top of page

Django Reinhardt and the Allure of Gypsy Jazz

In the pantheon of jazz legends, Django Reinhardt stands as a colossus, his fingers weaving melodies that have captivated musicians and audiences alike for decades. His creation, “Gypsy Jazz” or “Jazz Manouche”, is a genre that fuses the vibrant melodies of Romani music with the sophisticated harmonies and bouncy rhythms of swing jazz,  producing a sound that is both infectious and exotic. Guitarists, in particular, are drawn to this style for its expressive potential and technical demands. Django was a guitarist after all, and his unique playing style reinvented the way we think of the acoustic guitar in Jazz. Gypsy Jazz offers a unique challenge distinct from other jazz styles with its acoustic roots and distinct european influences. Let’s look closer at the jazz subgenre known as gypsy jazz and the rich cultural tapestry from which it emerged.

Django's Life and Career

Born into a traveling Romani caravan in Belgium, 1910, Django Reinhardt's life was a testament to resilience and innovation. Despite suffering severe burns to his left hand in a fire, Reinhardt adapted his guitar technique, using only two fingers for solos while his injured fingers provided chordal support. This limitation did not hinder his musicality; instead, it fueled his distinctive style. His reinvention of guitar playing in jazz was partially due to his injury which forced him to develop an entirely new approach to playing.  He also lived and performed through the Nazi occupation of France during World War 2, where he was miraculously able to survive due to his celebrity status as a musician. Despite Reinhardt's gypsy heritage and jazz music were considered degenerate by the regime which put him in grave danger, yet he played on, his music a form of subtle resistance. His legacy is a story of triumph over adversity, a narrative that continues to inspire musicians around the world.

Reinhardt's career spanned various collaborations and innovations within the jazz world. From his early days as a member of the Quintette du Hot Club de France, alongside violinist Stéphane Grappelli, to his later solo endeavors and adaptation of the electric guitar, Reinhardt's influence on jazz guitar cannot be overstated. His pioneering spirit led him to experiment with new sounds and techniques, pushing the boundaries of what was thought possible on the guitar. Despite facing numerous challenges throughout his life, Reinhardt's passion for music remained undiminished, leaving behind a legacy that continues to shape the world of jazz to this day.

Iconic Recordings

The following is a short list of popular recordings from Django. I recommend listening to all of them to get a feel for the unique flavor of the original Gypsy Jazz. Many guitarists learn these solos note-for-note as a masterclass in the style, which I highly recommend for any ambitious readers.

1. “Minor Swing” - The Gypsy Jazz Anthem

A quintessential gypsy jazz tune, "Minor Swing" is a showcase of Reinhardt's masterful improvisation and rhythmic precision. Its minor key and swinging tempo embody the spirit of the genre. It features a simple 3 chord progression at a medium tempo making it the perfect entry point into the style. There are multiple recordings spaced throughout Django's career and all are worth checking out to hear the development of his playing. It is perhaps his best known composition.

2. “Django's Tiger” - Melodic Mastery and Virtuoso Soloing

With its fast-paced tempo and intricate melodic lines, "Django's Tiger" is a thrilling display of Reinhardt's virtuosity and the exhilarating possibilities of gypsy jazz guitar. This song is based on the traditional jazz song “Tiger Rag” which is typically performed at a very fast tempo. The song features a long guitar solo which was so tastefully composed that it became the new melody for tune. “Django’s Tiger”, is a must learn for those wishing to progress to intermediate and advanced levels.

3. “Nuages” - Django’s Mysterious and Beautiful Composition

A melancholic masterpiece, "Nuages" offers a contrast to the typically upbeat gypsy jazz repertoire, highlighting Reinhardt's emotional depth and compositional prowess. "Nuages," composed by Django Reinhardt, is a quintessential piece in the jazz and gypsy swing repertoire. The title translates to "Clouds" in English, and it's known for its haunting melody. It was first recorded in 1940 during the German occupation of France, and its evocative melody made it an unofficial anthem of hope for liberation. Reinhardt recorded at least thirteen versions of the tune, showcasing his improvisational genius and making it a jazz standard. Reinhardt's "Nuages" remains a beloved classic, not only for its beautiful composition but also for its representation of freedom and resilience during a tumultuous period in history.

4. “J`Attendai” - You Must See It to Believe It

This song captures the romantic essence of gypsy jazz, with Reinhardt's guitar singing the melody with poignant beauty. In one of the only existing video recordings of Django, he can be heard playing this beautiful song. For many, this performance captures the nostalgic beauty of the swing era and is a perfect representation of Gypsy Jazz. Check it out below!

5. “I’ll See You In My Dreams” - Django Plays Standards

This is another classic swing era jazz standard that is commonly played among gypsy jazz musicians. Django takes a long solo here that is very beautiful with its flourishes and embellishments. The chord progression has a romantic wistful quality that we associate with Paris and the gypsy jazz style.

Additional Recommendations:

Exploring these additional recommendations provides a comprehensive overview of Reinhardt's repertoire and the breadth of gypsy jazz as a genre. Each composition offers its own unique insights into Reinhardt's musicality and serves as a testament to his enduring legacy.

1. "Belleville" - A lively and spirited composition that showcases Reinhardt's ability to blend traditional gypsy melodies with jazz improvisation.

2. "Daphne" - An up-tempo number featuring intricate guitar work and playful exchanges between Reinhardt and Grappelli, exemplifying the synergy of the Quintette du Hot Club de France.

3. "Tears" - A hauntingly beautiful ballad that demonstrates Reinhardt's emotive playing style and his mastery of melodic phrasing.

4. "Swing 42" - A swinging tune with infectious rhythm and catchy melodies, showcasing Reinhardt's knack for composing memorable jazz standards.

5. "Limehouse Blues" - A dynamic and energetic performance that highlights Reinhardt's skillful improvisation and innovative approach to chord voicings.

6. "After You've Gone" - A classic jazz standard given new life through Reinhardt's unique interpretation, featuring dazzling guitar solos and dynamic rhythmic interplay.

7. "Ain't Misbehavin'" - Reinhardt's playful rendition of this jazz classic, infused with his signature gypsy swing style and virtuosic guitar technique.

8. "All of Me" - A soulful and bluesy interpretation of the popular jazz standard, showcasing Reinhardt's expressive playing and improvisational prowess.

9. "Sweet Georgia Brown" - A lively and upbeat performance that captures the joyful spirit of gypsy jazz, with Reinhardt's guitar leading the way with infectious energy.

10. "Night and Day" - A sophisticated and stylish rendition of the Cole Porter classic, featuring Reinhardt's impeccable timing and dynamic phrasing.

Expanding on these recordings, one can delve deeper into the nuances of Reinhardt's playing style and the broader context of gypsy jazz. Each track offers a glimpse into Reinhardt's virtuosity as well as his emotive range, showcasing his ability to navigate various moods and tempos with ease. Additionally, studying these recordings provides insight into the evolution of gypsy jazz as a genre, highlighting its roots in Romani culture and its fusion with jazz traditions.

Gypsy Jazz Guitar Technique

The acoustic jazz guitar, with its resonant, woody tone, is the instrument of choice. Reinhardt's downstroke picking technique, executed with floating wrist and a swift, forceful attack, gives the lead guitar playing its characteristic punch. When changing strings a downstroke is always used to maintain the punchiness and volume on the acoustic guitar. Improvisation is central to gypsy jazz, with each performance a new creation, weaving together the threads of melody, harmony, and rhythm into a tapestry of spontaneous musical expression. Learning to execute Reinhardt's downstroke technique with speed and precision requires dedicated practice and attention to detail. Moreover, understanding the role of the acoustic jazz guitar in gypsy jazz ensemble playing allows aspiring guitarists to appreciate the importance of tone production and dynamic control in capturing the essence of the genre.

The heart of gypsy jazz guitar is "La Pompe", the rhythm style that drives the music forward with its distinctive percussive strumming. Since there are typically no drums in a Gypsy Jazz group, rhythm guitars replace the drum kit with their distinctive 4-to-the-bar style. However, in Gypsy Jazz a quick up-stroke is often added to emulate the hi-hat swing pattern. Mastering the rhythm playing is also essential for learning the style. 

Campfire Jams

For those inspired to delve into the world of gypsy jazz, there are countless resources available. From online tutorials to dedicated music camps, the community of gypsy jazz enthusiasts is welcoming and supportive. Albums, transcriptions, and biographies of Django Reinhardt provide a wealth of material to study and enjoy. Aspiring guitarists can start with a simple acoustic guitar, immersing themselves in the recordings of the master, and joining the vibrant tradition of gypsy jazz that continues to thrive today.

Django Reinhardt's enduring legacy and the captivating genre of gypsy jazz is welcoming new musicians. It is an invitation to guitarists and students to explore this rich musical landscape, to be inspired by Django's genius, and to carry the torch of gypsy jazz into the future. The journey through the strings of Reinhardt's guitar is one of discovery, passion, and joy—a journey that every musician should experience. 



bottom of page