Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Django Reinhardt and the History of Gypsy Jazz

Django Reinhardt and the Illustrated History of Gypsy Jazz
By Michael Dregni with Alain Antonietto and Anne Legrand
Speck Press illustrated tradepaperback

The defining images of each instrument in jazz have all been provided by American artists, with arguably one exception. The legend of jazz guitar is Django Reinhardt, a European gypsy. He is the gypsy guitarist who gives Sean Penn a complex in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown. His sophisticated portraits, (natty mustache and casually dangling cigarette) are icons of jazz. His music would inspire scores of jazz musicians, as Michael Dregni and company explain in Django Reinhardt and the Illustrated History of Gypsy Jazz.

Much of Reinhardt’s life has become jazz lore, and hardly needs repeating: the caravan fire that damaged his left hand, his reinvented technique for fretting with thumb, index and ring fingers only, and the formation of the Hot Club of France Quintet with his great musical associate Stephane Grappelli. It would seem like a cruel twist of fate that Reinhardt’s star would rise just as National Socialism began its dominance of Europe—a catastrophic development for Reinhardt’s fellow Romany. Many biographers have not been generous in their portrayals of Reinhardt as he played relatively unmolested during the early years of the Paris occupation. Dregni is kinder in describing the circumstances faced by Reinhardt. He explains the basic National Socialist jazz dilemma:

“The Nazis were wise to fight to quell jazz. Under the Occupation—whether in France or elsewhere in German-occupied Europe as well as Great Britain—swing became the sound of freedom. Yet even German soldiers and hausfraus loved jazz. So while the Nazi Propagandastaffel outlawed American music, it held its hand in banning swing outright.” (p. 87)

Therefore, Reinhardt was allowed to perform, and his longtime promoter and producer, Charles Delaunay (son of the artist Robert) was given permission to continue organizing Hot Club concerts throughout France. According to Dregni:

“Delaunay, however, abused his privilege. He used his travels to gather information for the resistance—until he was jailed by the resistance.” (p. 88)

As the German Occupation got increasingly uglier Reinhardt did indeed attempt to escape through the Swiss border. Unfortunately he was refused admittance, as Dregni explains, “by Swiss guards who turned him back, stating the country gave refuge to Jews and political prisoners, but not Gypsies.” (p. 102)

Reinhardt would survive the Occupation, eventually touring America with Duke Ellington Orchestra, before dying tragically young at the age of 43 in 1953. However, this book makes clear, his influence was far-reaching. Many succeeding Gypsy jazz musicians get their due, particularly his often over-looked brother Joseph. It is also great to see lesser known artists profiled, like Armand Stenegry:

“a decorated Romany resistance fighter who worked behind German lines to aid the Normandy invasions In the 1960’s he became “Archange” as part of La Mission [the Gypsy Evangelical Church], and recorded several EPs of hymns, many with bouncing electric Gypsy jazz-style guitar riffs in the tradition of Django.” (p.183)

Dregni and company also write about Gypsy life and tradition with insight and sensitivity. The images collected here are the real highlight, as they capture the ambiance of the Bal Musette and Hot Club of France eras and document the Gypsy jazz musicians who would follow Reinhardt. The photos, rare record jackets, promotional posters, advertisements, and other assorted images a beautifully reproduced, making Django a handsome and informative book.