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Django: music to explore Paris by

June 05, 2005|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

French Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt spent most of his life in Paris, but he never took the Metro because he couldn't read -- words or music -- and didn't want to get off at the wrong stop.

During World War II, when Parisians were humming his melancholy hit "Clouds" and he always had a wad of francs in his pocket, Django rode in flashy new cars or hired limos. Just as often, he was broke and had to hoof it around Paris, followed by his brother, Joseph "Nin-Nin" Reinhardt, who toted his guitar.

To many jazz lovers the name Django is pure magic, evoking the master's inimitable style and musicianship. Together with French violinist Stephane Grappelli, he adapted brassy American jazz to strings, creating a lilting, soulful sound.

Recently I roamed the streets of Paris carrying "Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend," a new biography by Michael Dregni. It was my guidebook to a city the great musician knew like the neck of his guitar, from the seedy, smoke-filled dives of Pigalle to the fancy, cafe-society quarter around the Etoile.

Most of the clubs he haunted -- La Roulotte, Casanova, La Java -- the flophouses where he stayed in bed if he didn't feel like making a gig, the tabacs that kept him in cafe noir and the billiard parlors where he demonstrated his other expertise are long gone. But with a little imagination, Django cultists can still feel his presence in the City of Light.

He was born in the winter of 1910 in a gypsy caravan on the border between France and Belgium, near Liberchies. He died in the spring of 1953 in Samois-sur-Seine, after a disappointing U.S. tour and just as bebop was replacing swing jazz for strings. (Samois-sur-Seine, in Fontainebleau Forest about 50 miles southeast of Paris, is the scene of the annual Django Reinhardt Jazz Festival, scheduled June 20 to 26 this year.)

In Paris a handful of clubs -- La Taverne de Cluny in the Latin Quarter, Hotel du Nord on the Canal St. Martin, Le Petit Journal in Montparnasse -- often feature contemporary artists who play in the Django tradition: Angelo Debarre, Serge Krief, Rene Mailhes and Stochelo Rosenberg.

Cite de la Musique, one of Paris' preeminent music centers, is a little off the beaten track but required for Django enthusiasts. It's in the Parc de la Villette on the northeast side of the city and took shape as an urban redevelopment project in the 1980s and '90s.

Now the center's concerts and festivals keep the French air filled with the sound of music, including Django-inspired jazz.

Besides that, Cite de la Musique has a museum where visitors can take an audio tour in English. There are pearl-inlaid harpsichords from the 17th century, violins made by Antonio Stradivari, Indonesian gamelans, models of great European opera houses and, alongside an exhibit devoted to guitars, Django's well-worn Selmer.

Django's Selmer at first had gut strings, but they were switched to steel so his playing could be heard over the din of a jazz band. Django took up the Selmer -- and never let it go -- around 1935, when he and Grappelli created the Quintette du Hot Club de France, influenced by American jazz brought to France by doughboys during World War I.

From the Cite de la Musique, it's an easy Metro ride to the Porte de Clignancourt, on the ring road that surrounds Paris, the scene of a weekend flea market along the Rue des Rosiers. There, you'll find La Chope des Puces, a nicotine-encrusted boite with vintage photographs of Django, where Gypsy jazz can be heard from 2 to 7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Even today, the Clignancourt neighborhood is a far cry from homogenous, pristine, museum-quality central Paris. Tough guys work on jalopies parked at the curb; sidewalk markets sell knockoff Prada bags; African-born moms, whose cheeks bear the scars of tribal incising, push baby carriages toward the Metro.

In Django's hardscrabble youth, which meant stealing vegetables from market stands and sneaking into movie theaters, this was La Zone, where his extended Gypsy family encamped in caravans and he was given a banjo at the age of 12. From that instrument, he moved to the guitar and proved to be a prodigy, first accompanying pipe bands that played in music halls on the Rue de Lappe, near the Place de la Bastille.

In 1928, the caravan in which he was sleeping caught fire, leaving Django's left hand and right side a mass of burns. When a doctor suggested amputating his right leg, Django refused, ultimately teaching himself to walk again. While recuperating, he found a way to play the guitar despite the permanent paralysis of two fingers on his left hand. He sucked up the brassy sound of post-World War I American jazz, turning it into something French and stringy.

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