Wednesday, October 20, 2010



Ever since I came across this tremendous photo, I've been on a Django Reinhardt jag (the latest one, anyway). It dates from 1946, when the Gypsy wizard made his only visit to the United States and toured with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. In the photo, Reinhardt watches several of the band's virtuosi play cards, while the great Johnny Hodges works on his patented expression of boredom. As a guest artist, Reinhardt wasn't obliged to don the white jacket and playful tie. Nor, supposedly, could he handle the colorful boxer shorts worn by his American colleagues. Discovering these florid undergarments during a train trip with the band, he dropped by Ellington's compartment to ask about them--and found the maestro sporting an even gaudier pair.

Reinhardt expected to be greeted as a celebrity in America. For that reason, he didn't bother to bring one of his trademark Selmer Modèle Jazz guitars with him--surely he would be showered with instruments by American manufacturers. He was not. The disappointed Reinhardt made do with borrowed Gibson L-5, an amplified hollow-body whose fat sound was worlds away from the cutting, silvery Selmer. He considered the American guitar a giant step down, and practically swooned with gratitude when his manager showed up with the Selmer several weeks later: "At least it's got tone, you can hear the chords like you can on the piano. Don't talk to me any more about their casseroles--their 'tinpot' guitars! Listen to this, it speaks like a cathedral!" (The latter quote, along with the anecdote about the undies above, comes from this fascinating site.)

In any case, Reinhardt worked wonders with the casserole. Two of his performances with the Ellington orchestra were recorded onto acetate disks, and one of them--at the Civic Opera House in Chicago on November 10--is unusually crisp and vivid for the era, thanks to the use of overhead microphones. You can hear Django's entire four-song set on Duke Ellington: The Great Concerts, Chicago 1946 (Nimbus). But his scintillating take on "Honeysuckle Rose" is also available on this YouTube video. Listen to him adapting his style to the amplified instrument, with much less vibrato and a stripped-down approach to harmony (on the acoustic, he's always buttressing his single-note fireworks with chordal accents). Check out the roller-coaster runs at 1:01, and the sheer suavity of his sound. Reinhardt hung around Manhattan for a couple of weeks when the tour was over, performing at Cafe Society Uptown, and expressed interest in playing with the bebop vanguard, including Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Neither were in town at the time (just imagine Parker and Reinhardt trading fours, not to mention the cloudy acetates that would have long since become a jazz collector's Holy Grail.) A number of promised engagements in California fell through. And meanwhile, Reinhardt had found America itself wanting. Charles Delaunay, the guitarist's manager and eventual biographer, put it this way:
When I asked him later for his impressions of America, Django seemed to me to have lost most of his illusions. He was far from impressed by the American mentality, above all that of the women. Even the cars no longer had their old appeal for him; they were all too much alike.
The bit about the cars is particularly poignant. Clearly the Art Deco curves and chrome accents of the previous decade had turned Django's head. If he had stuck around two more years, he could have seen the sui generis 1948 Tucker Torpedo roll out of the showroom. Instead the disillusioned guitarist sailed back to France in early 1947, never to return.


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