The Quintet of the Hot Club of France, co-led by guitarist
Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli, were in England on 1
September 1939 when Nazi Germany started World War II by invading Poland. The musicians had recorded just a week
earlier and they were playing an engagement in London when word reached them
that the war was on. Grappelli
made arrangements to stay in England but Reinhardt spontaneously decided to
return to France, a decision that greatly affected the course of his life. Not only was the original Quintet of
the Hot Club of France permanently broken up after six successful years (though
there would be later reunions by Grappelli and Reinhardt) but the guitarist
would be living under Nazi rule for four years as Germany soon conquered
Jean Baptiste 'Django' Reinhardt, the top jazz guitarist in
the world, was still only 29 when he returned to France. He was born 23 January 1910 in
Liverchies, Belgium, a member of a gypsy family. Django, who was largely illiterate, had a natural musical
ability and was self-taught on banjo and guitar. In the 1920s he played gypsy melodies, folk songs and dance
numbers in French cafes, making his first recordings (on banjo) in 1928. However his career almost ended when he
was just beginning. One night
while asleep in a caravan, a batch of flowers caught fire and Reinhardt was
seriously burned. Doctors in a
hospital were seriously thinking of amputating his left hand but some friends
snuck him out one night. Even
after Django recovered, two of the fingers on his left hand (which he used to
chord the guitar) were permanently unusable. He had to completely relearn how to play guitar.
Not only did Reinhardt succeed at figuring out how to play
chords with just two fingers and a thumb, but he discovered jazz (through the
records of Louis Armstrong) and the thrill of improvising. By 1930 he was playing guitar in public
again. The following year he met Stephane
Grappelli and when their paths crossed again two years later, they so enjoyed
the experience of jamming together that they put together the Quintet of the
Hot Club of France. The all-string
group, consisting of violin, three acoustic guitars and bass, was a perfect
forum for the co-leaders and their recordings of 1934 to 1939 are timeless
classics [See note, page 4: Django Reinhardt Vols.1-5 in this Naxos Jazz
But with the outbreak of World War II and Django's decision
to return to the European continent, he had to start all over. On 22 March 1940 Reinhardt returned to the recording studio at the head
of a drumless big band, an unprecedented setting for an acoustic
guitarist. The United States'
Alvino Rey, who actually played steel guitar, was the only swing era guitarist
to lead a regular orchestra.
Reinhardt's band, called 'Django's Music', recorded four numbers,
starting off with the catchy Daphne, a song that the Quintet had previously
recorded on 31January 1938.
Tenor-saxophonist Alix Combelle and trumpeter Philippe Brun have solos
while the leader is content to swing the band on rhythm guitar. Limehouse Blues puts the spotlight on
the fine altoist Andre Ekyan before Django flies over the brass, having no
difficulty being heard over the four trumpets and three trombones. The eerie Tears, one of the most memorable
of the Reinhardt-Grappelli compositions, features both the guitarist and the
ensemble. Jimmy's Bar has a
typically fluent solo from Django who plays with a septet taken from the larger
While the big band was a happy departure, Django Reinhardt
needed a regular combo to play jobs in wartime France. There was no point trying to replace
Stephane Grappelli with another violinist since Grappelli was the top European
violinist, so Reinhardt instead utilized Hubert Rostaing, a technically skilled
and advanced clarinettist who also doubled on tenor. Rostaing would play with Django on and off through
1948. And instead of having three
guitars as before, Reinhardt cut back to two (using his brother Joseph
Reinhardt) and added drummer Pierre Fouad.
At first the group was also known as the Quintet of the Hot
Club of France. Its debut, Rhythm
futur, is a piece that lives up to its futuristic name, at least harmonically. It is clear from the start that
Rostaing's impressive technique and sound (sometimes hinting at Artie Shaw)
works well with the guitarist. The
session also includes the minor-toned Blues.
The same group with a change in bassists and several guest
appearances by Alix Combelle on clarinet and tenor, recorded thirteen
selections on 13 and 17 December 1940. Combelle, who had sounded quite
impressive on a famous 1937 four-saxophone date with Coleman Hawkins, Benny
Carter and Andre Ekyan, was an underrated clarinettist and a tenor with a big
tone influenced by Hawkins. Swing
41 really benefits from the inclusion of the two clarinets who blend together
very well. The clarinets take a
mysterious introduction to a remake of Reinhardt's most famous original, the
haunting ballad Nuages.
Probably to avoid being noticed by the Nazis, most of the
standards played by the Quintet during the war years were issued under their
French titles, with the exception of Sweet Sue and All Of Me. Exactly Like You ("Pour vous") has
Combelle's last appearance on the 13 December set, showing off his tenor
playing along with Rostaing's clarinet.
The classical melody Fantaisie sur une danse norvegienne is turned into
a delightful exercise in swing by the Quintet with Django showing once again in
his chordal solo that he had no competitors among guitarists of the era (other
than Charlie Christian). Vendredi
13 may have been recorded on Friday the 13th but the musical luck was very good
that day; Combelle helps out by ringing some bells during this exotic piece. Another classical melody, Liebesfreud,
is full of exuberant joy. The
lesser-known Reinhardt-Grappelli piece Mabel (previously recorded on 14
December 1937) has a very advanced and tricky chord structure that challenges
the musicians to create fresh melodic ideas. Little White Lies (retitled "Petits mensonges") has an
additional theme added by the Quintet (heard during the guitar solo) that makes
this version sound fresh and quite different than usual. On the traditional Dark Eyes (or "Les
yeux noirs") and Sweet Sue, Just
You, Reinhardt really cooks, played heated single-note lines during his spots.
Alix Combelle returns for the three selections recorded on
17 December. Swing de Paris is a
medium-tempo blues given its personality due to some key changes, unusual
transitions and the use of the two clarinets. Oiseaux des Óles is a musical train ride while a more
conventional All Of Me has fine solos from all of the principals.
This release concludes with two numbers from a slightly
different version of the Django Reinhardt Big Band ('Django's Music'), one with
a full saxophone section and drums.
Reinhardt and Rostaing have spots on Stockholm while Festival Swing is
similar to a performance by the Metronome All Stars in that it features many
top musicians in a brief period of time.
There is a chorus apiece on the medium-tempo blues from ten of the
twelve horns, bassist Tony Rovira and drummer Pierre Fouad (each of whom are
announced) plus two choruses by the great Django.
Life may have been increasingly grim for Django Reinhardt
under the Nazi rule but one cannot tell that from these infectious and
innovative performances, many of which were formerly rare.
- author of seven jazz books including Swing, Bepop, Trumpet
Kings and Jazz On Record 1917-76