Paris and Django

Many people would wonder why I chose to come to France – not for shopping, paintings, monuments or excellent cuisine, although I expect to find plenty of that, too – to contemplate the life and work of a man I fervently admire, Django Reinhardt.
I came to know the music of Django Reinhardt many years ago when traveling with a friend in the southwest of France and upon entering a small family-run restaurant in the countryside we were welcomed by the recorded music of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. My friend, who grew up in a music-loving environment, immediately commented and that was the beginning of a grand love affair with the sweet restaurant and the enchanting music. Madame and Monsieur were great fans of Django and his Jazz Manouche as were most of France and much of the world. I guess I will never disassociate the passionate music of Django and the marvelous farm-made foie gras served by our hosts.
Over the years, I have become even more involved with the life, culture, and music of this talented musician. His story is fascinating, and I wanted to shadow some of the same territory he did – especially in his younger years and the last few years of his life; both times of innocence and relative peace. His was a short but super-packed life: Django passed away at age 43, in 1953.
As a young boy, Django and his younger brother Nim Nim, ran all over Paris playing music on street corners for centimes and sometimes sneaking into the cinema to see maybe the only thing that interested them about non-gypsy life – Hollywood films. Their lives in the Zone (referring to the Roma encampments surrounding the city) was carefully monitored by their single mother, Negro. She kept tabs on the boys to the best of her ability, but sometimes they were just too slippery and stayed away playing their banjos or guitars for days at a time. When Django was hired by a well-known entrepreneur who heard his music, his mother allowed him to take the job although he was only 14, saying at least she would know where he was, and she dutifully met him at the club late each night to make sure he got back home safely. With this new “paying” job, Django was able to marry his girlfriend, Bella. Her family gifted them a caravan where they lived surrounded by friends and family for several years. One fateful night, just after being approached by the very successful impresario Jack Hylton, who offered him a super contract which he accepted, Django returned to the caravan with his good news. Upon his arrival, his wife accidentally knocked over a candle incinerating hundreds of celluloid flowers she had made for a funeral the next day.
The caravan burst into flame immediately, and Django was just able to save her. He suffered horrible burns that almost killed him and left him with only three functioning fingers on his left hand. He was years recovering, and no one thought he would ever play again. Django suffered a great deal in the hospital, and his mother finally got him released to care for him at home. His wife Bella and son Henri (Lousson) who was born while he was in the hospital, left and never returned. Django was readmitted to a nursing home for physical therapy, and during that time, his brother brought the despondent young man a guitar. Django worked at developing a new way of playing, utilizing only the fingers he had running them up and down the guitar neck while making minimal use of his two shriveled fingers on chords, double-stops, and triple-stops.
When he finally left the hospital, his first love Naguine was waiting for him, and the two remained together for the rest of his life with their pet monkey and young son Babik.
Sometime later, he surprised the entire community when he brought out his guitar and played like an angel. There were no more Jack Hyltons in his life, but lots of successful engagements kept Django busy over the years. During the war, although Hitler had outlawed jazz, the troops were so fond of it that they tolerated and even encouraged Django’s music. This was an extremely difficult time for the entire gypsy community as the Nazi’s rounded them up and destroyed their camps. Django composed a mass for his people, but it was never performed, and little of it remains. There were, however, great successes for Django including a trip to the USA to tour with Duke Ellington and a concert at Carnegie Hall. But that is another story…
World War II brought many American servicemen, including musicians to Paris, and many of them loved the freedom and decided to stay. France was crazy about jazz. The group formed by Hugues Panassié and Charles Delaunay and friends in the 30’s called the Club Hot de France had been the primary vehicle for the new sounds produced by Django and fellow jazzmen. The introduction of Be-Bop from America drew the attention of Django and Charles, but the old guard of the jazz aficionados did not think it was “true” jazz and rejected it. A schism occurred in the group with Delaunay and Django on one side and Panassié on the other. The result was a kind of Jazz-concert-standoff with Delaunay and Django in Paris and Panassié organizing a festival in Nice. In the end, Django did play in Nice, and it was a success, but Django and friends were not happy to be playing the “old” music. The real event became the jam session afterward where bebop could be performed until the wee hours of the morning. This was perhaps one of the happiest times of his life.
Django, however, reacted to the politics with a decision to leave music entirely and paint. He moved his family to the Pigalle area of Paris where artists thrived and did just that. It took an offer of a one-man showing of his paintings to coax him back to performing. Some of his most moving pieces, including the breathtaking Anouman, were composed and recorded during this period. His art was well-received, and eventually, he moved his family to Samois sur Seine where he could paint, fish—a lifelong passion for him—and spend time with his wife Naguine and son Babik. He played little during those years.
Django was plagued with headaches, and Naguine encouraged him to consult a doctor. With terrible memories of his time with physicians, he refused. One morning having his usual tea with friends in the local cafe before going out to fish, he passed out, and although he was rushed him to Fontainebleau hospital, he never revived.
According to gypsy tradition, his home and all of his belongings were burned. A funeral was held several days later and was attended by many close friends from the jazz community. I will visit Paris, Nice and Samois sur Seine on this trip. Since that first festival in 1948, Nice has hosted an annual jazz festival which I have been fortunate enough to attend.Django’s resting place, Samois sur Seine, is also home to a yearly Django festival which is extremely popular. Django events are now held regularly all over the world.