Django Reinhardt Demonstrates His Guitar Genius in Rare Footage From the 1930s, 40s & 50s

In one of my favorite Woody Allen films, Sweet and Lowdown, Sean Penn plays Emmett Ray, a fictional jazz guitarist who embodies the titular qualities in equally great measure. “Already considered peerless among American jazz guitarists,” Ray admits of only one rival—Parisian gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, whom Emmett worships, obviously patterns himself after, and can’t stand to see in person without fainting dead away. Where Ray is a tremendously convincing creation of Allen and Penn, Reinhardt was very much a real musician, and was indeed the reigning king of jazz guitar from the 1930s to the 50s. Reinhardt’s incredible skill is all the more impressive considering he only had use of three fingers on his left hand due to injuries sustained in a caravan fire in 1928.

Reinhardt and jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934, and in the forties, Reinhardt began composing, and toured England, Switzerland, and the U.S. as a soloist with Duke Ellington’s band. He recorded his final album, Djangology in 1949, retired in 51, and died in 53, already a legend, “one of the few European musicians to exert a serious influence on the American art form of jazz,” writes an NPR “Weekend Edition” profile. Django’s playing, “at times joyous, fierce and lyrical,” draws heavily on his Roma roots while mastering the vocabulary of swing—a language, it seems, still new to many audiences in 1938, when the film at the top of the post, Jazz “Hot,” was made.

In a previous post, Mike Springer points out the “didactic tone” of the first couple minutes of the documentary, created by Reinhardt’s manager Lew Grade in order to familiarize the British public with jazz in advance of the quintet’s first UK tour. The film “really comes alive when Django arrives on the screen,” playing an arrangement of the popular French song “J’attendrai.” Prior to the UK tour, the Quintet du Hot Club traveled to the Netherlands and played The Hague. See them in the Dutch film clip above, beginning at 0:34. Grappelli solos while Django holds down the rhythm.

By 1944, Reinhardt was well known to jazz lovers and musicians alike, appearing at the upscale Paris cabaret Bal Tabarin in the footage above at 2:54, following a clip of Marlene Dietrich looking on from the audience.

In 1952, the year before his death, Reinhardt was famous enough to be cast alongside Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet in the French-Italian film La Route de Bonheur (titled Saluti e baci in Italy). In this clip, Reinhardt entertains a packed train car. The song dubbed over the footage is Nuits de St. Germain des Pres.

See much more film and photography of Django Reinhardt and his famous quintet in this biographical documentary, The Genius of Django Reinhardt. Described as an unstable and childlike man capable of the most unusual whims, the portrait of Reinhardt, practically the inventor of jazz guitar, traces his life from birth in a Roma encampment in Belgium to his final years in semi-retirement. And for even more Django, don’t miss this French documentary film, Trois doigts de genie.

Related Content:

Jazz ‘Hot’: The Rare 1938 Short Film With Jazz Legend Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhardt and the Inspiring Story Behind His Guitar Technique

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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  • bjza says:

    “Practically the inventor of jazz guitar.”

    Whoa there. Citations needed on that one. I wouldn’t write European artists out completely like jazz historians of an earlier era did, but I see a couple of problems with that assertion, not the least of which is Reinhardt’s devotion to Eddie Lang’s small group recordings, whether or not he’d heard Lonnie Johnson’s sessions with Armstrong. And the guitarists from his era who most influenced the development of American jazz, Charlie Christian, steered jazz guitar toward horn-like melodies and far away from the guitaristic techniques that Reinhardt excelled at.

  • Swingo says:

    Django’s last recording was made in 1953, shortly before his death, not 1949 as said here. Calling him “inventor” of the Jazz guitar is certainly a bit far-fetched as there were others, especially in the US, but he was not as is written below “devoted” to Eddie Lang’s playing, ever. He did state at one point in his carreer that he found nothing to be impressed with in the latter’s work…

  • Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg says:

    Yes Swingo is right . Dlango was without doubt the greatest jazz guitarist of his time along with Charlie Christian. The inventor of electric guitar itself is Bobby Durham (also a trombone player) and you can hear him in the Kansas City Six or Five with Buck Clayton and Lester Young, a small band as great as was the Hot Club de France of Reinhardt and Grapelli. Both HCF and Lester’s KC6 epitomizes the swing music played by smaller bands.

  • Toad says:

    There was nothing to be invented. There was jazz and people started playing banjo (it was louder) and then guitar in the idiom–chordally at first because single note playing couldn’t be heard over the band, and then playing single-note lines, “like a horn” as the saying always goes, once they could figure out how to be heard, but it’s not like nobody had played melodies on guitar before. There were no particular new techniques invented, people had already been playing chords and lines on guitar for a long time, and now they started playing jazz chords and lines. Nobody invented “jazz guitar” any more than any one person invented jazz piano or jazz saxophone.

  • lui says:

    django himself said “there is nothing to be learned from eddie lang” and if you hear the two side by side it’s obvious who the chosen one is. As for charlie christian , he was fantastic but django was doing things no one else did 20-30 years ahead of his time like chord solos, octave solos, flat fives in solos all the time, using the minor six sound in solos, and by the way he had two fingers that worked…. the list goes on, … even the way he bent notes was unprecedented and not heard until the 60s again (excluding the blues). These are my two cents but really the proof is in the pudding listen to the recordings of “i’ll see you in my dreams, china boy, yeux nor” , christian and lang have nothing on django sorry it’s the truth. His solos are often more memorable and catchy than the melodies themselves , how many jazz musicians can you say that about? not many. I’m hate to be a fan boy but django was one in a billion and no one comes close.

  • autre says:

    right on point with that dialogue of stylistic approaches to sculpting sound on a live set… the use of 5 flats and minor six definitively made for a cultural shift in sentiment emotionally… consider the octave solo as the willingness to toss the listener into a total cathartic override because django needed them to feel the underpinnings of a time that had been kicked to global conflict with an entire europe in the throws of facing grim truth as an ongoing expression of ‘nomad sensibilities’ like his gypsy ancestors had been forced to do… the world was ready and needing some django in my view of how music manages an unspoken language of the soul

  • Django Follower says:

    Yes, Django was tha Jazz guitar inventor, off course americans can’t accept nothing but american musicians. Django was the best in the whole planet.

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