Django: Gypsy king of bohemian Paris

October 17, 2004|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Sun Staff

Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend, by Michael Dregni. Oxford University Press. 352 pages. $30.

The life of the great Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt has been amply mythologized, and needlessly so. In Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend, music journalist Michael Dregni demonstrates that the facts are entertaining enough.

The basic story line is well known to jazz aficionados: Boy born in caravan outside the Belgian town of Liberchies proves mettle as master chicken thief, learns guitar and dazzles Paris with lightning technique until wagon fire destroys all but two fingers on his fretting hand. Rising from despair, genius invents two-fingered method that propels him to greater brilliance and celebrity.

But that's not the half of it.

Django, whose creative peak span-ned the 1930s and 1940s, commanded top fees and took out sumptuous digs on the Champs Elysees, yet he often retreated to squalid Gypsy encampments outside town where he could sleep in the comfort of a candlelit cart.

He had a taste for garish American cars and wore construction boots with stylish suits and a pencil mustache. A practical jokester, he once stimulated Tom Mix's horse to a peak of excitement moments before the singing cowboy trotted the beast in front of an astonished audience.

One could go on, as Dregni does in one of the most satisfying jazz biographies in recent years, but the real essence of this book is how it places Django in the context of his times.

As a boy, Reinhardt was immersed in the lilting Gypsy music of violins, accordions and pipes. But in the years after the World War I, he flowered in a city in the thrall of a new music -- American jazz -- brought to the continent by black Army bands. The city became a magnet for innovators like Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Sidney Bechet and Duke Ellington, who found a more receptive and less race-conscious audience than they had back home.

Reinhardt melded these influences into a Gypsy-jazz style that might today sound idiosyncratic but fit the times perfectly. He became one of most celebrated of Paris musicians, teaming up with violin virtuoso Stephane Grappelli to front the Quin-tette du Hot Club de France -- an ensemble that ranked as one of the most popular and influential of the era.

If you've ever imagined how rock gods Eric Clapton and Pete Townsend felt when they first encountered the genius of Jimi Hendrix, you can appreciate why musicians considered shelving their careers after seeing Django play faster and more coherently than anyone who came before.

Dregni, a writer for Vintage Guitar magazine, writes lyrically of a place where the crosscurrents of art, music and fashion collided to produce a cultural richness that happens only once or twice a century, if humans are lucky.

"In the city of Josephine Baker and Picasso, of the sacrilege of Le Sacre du Printemps and alphabetical anarchy of Ulysses, of Expressionists, Cubists, Dadaists, and Surrealists, of Georges Simenon writing an instant novel on command in a glass box, of black balls and drag balls and gay balls and nude balls, the city where both Lenin and Hemingway hatched their plots, it seemed only natural that this Gypsy jazz guitarist would fit in," he writes.

"He was the kind of modern fairy tale that Paris loved -- even demanded -- of its celebrities."

Readers might find themselves skimming over Dregni's accounts of personnel changes and tour dates that can seem repetitive and arcane. But it's a small price for a biography as rich and rewarding as this.

Jonathan Bor is a reporter for The Sun.

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