Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Song A Day: Django Reinhardt and the Quintette du Hot Club de France, "Swing '39"

MAY 25, 2017




Have you heard Django Reinhardt? He’s the greatest French gypsy jazz guitarist ever. Or maybe that’s just “greatest guitarist ever.”

Django Reinhardt was born in 1910 into the gypsy life in France. He developed a talent for music early on, but age 17, a fire in his family’s wagon left him with terrible burns over much of his body. 

His left hand, for one thing, was burned so badly that two of his fingers were immovable. But the hand was now also able to form chords on the guitar that nobody else could. Once recovered, Reinhardt developed his own style, mixing equal parts jazz lyricism and unquenchable, lustful fire.

Reinhardt had a devil-may-care attitude about money. He was functionally illiterate, coarse, and unreliable. But jazz flowed through his veins, and other musicians—including the American greats he so adored—loved his playing
The perfect foil for such an earthy man was the dapper, urbane violinist Stephane Grappelly. The two formed an unlikely musical alliance and from 1934 through 1939, the two fronted the house quintet of the Hot Club of Paris. 

Playing American jazz standards, folk melodies, romantic songs, and dance music, the Quintette du Hot Club was internationally popular, gaining release all over Europe and became the first international jazz act to achieve renown in the United States. The Quintette’s recordings remain shocking in their spirit, drive, and melodic invention.

By 1939, storm clouds began to hover over Europe. On September 1, as Hitler’s invasion of Poland sparked the beginning of World War II, the Quintette was touring in London. Grappelly, fearing for his safety, remained there for the duration of the war, while Reinhardt returned to France because it was the only land he knew.

Life was never the same in Europe. The two musical masters did reunite and continued playing together in various ensembles, but lost several years of their prime thanks to Nazism. Reinhardt embraced the changes in jazz, even using an electric guitar at times, and remained a great player until his death in 1953.

“Swing 39,” among the final songs recorded by the pre-war Quintet, oozes sweet melancholy, its lilting melody providing a great opportunity for Reinhardt and Grappelly to harmonize. This was a new kind of swing, one with an almost pastoral European feel despite its urban origins. Reinhardt and Grappelly also contribute gorgeous solos. 

This isn’t the crazy, 100-mph, train-about-to-derail version of the Quintette (hear that on “Mystery Pacific,” “Minor Swing,” and “Swingin’ With Django”), but instead talented musicians unconstrained by any orthodoxy, American or French, in their approach. Who knows what Django and Stephane would have created if not for the war?

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