Reinhardt" by Fred Sharp
As originally published in the May 1972 issue of "Jazz Hot Magazine"
from the French by S. Stanley Katz
I think that after 48 years, everything has already been said about the astonishing talent of Django Reinhardt and my purpose is not to devote yet another eulogy to him, but rather to offer some observations by an American guitarist who has held him in great esteem from the time that his very first records were made.
I own almost all of Django's recordings, as well as those of Eddie Lang and of most other American guitarists. Except for the use of a pick, nothing in Django's playing suggests that Eddie Lang had the slightest influence on him. Eddie Lang was considered the finest guitarist of his time, but his playing was always more rigid, and his sound harder. Some notes such as his "blue note" reveals a certain lack of taste that one never finds in the playing of Django, whose "feel" for music was of a very different nature.
I think it is futile to look for any jazz guitarist who has been as much as an inspiration as has this gypsy guitarist, who was so far superior, technically and musically, to all his contemporaries. It is more logical to acknowledge that he owes no one for the style and the content of his music, which were truly his own, and moreover, to recognize that Django Reinhardt was an authentic genius.
If one must search for the influence of American jazz on the artistry of Django, it is from the great players like Coleman Hawkins or Louis Armstrong, not to mention the orchestra of Duke Ellingon, where it is to be found. Those influences readily blended with the esthetics of gypsy beauty, and together they broadened the canvas of European music.
As a young guitarist, already a fervent admirer of Django, I recall trying to force myself to play with the two small fingers of my left hand immobilized--like those of Django's as a result of his accident, thinking that was one of the secrets of the originality of his playing. I was able that way to copy the phrases he had recorded, until one day I discovered that the same phrases could be executed more easily with all the fingers of my left hand.
For me, Django's disabled fingers didn't account at all for the originality of his conceptions, expressed especially in his special sound, in his ability to improvise, and in his prodigeous virtuosity which he brought forth in exceptionally fruitful musical ideas. In fact, if Django had the use of all the fingers of his fretting hand, the musical ideas and most assuredly the amazing technique would most likely be the same.
Django's sound is due to several factors. First is the use of a Selmer Macaferri guitar, with strings made of silk covered steel , wound with fine steel wire that produced a clear and sharp sound in the upper register and an incomparably full and round sound in the bass. The strings were the Argentine brand. Django used a pick that he held not with the tips of his fingers, but at the joint of his thumb and index finger. His stroke with the pick, which was clear and trenchant, was combined with an uncommon robustness, bringing forth from his guitar a full range of tonal sonorities. His picking hand never touched the top of the guitar and his range and his nuances were in fact limitless. Django could produce on his instrument the most etherial, feminine sounds--without, however permitting his sound to become an affectation. His style, rather, was always stamped with male authority.
We know that every artist has his own sound, whatever the instrument he is playing. When Django came to the U.S. to play with the Ellington Orchestra, he used mostly an Epiphone Guitar guitar with a single pickup. Because the instrument, given to him by Epiphone had a metal bridge, Django covered it with glove leather so the instrument had a softer sound. Because of his intense pressure on the frets and fingerboard, when the frets became worn and slotted, he merely loosened the tailpiece and moved it toward the top of the guitar about one or two millimeters, bringing the strings in contact with an unused portion of the frets. Gypsy Magic!! Even though it was a very different instrument, there was no chance of failing to immediately recognize Django's sound. Take as an example, his "Blues in Minor" recording where he plays the violin. One can fault the violin playing but one recognizes immediately the signature style of Django.
When Django added an amplifier to his guitar it made little difference in terms of his playing, and one can add also, that he was--and is to this day -- the only artist who really knew how to extract the best qualities from his amplifier. It seems that he was fascinated by the possibilities the amp presented by, for example, letting some notes resonate freely, and using it to enrich all of his playing. Most guitarists, on the other hand, only use their amplifiers to increase the volume of their instrument. The jazz guitarist, Jim Hall has said that "The amplifier permits me to play more softly". This is somewhat the same thinking of Django, in using the amplifier as part of his thinking, and composition, not as just to amplify his sound.
Listen to the recording of, "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" made at the Club St. Germain in 1951 and note the marvelous way he uses his amp to achieve a new approach to the synergy of guitar and amplifier. Django in fact employs the amplified guitar as though it were a distinct and separate instrument.
Django's improvisations are built on complete knowledge of the underlying chord structure; not merely the notes that comprise the chord, but also the tonal "shape" of the chord in relation to those that come before and follow. This was fused with his prodigeous ability to play anything he heard in his head and a technique that permitted him to execute the ideas instantaneously. I excerpt here an observation made some time ago by the British composer, Constant Lambert who said, "He (Django) swallowed and digested the guitar long ago. Now he is a Ventriloquist.
Django's virtuosity is comparable to that of the most brilliant classical musicians, with the difference being, that a violinist for example, is constrained to interpret a piece of music that has already been written, while Django improvises or, if you prefer, expresses on the guitar, music that is produced from his knowledge of the chord structure,bass line and lastly, the melody line.
Overcoming the handicap of his disabled hand, Django could play impeccably at an incredible speed, and he included in his playing, musical forms and figures that were totally of his own creation, such as lightning fast glissandos executed usually with one finger on one string without the slighted alteration of dynamics between the notes. No one has ever been able to replicate the quality of that artistic achievement.
With considerable effort, a guitarist might be able to copy some of Django's playing, but no one can replicate his musical conceptions. Beyond simply improvising, Django was, in the final analysis, a composer. The ideas he played on his guitar reveal more of the composer than the jazz improviser, thus if you transcribe one of his choruses and have it analyzed by an individual trained in musical composition, it appears that his music is indeed "constructed" in the manner of a complex compostion and is not simply the product of improvisation.
If Charlie Christian was a major influence on the majority of American guitarists, it is because he was the first to express on the guitar, the music of his time; and even more, because it was relatively easy to play like him and to copy his technique. But it is far more difficult to capture the concepts and playing of a composer.
Since his visit to the U.S., most guitarists unreservedly praise his playing and go so far as to consider him the "Master." Thus his influence continues to grow, often indirectly as the following vignette illustrates. Fifty years ago, very few musicians knew of Django. Les Paul, who was a great admirer of the Gypsy and was the idol of many young guitarists who, in trying to imitate Les Paul, were indirectly coming under the influence of Django.
Django Reinhardt will surely remain one of the major innovative influences on the art form of jazz music in the world today and for all time.