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Riffing on the remarkable Django Reinhardt

Django The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend Michael Dregni Oxford University Press: 326 pp., $35

March 13, 2005|David French | David French wrote the liner notes for BMG's recording of Benny Goodman, "Centennial," and is working on a biography of Swing Era trumpet star Ziggy Elman.

Arguably the greatest jazz guitar player ever, Django Reinhardt is also one of the most outlandish characters in the history of the music. Perhaps best known to many Americans as the musical obsession of Sean Penn's character in Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown," Django was an illiterate Parisian gypsy with a crippled left hand who nonetheless was the first and most significant jazz talent to emerge from Europe. He reinvented the acoustic guitar as a soloing instrument of unlimited expressive potential and had a profound influence on guitarists such as Charlie Christian, Les Paul, Chet Atkins and Jerry Garcia.

Django's recordings -- particularly those made in the 1930s with violinist Stephane Grappelli -- continue to seduce listeners with their intimate, exotic charm and freewheeling swing. Brilliant, handsome, charming, flamboyant, unreliable and infuriating to those who worked with him, Django exemplified the myth of the bohemian artist, and it's high time for a major biography about him. Django died in 1953 at the age of 43. Until now, we have had to make do with "Django Reinhardt," Charles Delaunay's slim collection of reminiscences published in English in 1961. Although Delaunay's study is delightful and indispensable, a major artist like Django deserves a more substantial biography. At last it is here.

Michael Dregni's excellent "Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend" attempts to separate the man from the myth that has grown around him. Dregni has done valuable research, interviewing surviving musicians, relatives and friends of Django and unearthing significant unpublished material. He borrows freely from his predecessor's book but fleshes out his subject. Dregni's story is rich in the characters, context and setting that Delaunay took for granted -- including Delaunay's own pivotal role in Django's career as a promoter and producer. As a musician, Dregni is able to provide the musical insight and analysis essential to good jazz biography. At nearly twice the length of Delaunay's account, Dregni's is in many ways the book jazz enthusiasts have been waiting for.

Django was a Gypsy, born Jean Reinhardt in Belgium in 1910 and raised in a wooden caravan on the outskirts of Paris. Dregni finds in Gypsy history and culture a fascinating story and important clues to Django's character and music. There were other Gypsy guitarists working in Paris in the 1920s (many intriguing individuals in their own right), but by the time he was a teenager, Django was the best of them. One of Dregni's great achievements is to reconstruct much of Django's early years and the incredible musical melting pot that was Paris in the Jazz Age. Performing traditional Gypsy songs, Russian balalaika music, French musette, orchestral dance music and American jazz paid Django's way as a young man. All of these would influence his mature style.

Django's career nearly ended in 1928, when his left hand was horribly burned in a fire. As he recovered, he taught himself to play the guitar again using only two fully functioning fingers for fretting notes. The paradox of the crippled left hand and the dazzling technique became a central part of Django's myth. His career really came into focus in 1934 when he and Grappelli formed the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. Grappelli would be Django's foil -- musically and personally -- in a partnership that would last five years. When Django's string-snapping solos and flamenco-like chordal bursts threatened to derail the melody of a song, it was Grappelli who smoothed things over with his sweet violin.

Likewise, when it came to getting the band onstage on time, signing contracts and taking care of business, it was the unflappable Grappelli who held things together. It was not an easy job. Django was famous for disappearing on a whim, playing billiards on opening night or refusing to get out of bed no matter how much money was offered him. The unusual quintet -- three guitars, a violin and a bass -- would win international fame within a year of forming. Their many excellent recordings -- tracks such as "Minor Swing," "Billets Doux" and "Mystery Pacific" -- are the work for which Django and Grappelli will always be remembered. Even today, many of these recordings are startling. There is no equivalent in American jazz to the poeticism of Django's solo improvisations, and perhaps only Duke Ellington could approach the mystery of some of the quintet's sides. Writing about these recordings, Dregni conveys the excitement of art, youth and early fame in Paris between the world wars.

The quintet ended with the arrival of World War II. The band was in London on tour in 1939 when the first air-raid sirens went off. Django did not hesitate. He immediately departed for Paris, even leaving behind his guitar. Grappelli stayed, probably tired of Django's trouble, and the two would not speak again until 1946.

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