I flat-out love the music that Django created, whether in collaboration with Stéphane Grappelli, other configurations or just solo. His music just makes me happy and the more I listen to his music, the more amazed I am by him.
The thing is, when he was about eighteen, there was a fire in the caravan he was living in and his left hand and right leg were severely burnt. I mean SEVERELY burnt. Yet with the two fingers he could use, he raced up and down the guitar fretboard creating wonderful lead lines to jazz standards and his own compositions.
For me, the original Quintette du Hot Club de France, created in the early ’30’s, is my favorite Django era: Django, his brother Joseph, and Roger Chaput on acoustic guitars, Louis Vola on stand-up bass, Stéphane Grappelli on violin. No drums but very percussive effects from Joseph and Roger’s rhythm guitars.
Because he was a gypsy (Roma) and the fact jazz was banned, his situation in France under Nazi occupation was very precarious, but he was allowed to continue to play because of a Luftwaffe official who loved jazz and admired his playing. The strange roll of the dice — thank goodness he survived when so many Roma (and others, of course) did not.
Because my Dad played his 78’s nonstop when I was growing up, Django’s gypsy jazz was part of the soundtrack of my youth. In college, I discovered Dan Hicks and Hot Licks (Striking it Rich was my favorite album) and not too long ago I heard the Hot Club of San Francisco playing on a rooftop garden in Oakland. Not only did they play songs popularized by Django, but they have a killer versions of I’m Happy Just to Dance with You and And I Love Her. The Beatles and Django — almost as good as peanut butter and chocolate!!
If you have never heard Django, give yourself a treat. Yes, the recordings are not optimal (it was the 1930’s after all and they were recording on masters made with wax (!!). Below are three YouTube videos that will not only give you a listen, but also let you see what Django was doing with just two fingers.
I am grateful for Django’s creative genius, the legacy of music he left, and the scions of acoustic jazz who have followed.