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Martin: Django Turns 100

01/26/10 5:55PM By Mike Martin
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(HOST) This weekend marked the100th anniversary of the birth of Django Reinhardt, the legendary gypsy guitarist, and Commentator Mike Martin has been thinking about why musicians are still in love with Django’s music.

(MARTIN) If you’re a guitar player, the name Django Reinhardt probably inspires both love and dread - love because he may have been the greatest guitar player of all time, dread because his technique and inventions are so brilliant that you know you can never come up to his ankle, as the French say. But with Django, the gypsy guitar virtuoso whose 100th birthday was Saturday, it’s more than just technique. He’s an icon with a Selmer guitar and a pencil-thin moustache. He’s a romantic legend who died young and lived by his own rules. And his guitar playing is so original, passionate, and masterful, that it’s impossible to forget him.

Of course, the fact that Django played his solos with only two fingers is part of the legend, too. When Django was a young man, his house - his caravan, actually - caught on fire, and he barely escaped with his life. His fretting hand, the one that runs up and down the neck of the guitar super-fast to make all the notes, was badly burned, so that Django had limited use of all but his left index and middle finger. Most experts agree that this handicap actually led Django to develop his own distinctive style of cascading runs, strange bends, and powerful tone.

In fact, this style was so beautiful that Duke Ellington once claimed Django was his favorite soloist. And Django did play briefly with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in America, but he didn’t enjoy being a sideman, didn’t care to learn English, skipped practice to paint in his hotel room, and showed up late for a show at Carnegie Hall without his guitar. Not long after, he went home to France.

It’s generally accepted that as bebop and cool gradually supplanted swing in the 1940s and 50s, Django fell out of favor, and, with his feelings hurt, he gave up performing for billiards and fly fishing. But if you listen to Django’s last recordings, you’ll hear him playing electric guitar with a distinctly modern, pared down approach. And the beautiful melodies Django composed, such as Nuages, Tears, and Minor Swing, transcend music trends anyway.

In recent years there’s been a sort of Django renaissance, with gypsy swing combos cropping up all over Europe, the U.S., and Asia. And even here in Vermont Django’s legacy survives in the form of several Django and gypsy-inspired groups.

So guitar players are still trying to learn Django’s hot licks, but there’s more than just guitar pyrotechnics to Django Reinhardt. And it probably has to do with how he always seemed to prefer the spiritual world over the material one. He reportedly wept the first time he heard a Louis Armstrong recording, and he once told his wife that the true music was the sound of the Seine River flowing by their home.

In Django’s music, there’s something deep and sincere that speaks to the soul. That’s what the French artist Jean Cocteau was talking about when he said, "Django, this guitar with a human voice...."
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