• Nikhil Hogan

How did Django Reinhardt learn music?

In Barry Harris' acceptance speech for his Bruce Lundvall Visionary Award on January 13, 2020, he paid tribute jazz pianist Bud Powell for his seemingly endless stream of musical ideas. Musicians who seemed to be overflowing with musical ideas were rare breeds and very special.

"I believe in Bird and Diz. They were the innovators. They were the brilliant ones. Bird and Diz and Bud Powell. There's not one piano player that can play like Bud Powell.. ..And see if you had asked Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, John Lewis, Hank Jones, Me. If you had asked us, who was the best pianist in the world. Some of us would say, well y'know we'd think Art Tatum. But you know most of us, the young ones like this, there's only one name you say, Bud Powell. So nobody, I don't care how they play. They gotta show me, 'cause I- it seemed like Bud Powell knew everything, I don't understand that... ..y'know and I wish that we appreciated him as much as we should. Because in him, I don't know how he learned so many things. He's the only one that you really can say, if you listen to him play you're going to learn something. He's going to play something that nobody else has played. He's fabulous, I tell you."

Another such musical luminary who has had a significant influence on the development of guitar playing was the two-fingered, Belgian born, Romani Gypsy guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt. Today, January 23rd 2020 would have been the 110 years since the birth of this great musical figure.

Here are some quotes by some of the most famous guitarists of all time about Django:

"by far the most astonishing guitar player ever has got to be Django Reinhardt. Django was quite superhuman, there's nothing normal about him as a person or a player" - Jeff Beck

"He was the greatest guitarist in my mind" - Les Paul

"He was the first really brilliant solo guitarist I ever became aware of, I had records of his when I was 10 years old. It just blew my mind that anyone could play a guitar like that. Still does." - Charlie Byrd

"Another player whose physical handicap didn’t stop him is Django Reinhardt. For his last LP they pulled him out of retirement to do it. He’d been retired for years and it’s fantastic. You know the story about him in the caravan and losing fingers and such. But the record is just fantastic. He must have been playing all the time to be that good—it’s horrifyingly good. Horrifying. But it’s always good to hear perennial players like that" - Jimmy Page

"Django created a whole genre of music that people are still listening to and trying to emulate. They call it 'gypsy jazz', but I think Django just called it jazz. Django had more good ideas than any soloist I’ve ever heard. He had a great drive in his playing and a beautiful tone from his acoustic guitar. Towards the end of his life he showed us he could play bebop and play incredible inside lines like Charlie Parker. Django was the Louis Armstrong of the guitar." - Tommy Emmanuel

“There are many reasons why I look up to Django Reinhardt. He didn’t let his handicap, down to two fingers on the left hand, deter his mastery of the instrument. He was harmonically interesting and had unbelievable technique. That guy really swung hard!" - George Benson

"To me, Django and Jimi were doing the same thing in a lot of ways. Django would do it with acoustic guitar and Jimi would do it on electric, using feedback and things. Instead of using feedback, Django would just shake those strings like crazy. And neither one of them had anything to build on - they just did it. Django didn't have any book or anything to borrow from. He wrote the book" - Stevie Ray Vaughan

"Django Reinhardt was really a guitar player. He had everything. He could play runs like a horn player a piano player or a guitar player… When they told me he only had two good fingers I really flipped.” - Carlos Santana

"My whole thing comes from Django, He’s my hero.." - Ritchie Blackmore

How did a poor gypsy boy from the village of Liberchies in Belgium grow up to be one of the most admired guitarists and musicians in history?

Let us attempt to piece together a timeline of his musical development and how he learned music.

  • Django Reinhardt was born in 1910

  • He first started playing the violin, learning it from his father, uncle and other relatives.

  • Between the ages of 7 and 12, he would play in his father's ensemble.

  • Discovers the banjo at around 10 and at the age of 12, he was gifted a banjo-guitar. Later, he transitioned to a real guitar.

  • Was mentored by professional musicians such as Auguste "Gusti" Malha and Poulette Castro.

  • Made his debut at 12 with accordionist, Vétese Guiterino and learned a massive repertoire by accompanying him.

  • Between 12 and 18, he composes his own waltzes.

  • By 15 he was busking in cafés with his brother Joseph.

  • By the age of 16, he had been also accompanying accordionist Fredo Gardoni and later Jean Vaissade.

  • Also by 16, he had discovered American jazz and started learning to improvise over jazz numbers.

  • He begins recording at 18.

  • At 18, nearly dies in a fire, badly burning the 3rd (ring) and 4th (pinky) fingers of his left, fretting hand. He is left playing the guitar with 2 fingers and his thumb on his left hand.

  • When he is 21 years of age, he listens to Louis Armstrong's "Indian Cradle Song" and is completely overcome, blown away by the music.

One thing that's apparent, is that Django wasn't a "schooled" musician. He was immersed in music playing with his family for most of his childhood, and was mentored by professional musicians.

He clearly had interest, and pursued it through a more natural way of learning music, through sound and creativity: improvisation and composition.

Playing in cafés as a youth would have exposed him to the popular music of the day and later led to jazz and swing. The Imitation of popular music and tunes led him to develop a model for composition that would have enticed a listener. It wasn't "academic" music based on esoteric music theory. It was based on a tradition of accepted sound first and he built off of that tradition.

The Romani gypsy tradition holds improvisation to be a core tenet of their musical identity. The reason Django Reinhardt had so many ideas was because from a young age, he was exposed to many, many ideas and absorbed them in his young, plastic brain. Whereas today we encourage students not to improvise, and to memorize the notes on a given score, Django couldn't read or write music.

He would have had a fantastic memory for songs, melodies, chord progressions, harmonies and would have learned to manipulate the information to create new ideas and songs, as evidenced by his young compositional efforts. Improvisation would have come so naturally to him, because he improvised as youth with friends and family in the community.

On his 110th birthday, let us celebrate not just his virtuosity on the instrument but his fine musical mind: a product of an extremely creative and musically positive environment that encouraged listening, improvisation and composition. Let us apply the lessons of his childhood to our children and learn music in a more holistic fashion, rather than endless rote memorization.

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