers crucial to his playing, he had to adapt his playing style by refocusing his technique using only his left index and middle fingers.

A photograph of Jazz musician, Django Reinhardt in color in c. 1940. This photo was colored through the process of colorization.

Upon the birth of their son, Henri Reinhardt, Django and his wife split. After their separation, Django travelled extensively throughout France in which his existence was often described as hand-to-mouth, often spending his earnings quickly.

Django with his second son, Babik Reinhardt, in the 1950s. Babik went on to become a guitarist like his father. Colorization by Per Ivar Somby

As Django developed his interest in jazz, he met Violinist Stéphane Grapelli. Their relationship would involve frequent jams which often included a collection of other musicians. Django and Grapelli, from 1934 to 1939, established their collaborative reputation as the principal soloists within the Hot Club, Paris. Within this time, Django also recorded alongside American jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Adelaide Hall and Benny Carter.

A smoking Django Reinhardt playing the guitar in 1946 at the Aquarium jazz club in New York. Colorization by Reddit User A_complete_idiot

As the Nazi stance to jazz music was hostile and frowned upon, and as Nazi Germany engaged in the persecution of gypsies, Reinhardt struggled as he was both a ‘gypsy’ and a jazz artist. Moreover, gypsies were required to symbolise their gypsy identity by wearing a brown gypsy ID triangle. Django attempted escape from Nazi-occupied France twice. His first escape attempt saw him caught and returned to France. During his second attempt, Django was stopped by Swiss border guards who persuaded him to return to France.

In Paris, during Nazi occupation, Django began composing. One composition, ‘Nuages’ received recognition as a song of hope and liberty amongst the Parisians. An estimated 600,000 gypsies were killed during WWII; Reinhardt survived the war.

A younger Django Reinhardt playing the guitar with two of his fingers on his left hand. Colorization by Per Ivar Somby

Django re-joined Grappelli in the UK after the war. In 1946, he toured the US making his debut at the Cleveland Music Hall as a guest soloist with Duke Ellington’s band. Ellington would later state “ [Reinhardt] was a very dear friend of mine, and [one] whom I regard as among the few inimitables’ of our music”. Later, Reinhardt would play two nights at Carnegie Hall in New York City. After the tour, he secured gigging sessions at the Café Society Uptown.

Django Reinhardt and Jazz icon, Duke Ellington, together in the United States in 1946.
Django Reinhardt standing with famous American Jazz musician, Louis Armstrong, in 1946.

Upon returning to France, Django found it difficult to re-calibrate to the post-war world. Although he struggled to maintain consistent connections with his fans, along with fellow musicians Django continued improvising with his friend Stéphane Grappelli. Reinhardt died on May 16, 1953 from a brain haemorrhage. He was 43.

A photo of Django Reinhardt with his guitar in his 40s towards the end of his life in c. 1950. Colorization by Per Ivar Somby
A photograph of Django Reinhardt outside at the age of 40 in 1950. Colorization by Conor Nickerson

Django is regarded as the first European to be a major influence on jazz music. In addition, Django recorded nearly 100 songs and over 900 sides during his recording career, using his inventive guitar style, sound and improvising ability. In proceeding years, great interest has emerged in Reinhardt’s music, which has widely pervaded into the 21st Century. Along with his influence throughout jazz music, Django has influenced a great many guitarists such as the late Chet Atkins, Tony Iommi and Jerry Garcia, both of whom suffered from finger accidents.

In this article we have had the unique opportunity to look at color photographs of Django Reinhardt thanks to the incredible colorizers.

The only known color photograph of Django Reinardt.

If you would like to hear some of Django’s music, here is a video of his Greatest Hits.

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