Django Reinhardt: finding the way back to music

Django Reinhardt is known now as a jazz legend : he even gave birth to his own style of jazz, gypsy jazz. He is one of the guitarists who had the greatest impact on the history of jazz. However, his road to success was not an easy one; it was long and full of pitfalls, and he could have given up at any moment. Nevertheless, he always found his way back to music. Let's shed some light on this exceptional journey...


Django Reinhardt, whose real name was Jean Reinhardt, was born in Belgium in 1910 into a Sinté family, a Roma ethnic group from Western Europe. His family was originally from Alsace. To escape the First World War and conscription, his family was constantly on the road, from Italy to Algeria. With his mother, he finally settled in Paris near the Porte de Choisy. 

There he lived in a caravan, surrounded by a close-knit community of musicians. He began to make music himself by playing the violin. When he discovered his uncle's banjo-guitar at the age of 12, it was a real revelation. He learned to play independently. Even though he could not read music, imitating the musicians around him was the best way to learn. 

As he could neither read nor write, many doors were closed to him. Django's success was therefore not guaranteed! Yet, music was his solution. The young virtuoso gradually gained a reputation; he recorded his own album, played in cabarets and in the homes of the wealthy... A life full of success opened up to him. However, his illiteracy played tricks on him: when he published his first record in 1928, it was written on the cover that his name was "Jiango Renard". 


That same year, however, while life was smiling on him and he was being offered great projects, he was hit by a terrible accident. The young Django was a victim of caravan fire: the highly flammable celluloid flowers his girlfriend was selling caught fire and reduced the house to ashes. The musician was seriously injured in his right leg and left hand. He kept all his fingers, but some of them could no longer move and remained paralysed. After 18 months of convalescence in hospital, it seemed to be the end of the musician's career: according to the doctors, the after-effects prevented him from playing the banjo again. For Django, who had found his passion in banjo playing, it could have been the end of a promising musical life that offered him all the successes...


However, Django worked very hard to regain his musical talent. A guitar was brought to him so that he could practice making music again. With practice, he regained some dexterity. Against all odds, the musician managed to play it thanks to a technique he created, adapted to his disability. He used only the two healthy fingers and the thumb of his left hand. 

With the guitar, he found a new instrument, which was to make him famous. Historically, this was an ideal time for this instrument. The guitar was in the midst of a boom: it played an important role in jazz ensembles. It was the decade of the jazz of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and others. Even in Europe, the public was beginning to appreciate this unusual music.

Despite his handicap, Django managed to make a name for himself among the great jazz musicians, thanks to his unfailing mastery. He opened the Quintette du Hot Club de France, where he popularised gypsy jazz. This style is influenced by American jazz and swing, by the French chanson of the “bals musette”, as well as by gypsy and central European music.


The musician's life was not without its difficulties. 

His community, the Sinté, was oppressed. During the Second World War, he composed "Requiem à mes frères tsiganes" which he finally managed to perform after the occupation. This requiem is dedicated to the victims of the gypsy genocide, in which tens of thousands died between 1939 and 1945. The guitarist remains a symbol for the Gypsy community to this day. 

There were also professional problems. The American tour he made with the Quintet of the Hot Club de France was not very successful. Although he was finally able to meet his idol Duke Ellington, the success remained rather moderate. At the end of the 1940s, he also had to reinvent himself in order not to be overtaken by the new generation. French musicians were heavily influenced by bepop, a jazz genre that placed more emphasis on improvisation. Launched by an association of Afro-American musicians, this musical movement sought to free itself from the discipline of big bands, in a real quest for freedom. From then on, Django had to integrate these new codes, to redouble dexterity and excellence to prove that he was still up to date. 


Thus, when the musician died in 1953, at the age of 43, he left an indelible mark on the history of jazz. The artist would inspire many artists after him - Jimi Hendrix is said to have named his penultimate group "Band of Gypsys" after Reinhardt. 

Another example is Anthony Frank Iommi, who co-founded the pioneering metal band Black Sabbath. This guitarist also suffered a hand accident at the age of 17 and thought he would never be able to play again, having several phalanges severed. It was when he heard about Django that he regained his faith in his ability to play the guitar and was able to resume his career, finding a unique solution to his handicap... Like Django Reinhardt, this pioneering guitarist also helped create a new musical genre.

The story of Anthony Franck Iommi (video)


From Django's paralysis, a new musical technique was born. Even today, some of Django's solos are inimitable because players cannot imitate the peculiarity of his fingers. Django succeeded in making his handicap his uniqueness and his strength. 

Above all, through music, he was able to overcome various obstacles. Thanks to his strength of character, he was able to overcome the physical limitations imposed by his disability. 

But his impact was also societal. Committed to sharing his culture, he developed Gypsy jazz in Europe, managing to combine his love for jazz and his traditional music. Finally, through his creativity and talent, he was also able to speak out about the trauma and persecution his community had experienced. Through his art, he helped fighting against discrimination and exclusion. 

In this way, music was a medium through which Django Reinhardt was able to establish himself as a talented artist, asserting all his particularities.