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Music / Django Reinhardt

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Django Reinhardt (born Jean-Baptiste Reinhardt, January 23, 1910 - May 16, 1953) was a Belgian Romani Jazz guitarist, famous for his jaw-dropping virtuosity despite a debilitating burn injury on his left hand.

Born in a Romani village on the border of Belgium and France, Django showed a very early talent for music. He learned the banjo-guitar at the age of 13 by copying the fingering styles of other guitarists, and was quickly able to make a living off his talents.

When he was 18, his left hand was severely damaged by a fire started in his caravan, causing him to lose much of his ability to move his ring and pinkie fingers. Nevertheless, he continued to play music on the guitar, adjusting his style in a way that prevented his handicap from limiting his abilities. Later on, he was introduced to Jazz music from the United States— particularly the recordings of trumpeter Louis Armstrong— and soon met a very talented Parisian violinist named Stéphane Grappelli who shared similar interests. Impressed with each other's talents after a jam session together, they formed an all string band called the Quintette du Hot Club de France, composed of Django and Stéphane as the lead players, and a rhythm section composed of two guitarists (one of which was Django's brother Joseph) and an acoustic bass played by Louis Vola. They became the biggest act of the French Jazz community, with records that reached audiences across the Atlantic.

The Quintette broke up during the occupation of France by Nazi Germany, with Grappelli fleeing to England while Django elected to remain in Paris. After the war, Django briefly reunited with Grappelli for another tour in the UK before heading to the United States for a tour with famed Jazz composer Duke Ellington in 1946. Django returned to France in 1949, spending the rest of his days in retirement. He died of a brain hemorrhage in Paris on May 16th, 1953.

Django is frequently cited as one of the greatest guitarists who ever lived. His playing— with speed, complexity, and phrasing that are already incredibly impressive by any standard— takes on an almost supernatural quality in light of his injury. He fretted mostly with the two undamaged fingers on his left hand, only utilizing his ring and pinkie fingers for chords. He's unanimously considered the greatest and most influential Jazz musician from outside of the United States, having popularized hot string Jazz and fathered the subgenre of Manouche Jazz. Because he was born in Lessines, Belgium, he is technically seen as a Belgian, though he spent most of his life in France. Therefore both countries try to claim him as their own.

Many, many, many of the best guitarists and jazz musicians in the world have been inspired by him in some way. Classic Jazz guitarists Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery were both direct 'descendents' of his, and contemporary artists such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Chet Atkins, B.B. King, Les Paul, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Tony Iommi, Jimmy Page and Richard Thompson have all gone on record stating their great admiration of his abilities.

A biopic titled Django came out in April 2017, starring Reda Kateb in the title role.

Tropes that pertain to Django include:

  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Django was infamous for not showing up to his own concerts, often over very trivial things like being caught up in an interesting conversation or so he could take a walk through the park.
  • Career-Ending Injury: Averted. Having his fretting hand severely damaged in a caravan fire did nothing to stop him from playing the guitar.
  • Disability Superpower: His injury made chord playing difficult. To compensate, his music style focused on lightning fast arpeggios and expressive string bends.
  • The Gambling Addict: By all accounts, Django loved to gamble on card games. He was also, by all accounts, really bad at it. He'd often blow all his money in a single night of play.
  • Handicapped Badass: Probably the biggest in the history of the guitar. Both Tony Iommi and Jerry Garcia, who had similar hand injuries, were directly inspired by him.
  • Impractical Musical Instrument Skills: Justified, in that only two of his fingers were fully functional. It still didn't stop him from playing like an absolute beast.
  • Instrumentals: All his music is basically instrumental.
  • Ironically Disabled Artist: He suffered a burn on his left hand which greatly limited the mobility of his ring and pinky fingers. He continued playing and developed a new style more conducive to two-finger fretting, so his later music includes plenty of fast arpeggios and expressive string bends.
  • Jazz: The most famous Jazz guitarist of all time.
  • Never Learned to Read: Not only could Django not read or write in the typical sense, but he couldn't even read or write sheet music. Every piece of music he knew was learned solely by ear and played entirely by memory.
  • Odd Friendship: Django was an enigmatic, wild Romani. His partner, the equally badass French violinist Stéphane Grappelli, was the classically educated son of a French nobleman.
  • Signature Instrument: Django is most often associated with his oval-hole Selmer-Maccaferri styled acoustic guitar, as shown here. Only a thousand were originally produced, and are rare and valuable vintage instruments today.
  • Trope Codifier: Helped popularize string Jazz and made the guitar a prominent Jazz instrument. Also the codifier for handicapped musicians.

Appearances in popular culture:

  • Django makes a cameo appearance in Martin Scorsese's 2011 film Hugo.
  • The Woody Allen film Sweet and Lowdown is about an American guitarist who's obsessed with Django.
  • In the film Chocolat, Johnny Depp's character— a wandering Roma musician— is first introduced playing Django's 'Minor Swing'.
  • He is the direct inspiration for the title character's name in the 1966 spaghetti western film Django, as a bit of black humor on the director's part regarding the character's fingers. In turn, this means he was also the indirect inspiration for the name of the title character in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, which borrowed several elements from Django.
  • A cameo of Django appears in the opening of the 2003 French animated film Les Triplettes de Belleville.
  • In the film Swing Kids, the character Arvid is a guitarist whose left hand gets smashed, but is inspired by Django's example to keep playing.
  • Films like The Matrix, The Aviator, and Gattaca, among many others, use his music in their soundtrack.
  • Django's music, along with many other classic Jazz acts, appears in the video games Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven and BioShock.
  • The Golden Django, an award for European Jazz musicians, is named after him.
  • The Django open source web framework is named after him.
  • In 2010, the Belgian government released a sterling silver coin with his portrait on it, valued at 10 euros, in commemoration of his 100th birthday.