If there’s a gig at any jazz festival which is guaranteed to attract and delight punters who ordinarily wouldn’t touch jazz with a five-foot pole, it’s the one with the Django Reinhardt-inspired band. Thanks to the fact that, over the last 25 years, the genius gypsy jazz guitarist’s extremely accessible style of music has been heard on everything from Renault Clio adverts to movie soundtracks (Belleville Rendez-Vous, Chocolat), it’s familiar beyond the jazz world – and popular in its own right.
The Edinburgh Jazz Festival, in one of its smarter moves, has picked up on this year’s centenary of the guitar legend and has even more Reinhardt-style bands in its programme than usual. Reinhardt – actually, I’m going to call him Django, because nobody ever calls him by his surname – may have been dead for over five decades but his pioneering gypsy jazz guitar playing and legacy of recordings have undoubtedly inspired more imitators and tribute bands than any other jazz musician’s.
Why? Well, there are various reasons. One is that he was the greatest and the first; a true original who fused his native gypsy music with the swinging jazz that he heard on American records in the early 1930s. You only need to watch Woody Allen’s Sweet And Lowdown – the fictional story of “the world’s second-greatest guitar player” – to see how a musician could become obsessed with mastering the Django style. There are, unsurprisingly, an awful lot of Django anoraks out there.
If you’re a natural-born show-off who’s a gifted guitar player, imitating Django’s digital gymnastics is a sure-fire way of grabbing attention – while cashing in on the Reinhardt name. Similarly, a band with a variation on the classic Django/Hot Club line-up of three guitars, bass and violin (or clarinet) can also exploit the listening public’s love affair with Django’s gypsy jazz.
Another reason for the proliferation of Djangly bands is that the best-loved part of his output – the recordings he made as a member of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France in the 1930s and 1940s – is simply some of the happiest, most uplifting jazz there is. It’s sophisticated but easy to appreciate, and Django’s colourful and flamboyant flights of fancy – all the more impressive when you realise he was limited to the use of only two fingers on his left hand as the result of burns sustained in a fire when he was 18 – have been credited with paving the way for such great rock guitarists as Jimi Hendrix.
For me, Django’s appeal is multi-faceted. As both an improviser and a composer (of such beautiful ballads as Manoir de Mes Reves, My Serenade or his big hit, Nuages), he has a unique way with a melody; on slow numbers in particular there’s an ethereal, melancholy quality which is unmistakably his. Faster tunes showcase his wit and astounding dexterity. On solo numbers, or numbers with guitar and bass accompaniment, he brings so much drama and excitement that when you play them back in your mind you feel sure there was another soloist in there: play I’ll See You In My Dreams and hear what I mean.
In Django’s hands, the most familiar tunes go off in unexpected directions. Just listen to the wonderful, bright and optimistic-sounding chord with which he prefaces the chorus of the Marseillaise (renamed Echos de France) on the first recording he made when he was reunited with Stephane Grappelli after the war.
Of course his partnership with Grappelli is another reason for loving Django. That they came together in the early 1930s – they hit it off when they were both in a dance band at Paris’s Claridge Hotel – was fortuitous, but the fact they were able to keep the sparks flying throughout their collaboration is something to be thankful for. Their recordings in the late 1930s are as thrilling as the first ones, and even after a six-year separation during the war years, the magic was still there. Their partnership is one of the miracles of jazz. The recordings these men made as part of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France simply exude joie-de-vivre. Their playing, while dazzling in its virtuosity, has a warmth and casual but jaunty elegance about it that defeats many of their imitators who may be wizards at mastering the technique but can’t conjure up the jubilant, spontaneous spirit of that archetypal French jazz band.
And the Frenchness, that certain quelque chose – in this case, a beguiling mixture of playfulness, whimsy and laid-back charm – is another factor in my love affair with Django and his music. Of course, his playing was an expression of his restless personality which many friends and colleagues described as infuriating. He was an unconventional, lackadaisical and often unreliable character who had to be taken in hand by the older Grappelli to get the recordings done.
This was a guy who kept a pet monkey, turned up for formal concerts in odd shoes and splashed his cash from his first Hot Club recording date on a giant white stetson. Listening to interviews about Django, it shines through that – like such other eccentric geniuses as Lester Young and Thelonious Monk – there was huge affection for him despite his often exasperating idiosyncracies.
Django was not only the first European jazz musician to be revered by American players; he was also the first jazz musician to sound European: to give jazz, as the Glasgow-born guitarist Jim Mullen put it, “a local perspective”. His sudden death from a stroke, at the age of just 43, deprived the world of a true musical pioneer who was still exploring and evolving, pretty much to the end. Lucky for us he left more than 800 recordings which continue to delight and inspire successive generations of young players to offer their own take on Django’s jazz.
* The Edinburgh Jazz Festival begins on July 30. A special Django 100 theme runs through the festival. Visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.co.uk