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Django (1910-1953) The Life of a Gypsy Jazz Guitarist
Jean Reinhardt (23 January 1910 – 16 May 1953), known by his Romani nickname Django, was a Romani-Belgian jazz guitarist and composer. He was one of the first major jazz talents to emerge in Europe and has been hailed as one of its most significant exponents.
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The Beginning of the magician guitarist
HE WAS KNOWN AS DJANGO, a Gypsy name meaning “I awake.” His legal
name—the name the gendarmes and border officials entered into their journals
as his family crisscrossed Europe in their horsedrawn caravan—was Jean
Reinhardt. But when the family brought their travels to a halt alongside a
hidden stream or within a safe wood to light their cookfire, they called him
only by his Romany name. Even among his fellow Gypsies, “Django” was a
strange name, a strong, telegraphic sentence due to its first-person verb construction.
It was a name of which Django was exceedingly proud. It bore an
immediacy, a sense of life, and a vision of destiny.
He was born in a caravan at a crossroads in the dead of winter. Following
the dirt paths and cobblestone roads north from the Midi of France in the fall
of 1909, his father, Jean-Eugène Weiss, steered the family’s single horse to
pull their caravan creaking and swaying onto the wide open plains of Belgium.
Here, the land was so flat it gave the impression one could see to the
ends of the earth. The wet wind whipped down from the Atlantic unimpeded in
its cold fury. Riding on the wind came dark rains that seemed never-ending,
turning day into night for months on end until one prayed for even the weakest
rays of sun.
Reining in his horse, Jean-Eugène brought the family’s perennial
travels to a halt at the crossroads of Les Quatre Bras. As they had done for
countless years past, the family would weather the winter in a rendezvous
outside the Belgian village of Liberchies in the southwestern Hainaut region.
They camped amid a small troupe of fellow Romanies to huddle through the
coldest months alongside the Flache ôs Coûrbôs—the Pond of the Ravens—
named for a coven of the black birds that haunted the surrounding trees. With
fresh water from a stream and fodder for their horse from the fallow fields,
the family settled in as much as they ever settled anywhere.
Jean-Eugène’s caravan—called a vurdon in Romany and roulotte in French—
was a typical Gypsy home of the era. The family lived in a wooden box measuring roughly seven feet wide by fourteen feet long and six feet high. This
box was mounted atop two axles bearing wooden-spoked wheels. Traces and
tack held their single horse while a simple bench supported the driver. At the
rear, steps led to the entry door.
The typical Romany caravan of the time had small windows on either side letting in daylight; these windows were covered by handcrafted lace curtains—the kind of domestic touch that made a caravan a home. Inside, a cast-iron stove was bolted to the floor; fed on wood and coal, it glowed transparent red in the winter and warmed the whole of the caravan.
Across the front end, a bedchamber dominated, surmounting chests
of drawers storing belongings, quilts, and blankets. A corner of the caravan
was set aside as a shrine with a framed lithograph turned into an object of
worship. The image depicting the French Gypsies’ patron saint, Sara-la-Kâli,
was draped with strands of vari-colored beads and lit by votive candles.
Underneath the caravan hung wooden crates containing tarps, tools, water buckets, feed for the horse, and cages for ducks and chickens that might be spirited away from farmsteads along the road. Running the roofline and around the doorway was carved scrollwork painted in the most brilliant golds, scarlets,
and indigos possible and shining like a gilt crown on a religious effigy. Within
this small home-on-wheels lived the family: Jean-Eugène, his wife Laurence
Reinhardt, Jean-Eugène’s ten-year-old daughter, and another, younger son,
both of whose names have been lost.
Beyond the half-moon rooftop and spindly stovepipe of the family’s caravan,
the staunch red-brick houses of Liberchies led up to the grand gothic church of
Saint-Pierre-de-Liberchies, its heavenward spire towering high over the level
countryside. The Belgians said of themselves that they were born with a rock in
their stomach to start building their houses, so infatuated were they with their
homes and the security of a firm foundation. Now, in wintertime, the solid
houses of the 700 inhabitants of Liberchies were warmed by charcoal braziers.
Electric radios bringing news of the world and diversion in the dark evenings
were winning pride of place on mantels. And around town, the automobile was
coming to rule the roads, terrifying Romany horses as the horseless carriages
The modern world of 1909 had left the Gypsies in its dust.
Still, the arrival of Jean-Eugène’s family and their kumpania, or traveling
clan, of Gypsies was celebrated each autumn by the people of Liberchies with
a bazaar organized in their honor, the Kermesse du Fichaux. Swirling wit
color into the gray of a Belgian fall, the Gypsies sold the jewelry, baskets, and
lacework they fashioned as well as wares from their far travels. They told
fortunes, unwinding the paths of a life from the tangle of lines on a palm,
auguring greatness and love, selling charms to ward off evil. Some specialized
in mending wicker chair seats. Others patched copper cooking pots the Belgian
village women brought; with a concerto of pounding, a pot could be made as good as new with metalwork changed little since the armoring of knights.
Still other Gypsies traded horses with the farmers, wheeling and dealing,
examining teeth for age and hooves for lameness. The Gypsies were known
as maquignons—literally, horse fakers—who magically dressed up horses for
sale, and the farmers looked for their timeless trademark tricks—shoe polish
hiding grizzled hair, a diet of water to fill out ribcage staves, a spike of ginger
in the anus for spirit. It was all an ages-old exchange between the Gypsies and
townspeople of Europe.
Jean-Eugène was un vannier—a basketmaker. Yet he also wore other hats,
a necessity for survival on the road. Now 27, he was born in 1882, although
no one remembered where. In the sole surviving photograph of him, taken in
Algeria in 1915, Jean-Eugène looks more like the prosperous mayor of a French
city than a traveling Gypsy. His dark hair is combed back from his broad
forehead above virile eyebrows and the penetrating eyes that dominate his
face. His cheekbones are pronounced, his mouth hidden behind the usual
mustache, a symbol of masculinity affected by most Gypsy men as soon as
they can cultivate one.
Dapper in a dark suit, he appears distinguished and, above all, wise from a lifetime of having seen many things in many lands with those piercing eyes. As the Romany proverb went, He who travels, learns.
Basketmaking was labor Jean-Eugène only did when times were tough. He
boasted a special talent: Jean-Eugène was an entertainer, another timelessmétier of the Gypsies. He could juggle with the best circus sideshowmen and tease audiences with the mysteries of legerdemain. But Jean-Eugène’s pride
was in playing music—violin, cymbalom, piano, guitar—and directing a dance
orchestra of Romanies. It is this pride that shines in his eyes in the photograph:
He is seated at his piano with his band arrayed around him. And while
the hands of the musician next to him look like those of a peasant who could
be holding a plow as indifferently as they grip his viola, Jean-Eugène’s hands
are crossed before him in regal manner. Even in this ancient photograph,
they look like the fine hands of an artist.
To earn a few francs on the side, Jean-Eugène tuned pianos. He also repaired
other musical instruments. He might find a damaged violin at a flea
market, barter for it on the cheap, rebuild it, and sell it again down the road.
But it was as a musician that he supported his family. He modified the rear of
his family’s caravan to create a diminutive, canvas-covered traveling theater
stage on which he and his wife performed for townsfolk their magical and
Laurence Reinhardt was introduced on the family’s stage as La Belle
Laurence. Among the Romanies and in honor of her dark beauty, Laurence
was known as Négros—Spanish for “black.” She made jewelry to sell, but sh
came alive as a dancer. At 24, she was renowned for her ravishing flow of
movement, and even in her old age, Négros was moved to dance as soon as
the music began. She traded on her exotic tea-toned complexion, raven-black
hair, and tall stature. In a photograph of the time, she is handsome with a
masculine strength to her face—a jutting jaw that seems determined even in
repose and eyes that look like they feared nothing.
It was on the eve of one of the family’s performances in Liberchies that
Django was born. The night of Sunday, January 23, 1910, was bitter with
cold. The townsfolk gathered for the annual show of Jean-Eugène and hi
Romany troupe at the inn of Adrien Borsin known familiarly as Chez Borsin.
Happy for entertainment as an anodyne against the emptiness of winter, the
townsfolk were looking forward to Jean-Eugène’s music, the burlesque comedy
of his friend Louis Ortica, and the dance of La Belle Laurence. But this
year, events conspired against the evening.
Négros was in her caravan alongside the Pond of the Ravens, lost in the
pains of childbirth. She had set off on foot to walk into town to perform at Chez Borsin when the contractions began. Jean-Eugène continued on to perform while the Gypsy women ushered Négros back to the camp, lit candles against the darkness, and gathered clean cloths to deliver her first child. As the distant sound of applause came to them from town, Django was born.
THREE DAYS LATER on January 26, Jean-Eugène and Négros wrapped Django
against the cold and set out with their fellow Romanies for the church of
Saint-Pierre-de-Liberchies. They filed into the baptistery dressed in their
finest suits and most brilliant dresses, fedoras held humbly in hand. Joining
the Gypsies were several townspeople, also in their Sunday best. Adrien Borsin
stood front and center. He was a stout, rotund man who appeared to enjoy his
restaurant’s fare to the fullest. At Borsin’s side was his sister, Isabelle, a staunch
matron with primly trimmed hair. Symbolizing the rare friendship between
the Romanies and the townsfolk, the Borsins were serving as Django’s sponsors
Following the name-giving ceremony and baptism, Jean-Eugène and Négros
hosted a celebration for their newborn son. Chez Borsin was alive again with a
feast and music. The family’s clan of Manouche Gypsies did not celebrate marriages, but a baptism—especially a couple’s firstborn—was a grand affair.
Jean-Eugène applied for a birth certificate for his son with the town secretary,
Henri Lemens, on January 24. In the exquisite penmanship of a turn-of-thecentury bureaucrat, Lemens entered Django’s legal name as “Jean Reinhardt.”
For his part, Jean-Eugène gave his own name as “Jean-Baptiste Reinhard”—
an alias to mask him from the French gendarmes who sought him for military
conscription—and he signed with the practiced yet unsure hand of an illiterate
at the bottom of the birth certificate, “J. B. Reinhard.” Lemens ignored
the orthography and added a final “t” to the newborn’s name, corresponding
to the French pronunciation of the Alsatian name.
Such a revision of a Romany’s identity was common throughout Europe, a
simple yet subtle act of cruelty, a reworking of a person’s legal being by an allpowerful border official or bureaucrat. The hegira of Gypsy names began
with requirements that Romanies bear Christian given names and family surnames for identification. These random names were chosen by chance during a Gypsy’s travels and bore little meaning for their owners; among themselves, they went solely by their Romany names. They adopted surnames of the country in which they lived in a charade of assimilation to mask their Gypsy identity.
When they crossed a border or signed a document, officials often
transliterated and twisted their legal names in spelling and eventually even in
pronunciation. At the same time, Gypsies surreptitiously altered their own
surnames as needed, changing their legal identities like they changed their
shirts. Jean-Eugène’s surname was often written phonetically in France as
Vées, and he and his brothers sometimes also hid behind the alias Schmitt
when the gendarmes were on their trail. Négros’s Alsatian surname of
Reinhardt—literally someone from the heart of the Rhineland—was likely
chosen for expedience by her ancestors who long lived around Strasbourg in
By these various forces, Django was registered as Jean Reinhardt.
Django was given the legal name Jean in honor of his father, but it was his
Gypsy name that bore his true identity. Gypsies chose a Romany name for
their child evoking a physical attribute, such as Baro (Big, or often, First Born),
or natural phenomena, including Chata (Shadow) or Zuna (Sun). Animal names
served as totems—such as Bero (Bear)—while girls were given flowery names
like Fayola (Violet) and Draka (Grape). Names might mirror a child’s personality
or the parent’s hopes, including Grofo (Noble) and Schnuckenack
(Glorious Music). Tchavolo or Tchocolo (Boy or Son) and Tchaj (Girl or
Daughter) were simple references to the child’s sex whereas other names like
Bimbam and Boulou were onomatopoeia echoing a baby’s babbling.
In naming their firstborn son Django, Négros and Jean-Eugène chose a
Romany verb and not a noun or adjective for his name. They saw something
special in this child.
AS A YOUTH, Django became a proficient robber of chickens. Among his people,
the Romanies believed it a noble skill to trick or steal from the non-Gypsy
world around them. It was also a skill that brought curses from non-Gypsies,
fostering distrust and ultimately hatred toward Django’s people. Yet to the
Romanies such thievery was part of survival on the road.
Silence was the key to abducting a chicken. The fowl could not be allowed
to alert its owners of its plight. Like most good tricks, it was simple, and was
handed down among Gypsies from father to son. As part of a paguba, or raiding
party, the robber stole up on an unsuspecting hen with coat or cloth held
ready. Before the chicken had a chance to rouse its owners with a storm of
clucking, the cloth was dropped over its head. The robber then stuffed the
chicken under his arm, twisted its neck with a practiced jerk of the wrist, and disappeared from the farmyard as silently as he arrived.
Django also became an adept trout tickler. Wherever his family traveled,
he was drawn to the closest water to fish, casting into the surf along the Midi
coast or in country streams. When he lacked a cane pole or tackle, Django
poached fish in a technique decried by the gendarmes as pêcher à la chatouille,
fish tickling. Lying on his stomach in the grasses along a riverbank, he moved
his hands in a systematic search along the water bottom until he came upon a
fish, his fingers gently tickling the fish’s belly to lull and lure it in until he
could grasp the silver body and catapult it out of the creek.
Yet the true delicacy of the French Gypsies was the hedgehog, an animal
the French would never consider eating. The creature was known affectionately
as a niglo in Romany, and the Gypsies felt a kinship for this strange little
rodent with its prickly hide. The hedgehog lived hidden beneath hedgerows—
nether regions no other animal wanted as its home.
Hunting a niglo required wiles and a good nose. Romanies trained dogs to
track hedgehogs much as pigs were used to root out truffles. Once a dog
found its quarry, the hedgehog was chased into a cloth sack and clubbed on
Most Romanies had treasured niglo recipes, and Négros no doubt had her
own. Hedgehogs have a rich meat, gamy yet delicate, best when caught in
autumn when they have put on fat for their winter hibernation. They were
cured overnight on a caravan rooftop as it was believed moonglow enhanced
flavor. To clean off the quills, Gypsies poked a hole in the hedgehog’s hide,
then blew into the carcass, inflating it until the skin was taut so the prickles
could be easily shaved away. Niglos were often cooked on a spit over open
flames or stewed in a ragoût.
The classic recipe, however, called on Gypsy enterprise and ingredients found along the road to roast the niglo in a clay sarcophagus. With its prickles still in place, the hedgehog was sliced open across the belly and gutted, the liver saved as the supreme delicacy. After stuffing the niglo with fresh rosemary, thyme, and wild garlic, the Romany cook would stitch up the incision. The hedgehog, prickles and all, was rolled in wet river clay; the resulting soccer ball-sized lump was roasted in a fire’s coals for an hour or so. When the clay rang to the rap of a knuckle, the shell was broken open, the hardened clay prying away the prickles.
With a prayer of latcho rhaben—Romany for bon appétit—the hedgehog was feasted on. For Django, tickling trout and hunting hedgehogs were early lessons in living: The rules of the road required resourcefulness. And the everyday act
of stealing a chicken likely opened Django’s eyes—in life he could have whatever he wanted as nothing barred him from taking it by any means necessary, whether it was in his Gypsy world or from the larger, foreign world surrounding him.
DJANGO WAS BORN in Belgium by chance, just as he could have been born in
France, Italy, or anywhere else on his family’s travels. He was sometimes referred to as a Belgian Gypsy, due to his birthplace; as a French Gypsy, as he
lived most of his life in France; or even as a German Gypsy as his family came
from the Alsace. But nationality was not important. His cultural heritage as a
Romany was his sole allegiance.
Django was a Manouche Gypsy. Based on kinship between Romany and
Sanskrit, the Gypsies are believed to have originated in India. When Islamic
leader Mahmud of Ghazni invaded India in 1001, a defending army was conscripted from lower-caste Indians to battle the Muslims through northern
India and into Persia for three decades. From Persia, some of the warriors
returned to India, others hired on as mercenaries to new nations or migrated
westward. They traveled what became known as the Romany Trail leading
into Byzantium and on to Europe, where their arrival was first noted in Serbia
in the 1300s. Others moved through North Africa, eventually crossing into
Europe via Spain in the 1400s.
Europeans, believing these dark-skinned wanderers came from Egypt, corrupted “Egyptian” into “Gypsy.” Through time, they were also christened
with a variety of other names. They were called Tziganes for their work as
animal traders, known as “athingani” in Byzantium; as Sinti as they were believed to have originated from along the Indian Sind River; or as Manouche
from the Romany manus and the Sanskrit manusa, or “true man.” In Spain,
they became known as Gitanos, or Gitans in French. Now, many prefer to be
known collectively as Roma or Romany, a name derived from their word for
“human.” The Roma’s military heritage has been passed down in their most
common term for a non-Gypsy, gadjo, or the plural gadjé, from a Sanskrit
word meaning “civilian” or “non-military person.”
The Romany’s history was one of persecution. Forced from their homes,
they were conscripted by the ruling Aryan caste. Arriving in the Balkans, they
were enslaved. In Europe, popular folklore long held that Gypsies wrought
the nails to crucify Jesus on the cross, and laws were passed in most European
countries to rid them of the perceived Gypsy scourge. Gypsies were first
chronicled in France in 1418 with the first expulsion orders following on their
heels in 1427. In a 1560 decree, Gypsies were committed to a lifetime of
pulling oars in French galleys.
Louis XIV directed French bailiffs in 1682 to round up Gypsy men as slaves; the women were to be flogged, then banished. France deported Gypsies to Africa’s Mahgreb, Gambia, and Senegal as well as to Louisiana in the New World. While Europeans prided themselves on not having India’s social castes, they did have a place for Gypsies—outcasts.
Chased away from civilization, the Gypsies became nomadic of necessity rather
than desire, a people of the diaspora, without a homeland or a promised land.
The earliest traces of the Reinhardt clan date to the 1700s. Police records
note them traveling the Rhine River valley, through the forests of the duchy
of Swabia, and into Switzerland. Three generations of Reinhardts led a dreaded
bandit gang terrorizing their namesake Rhineland. Antoine-Alexandre
Reinhardt—known as Antoine de la Grave—marauded the region before being
captured and executed in Giessen in 1726.
His grandson Jacob, better known as Hannikel, bested Antoine’s reputation, ruthlessly raiding towns and then retreating into the shadows of the Black Forest. Yet Hannikel too ended his days hanged by the neck with his brother Wenzel at Sulz in 1787.
Family lore recalled that Django’s grandparents moved from Bavaria to Strasbourg when the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 forced them to flee westward. Wherever they traveled, Django’s ancestors carried what mattered with them: The essence of their culture—their language, customs, trades, and music—was
portable, always ready for the road. Their history was unwritten, their footsteps
blown over with dust almost as soon as they passed by.
On Django’s birth certificate, Jean-Eugène listed the family’s place of residence
as Paris, but their true home was the caravan. It was here that a second
son was born to Négros and Jean-Eugène at a campsite on the outskirts of
Paris on March 1, 1912. Named Joseph Reinhardt, he was known to all as Nin-
Nin, a common Romany diminutive and term of endearment. A daughter
soon followed, named Sara for the patron saint, yet called Tsanga—literally,
the Pincher, describing her role in tussles with her elder brothers. With Jean-
Eugène’s two children from a previous marriage and his and Négros’s three
young ones, the family continued their travels, their single horse pulling the
caravan at a slow trudge to the horizon.
IN 1915 when Django was five years old, Jean-Eugène quit his family. A French
Gypsy proverb advised, Love your horse more than your wife; she may leave
you without warning, but a good horse never will. Now, Négros was the one
left behind with the family’s horse.
Divorce and abandonment were rare among the Manouche. Yet Jean-Eugène had an earlier wife, the mother of his elder daughter and son, although
no one remembers what became of her. Now, when Jean-Eugène
deserted Négros, she was stranded with Django, Nin-Nin, and Sara to raise
without a father.
Jean-Eugène’s abandonment left a hole in Django’s life. The family crossed
paths with Jean-Eugène at various times over the coming years in Algiers and
Paris, but he never returned to live with his wife and children. Négros wa
forced to support them by weaving baskets, caning chair seats, and crafting
jewelry. Her specialty was bracelets made from spent artillery shellcasings
collected on the battlefield of the Marne following World War I. She taught
Django to dig the shells out of the trenchworks, washing away the earth to
uncover the brass that was cut into bangles, engraved with designs, and sold
to keep the family fed.
With Jean-Eugène gone, Négros took the horse’s reins and steered the
caravan in a regular route following the seasons and the opportunities they
brought to survive. When the narcissuses bloomed and the swallows returned
to swirl above the rooftops of Paris, she led her family to the French Midi or
further south into Italy. Here, she sold her bracelets to flush summer visitors
on the Mediterranean. As the fields of lavender blossoms faded in the Midi,
signaling the arrival of autumn and the end of the lucrative tourist season, the
family made its way north to Paris. In winter, Négros and her brood returned
to the hospitality of Liberchies to wait out the cold.
For the festival days of May 24 and 25, Négros shepherded her children on
a pilgrimage to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on the far tip of the Rhône
delta along the Camargue coast. This was the barren land of wild white horses
and gardian cowboys, salt marshes and stone towns struggling to hold on in a
harsh realm. The family parked among the fields of caravans of Manouche
and Gitans from across Europe. Négros and her children paid homage to the
Gypsies’s adopted Saint Sara during a week of devotion and music. During
their travels, the Romanies assimilated Catholicism into their lives, sometimes
blending it with their Hindu beliefs, sometimes supplanting them.
Whereas the Catholic gadjé celebrated the town’s two namesake saints—Sainte-
Marie-Jacobé and Sainte-Marie-Salomé, the aunts of Jesus—the Gypsies honored
their bastard Saint Sara. According to orthodox legend, Sara was the
servant of the two Saintes-Marie, accompanying them after the Crucifixion
when they were cast out of Palestine by the Romans in a boat with no oars
only to wash up on the shores of France.
Gypsy mythology, however, held that Sara was a Provençal Gitane who saved the Saintes-Marie when their boat capsized in a storm off the Camargue. The effigies of the two Maries stood in honor in the consecrated chapel of the fortified medieval church Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer. But Négros guided her children past them to descend stone stairs into a crypt where a wooden statue of Sara waited; she was relegated to this chamber as she was not a true saint recognized by the Vatican and beatified only by the Romanies. Django entered this grotto blackened by the candles of generations of devotees to bow down before the dark-skinned statue of Sara, known in Romany as Sara-la-Kâli, or Black Sara.
Négros then presented her children for Sara’s mute benediction or proffered a child’s photograph among the numerous other alms and ex-voto medallions attesting to miracles rendered, left behind by countless Romanies through time in tribute to Sara’s powers. If the Reinhardt family wished to give special thanks, they stitched an ornate robe to drape over the statue, which was blanketed by dozens of such robes by the pilgrimage’s end. Following their homage, the Gypsies carried the statue of Sara on their shoulders to be purified in the saltwater of the sea.
With the coming of winter, Négros turned her horse again toward Belgium.
In Liberchies, she and her children were welcomed back, but without
the money from Jean-Eugène’s music, their caravan stood out for its dilapidated
state. Django and Nin-Nin made friends among the Belgian boys, and
Nin-Nin attended the town’s school for three years for a few months at a
time. But despite Négros’s attempts, Django bore no interest in school. He
seemed impatient with the confines of youth, yearning to break free. Over
the years, Django attended school at haphazard intervals, preferring to escape
to explore the countryside, drink coffee with the Gypsy men in bars, and
shoot billiards. His was a life lived purely for the moment.
When World War I broke out, Négros and her children abandoned their
caravan outside Paris to flee on foot among the refugees evacuating eastern
France. They walked for weeks along the roadside, Négros leading her sons
and daughter, carrying the belongings they could shoulder, accepting rides in
wagons when offered, marching along at a child’s pace when there was no
other choice. They eventually reached the Midi, then continued along the
coast to the Italian port of Livorno. They found berths on a boat for Corsica,
then boarded another ship bound for Algeria.
Perched above the Barbary Coast, Algiers was known as the White City
for its whitewashed buildings that blinded the eye in the African sun. By contrast, Algiers’s casbah was a world of brilliant color with market stalls wandering in a labyrinth around the fort and the Grand Mosque Jamaa-el-Kebir’s minaret. This was the Arab quarter, but it was also home to Muslim Xorax Gypsies as well as Afrikaya Gypsies—Manouche who had emigrated or been cast out of France long before. Négros found rooms neighboring the casbah to sell her baskets and jewelry. And it was here, among other Gypsies from their troupe, that they again encountered Jean-Eugène, leading his orchestra for dances and spare change.
IN 1920 when the war had ended and Django was ten years old, Négros brought
her family back to Paris and the caravan they had abandoned among the Romany encampments encircling the capital. Beyond shifting between campsites around Paris, the family was settled for the first time in Django’s life.
Paris was a changed world. The city had been a diamond aglow in the
glitter of la Belle Époque. Now, following the war to end all wars, France was
in a state of shock. To forget the horrors, Paris threw itself full fury into les
années folles—the crazy years—of high living and fresh fads, casting out the
old and dashing like a bayonet charge into the future. It was part self-induced
amnesia, part anesthesia. Paris resurrected itself as a city of a new era in art,
music, and literature. It was the modern world’s capital, the city of the new
century, boasting a métro and sewers and clean drinking water for all. And
with the arrival of municipal electrification and Georges Claude’s artificial
rainbow of neon, the glories of Paris could now be witnessed day and night,
earning the city a new nickname—the City of Light.
Paris was still protected by its ring of medieval ramparts, and it was here on
the doorsteps of the city that Django’s family lived. Outside the fortifications,
the city’s glory came to a dead end. Surrounding Paris was a vast nether region
known as la Zone. Here, outside the City of Light, was a city of blight: It
was in la Zone that Paris’s cesspool cleaners dumped their waste each night
and here as well that the human refuse of the city found refuge. This was not
the Paris of broad boulevards, monuments, and cathedrals. Instead, whole
cities of shantytowns crowded the fortification ports like beggars holding out
their hands for the smallest offering. The ramshackle hovels crafted from
cast-off boards and stone rubble were homes to the dispossessed.
The inhabitants of la Zone were known derisively by Parisians as les zonards—and many feared the Gypsies as the worst vermin among them. The Manouche and Gitans parked their caravans in la Zone where they could find streamwater along the lost river of Paris, la Bièvre, and it was here that Négros brought Django and her other children and settled in among their clan. These Gypsy camps of la Zone were described by French poet Serge:
Down there in the Gypsy camp a guitar juggles with a popular melody. One
can hear distant dance music, dizzying waltzes, the sweetness of an accordion.
Campfires are everywhere, each with its own cooking pot. Chickens are stewing
and guitars going wild. Heavy, gray clouds roll over la Porte de Clignancourt, leaving behind a drizzling rain. One flounders in the rutted roadways of molasseslike mud, in the small lakes and quagmires, on this slope where stands the camp of the Manouche, an immense assembly of caravans, vurdons, and roulottes, making la Zone a colorful puzzle of an itinerant city of more than five hundred vehicles parked side by side in crazy disorder. At night, the five hundred roulottes sparkle like oriental palaces. And through it all comes a song—brutal, sordid, flowing onward, with a plaintive cry for la Zone, where enchantment itself may perhaps be hidden, somewhere in the rottenness.
Négros and the other Gypsies favored campsites in la Zone near their livelihoods in the flea markets. They moved between encampments outside the Porte de Choisy or Porte d’Italie on the southeastern side of Paris near the Kremlin-Bicêtre flea market and their beloved horsetrading market at the Vaugirard galleries; Porte de Montreuil and its endless thieves’ market to the east; and Porte de Clignancourt to the north with its vast marché aux puces de Saint-Ouen.
Each weekend, Négros led her children to these markets blossoming out of the
mud of la Zone and named in honor of the fleas that inhabited the upholstery of
the old furniture and rags for sale. She hawked her wares amid the glorious
anarchy of the markets.
La Zone became Django’s world. He lead a gang of Gypsy boys that proudly
called themselves les Foulards rouges, or Red Scarves, a symbol of the Parisian
working class. Django’s gang fearlessly stole pears from the walled orchard of
the Saint-Hippolyte priory, sweet juice dripping down their faces as they ate
the forbidden fruit. Ambushing an enemy gang’s leader, known to all as Le
Grand Loucheur, or Big Cross-Eyes, Django stood tall before him and demanded
in his best outlaw growl, “Your money or your life!” Le Grand
Loucheur chose to leave Django flat on his back with a black eye. Other days,
they tried to derail trams on the avenue d’Italie, jamming the rails with iron
bolts stolen from the nearby Panhard factory, praying with religious fervor for
a spectacular crash.
When the horsedrawn wagons slowed to a crawl to climb the hill on avenue des Gobelins, Django and his gang spirited away coal to resell. Often the brothers gathered scrap metal in wheelbarrows to barter to foundries. One day, they found a boxing ring erected at a café on the avenue d’Italie. Invited to take their turn, Django and Nin-Nin pummeled each other while the locals threw coins to spur them on. The brothers, battered and unsteady on their feet, walked away with their arms about each other’s shoulders and their pockets full.
Négros tried once more to send Django to school. A traveling classroom
for Gypsy children was organized by a former teacher known as père Guillon.
Forced to retire early due to his fondness for red wine, Guillon started his
own school in la Zone in a converted bus. But Django and the other Gypsy
children, used to their freedom in la Zone, had little regard for the authority
of this gadjo dipsomaniac. Django preferred school in the streets and cinema.
Even as a youth, Django was a fool for games and gambling. He would wager
on anything, anywhere—cards, dice, and especially, billiards. With his winnings,
Django sometimes treated himself and Nin-Nin to a movie. Or better
yet, they found a way around buying tickets. Django was drawn to the cinema
like an innocent to the inferno.
At the grand Luxor movie palace in Barbès, Django and Nin-Nin were regular gate-crashers. The afternoon matinee featured two films, separated by an intermission when the audience mingled in the lobby to buy treats. Django and Nin-Nin slid in among the crowd to watch the second feature, and their ploy worked well for weeks until one day when Le Luxor held a showing for a nearby school. Among the freshly scrubbed and uniformed schoolchildren, the two grubby Gypsy boys were easy marks and the cinema manager collared them. But he struck a deal with Django and Nin-Nin:
If they set up the movie posters in front and performed odd jobs around the
cinema, he would grant them gratis admission. With their modest labor complete, Django and Nin-Nin found seats and roared with laughter at the antics of Charlie Chaplin. They thrilled to cliffhanger serials and for 90 minutes lived the life of pirates sailing before the wind, dreaming of crossing rapiers with D’Artagnan against Richelieu’s guards and hiding their faces in horror as
Fântomas hatched his nefarious plots. From the cinema, Django learned how
to walk with a gangster’s swagger. He learned of honor among thieves and the codes of chivalry. And he learned how to tilt his fedora over one eye just so.
The earliest known photograph of Django, taken in 1920 when he was ten,
captured him with a group of other Gypsies, including the fierce Négros.
Django wears a bedraggled suit with a carelessly crooked tie and that jauntily
tilted fedora, many sizes larger than his head. While the others in the photo
look down to the ground or off into the distance with feigned interest, only
Django looks back out of the image straight into the eye of the camera, selfassurance radiating from his impossibly dark eyes, defiance in their depths.
On his lips is an infinitely mischievous smile.
THEN THERE WAS THE MUSIC.
Melodies played on cymbaloms, banjos and guitars, harps and pianos, and above all, violins. Throughout his childhood, Django was surrounded by music. His father and mother fashioned a livelihood from music and dancing. At Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, music went hand in hand with religious homage, Manouche violinists playing their songs influenced by Eastern European Tzigane traditions while the Spanish Gitans strummed out guitar-fueled flamenco. In the Parisian flea markets, Gypsies offered melodies on violins and banjos in exchange for spare coins.
And around the Romany campfires wherever they were lit, music accompanied family events, from baptisms to funerals. For the Manouches and Gitans, music was as intrinsic to life as air.
Jean-Eugène continued to lead his dance orchestra. He had seven brothers,
all musicians, including pianist Nellone and multi-instrumentalist
Guiligou, proficient on violin, banjo, and guitar. In the 1915 photograph of
Jean-Eugène, his band—wearing fezzes for the occasion—comprised two violinists, a bassist, and two guitarists, one holding a twin-necked harp guitar, in
addition to Jean-Eugène’s piano. This was an ambitious orchestra for the day.
It was rare to have a piano in a traveling Gypsy band, but Jean-Eugène heroically hauled the upright along in his caravan during his journeys. Django’s
sister Sara remembered their father’s band playing smart hotels in Paris and
along the Côte d’Azur as well as in the open-air dancing pavilions known as
guinguettes along the River Marne outside the capital at La Varenne-Saint-Hilaire. Sara sometimes accompanied her father’s violin on piano, their repertoire including popular songs, light opera airs, early one-steps, classic Chopin waltzes, and Gypsy melodies as well as the Czardas of Vittorio Monti and the Sérènade of Frantisek Drdla.
Django’s first instrument was the violin. The classic instrument of Romany
musicians due to its portability, it was ideal for the anguished sounds of
popular Gypsy violinists Jean Goulesco and Georges Boulanger. Django
learned the instrument from his father, his uncle Guiligou, or other relatives
in the call-and-response teaching style common among Romanies: An elder
taught a child the melody and chords to a song, painstakingly displaying the
fingerings and patiently playing the song over until the child knew it by heart.
According to family lore, Django learned much of his musical skill under his
uncle Guiligou’s tutelage, and Sara remembered Django playing violin with
his father’s ensemble when he was between the ages of 7 and 12.
When he was ten years old, Django came upon his cousin Gabriel playing
a battered banjo. Django was enthralled by the instrument and the melodies
Gabriel picked out. He may have learned the rudiments of banjo from Gabriel,
copying his cousin’s fingerings and following his melodies on the instrument.
With these songs in his head, Django begged his mother for a banjo of his
own. Négros laughed off this request as a child’s whim—and moreover, she
did not have the 50 francs for an instrument. It was not until Django was 12
that he received a banjo, given to him by a Manouche acquaintance named
Raclot, who understood the boy’s fascination for music.
Raclot’s gift to Django was a diminutive banjo-guitar, a common instrument of the day featuring a banjo resonator coupled to a six-string guitar neck. This banjo-guitar became Django’s focus. He strained to teach his awkward fingers to follow the melody lines that he had a near-magical skill for remembering after hearing them only once or twice. Forcing his right hand into the arcane shapes of chords stretched across the fretboard, he played until his fingertips glowed red—and then beyond, building thick calluses of skin that could suddenly split open on the unforgiving steel strings and coat the frets with his blood. Django was inventive in finding items to use as picks—the tip of a spoon, a sewing thimble of his mother’s, a two-sous piece, and a bit of whalebone that once served as a shirt-collar stiffener all found new use in his hands. Django played the melodies he learned from his father and tidbits like the old French children’s song “Au Clair de la Lune” as well as the soldiers’ favored dirty song, “La Madelon,” an ode to a barmaid of fairy-tale beauty far from the horror of the trenches.
Django carried his banjo-guitar with him everywhere through the day and cradled it in his arms as he slept. Négros remembered him plucking at his instrument until his fingers ached: “Once, when I returned to our caravan, I found him with the tips of his fingers all red and swollen. I thought that he had five whitlows at one time.” On another day, teacher père Guillon came to the caravan in search of his errant pupil only to find Django plucking at his banjo. “Is that what prevents you from learning to read?” the teacher asked. In answer, Django only bowed his head and played his banjo harder than ever.
Witnessing Django’s growing skill, Négros bought a real guitar for her
son after selling a necklace of faux pearls in the Clignancourt market. Cousin
Gabriel taught Django how to chord it, and they set up to perform on street
corners. Django soon found another accompanist in a banjo-playing hunchback
named Lagardère, and together they ventured into Paris to play their
duets. Their music sounded so good to their ears that they continued to roam
the city with their instruments for three days.
Finally realizing how much time had passed and what his mother’s response was going to be, Django chose to stay safely by Lagardère’s side instead of returning to his caravan.
Négros, meanwhile, was in a panic. She scoured the city for her son, even
taking the bold step for a Gypsy of notifying the police of her missing child.
She finally found him at 3 A.M. playing his banjo in a café in the place d’Italie.
The beating Django received terrified his accompanist: “That’s your mother?”
Lagardère asked. “I would say instead that she’s a panther.” The repentant
Django could not reply—he was begging Négros for mercy.
On weekends, Django often made the journey to the Porte de Clignancourt
and a dance hall called Chez Clodoche. Amid the bustle of white-aproned
waiters and the clatter of diners, Django stood silent in a remote corner to
listen as his father and uncles played their music. When other Romany waifs
were chased out like flies by the exasperated waiters, Django darted beneath a
table, keeping attuned both to the arrival of the waiters’ footsteps and the
sounds of the band. He was particularly impressed by his uncle Guiligou’s
guitarwork. Concentrating on remembering how he fretted his instrument
and the melodies played, Django repeated the fingerings on his own guitar
Then, one day, his uncle found Django hiding and at the same time watching him with rapt attention. Guiligou asked Django if he could play guitar, to which he proudly nodded. Guiligou proffered his own guitar and asked for a song. Django took up the guitar, playing not just a few chords but picking out the intricacies of a melody. Guiligou was astonished.
He grabbed his brothers and directed Django to play his song again for the full
audience. Soon, Django was serving his apprenticeship on the banjo, playing
alongside his father and Guiligou at Chez Clodoche each Saturday.
There was another Romany guitarist in la Zone whom Django also sought
to emulate. He was a Gitan named Auguste “Gusti” Malha. Short and round,
Malha was the sort of unremarkable man one passed on a Parisian street without noticing as he picked your pocket. Yet Malha put his nimble fingers to
better—if less-profitable—use. Malha was a virtuoso who picked the strings
as if he had six fingers on each hand. He first won renown at 14 in Brussels
alternating with equal aplomb between guitar and banduria, a Spanish mandolin with flat back and six strings doubled in their tunings. In Paris, Malha
played alongside the dance hall accordionists, his many gem-encrusted rings
flashing in the spotlight, a symbol of success to Django.
Django also learned from the Gitan virtuoso Poulette Castro. Poulette was
a rarity among the Parisian Gypsies for he could read music and played in the
pit orchestra at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet accompanying the opera divas.
Having traveled throughout Europe and even England, he boasted a great
repertoire of waltzes, traditional songs, and Gypsy melodies. For generations
after, “le grand Gitan” was summoned forth in stories told by Romany musicians, his music surviving to haunt the melodies composed by his followers.
Poulette performed alongside his brother Laro Castro, a wizard of the
banduria. The Castro brothers also played in the ensemble Le Quatuor à
Plectre—the Plectrum Quartet—joined by two other Gitan musicians, Coco
and Serrani Garcia. Le Quatuor à Plectre was recorded accompanying singer
Rosita Barrios on a variety of gay Spanish songs then the rage of Paris. The
all-string ensemble featured instruments of various timbres, doubling up on
the melody lines to create an enchanting multilayered sound highlighted by
trills and tremolos.
Django likely learned the genesis of his right-hand technique from Poulette
while watching the Gitan in Clignancourt cafés. Poulette taught Django to
play in a style similar to Spanish flamencos without resting his right hand on
the guitar’s soundboard. Again like a flamenco, Poulette and others instructed
Django to bend his wrist almost perpendicular to the strings, keeping his
wrist loose and supple for quick strumming. Therefore, to reach different
strings, Django moved not with his wrist but from his elbow. Yet instead of
strumming the strings with his fingernails as a flamenco, Poulette taught Django
to use a plectrum for increased volume.
It was this technique that the 12-year-old Django used in playing his banjo
with his whalebone plectrum. Nin-Nin, imitating his elder brother, also learned
banjo, and starting a tradition that would last for decades, served as Django’s
accompanist. Together, they wandered Paris from the medieval passageways
of la Mouffe to working-class Ménilmontant, past the windmills of Montmartre
to the belly of Paris in the food markets of Les Halles. They busked for coins
at the marché aux puces at the Porte de Montreuil, or set up to play for laborers
drinking their after-work beers in the cafés encircling the place d’Italie.
Everywhere they went, they played their banjos, passing their battered borsalinos around to collect the proffered sous when the song was done.
One day, Django was picking his banjo at a café near the Porte d’Italie
called À la Route de Dijon. Another Gypsy in the bar—a tall, thin Italian
Zingaro with a head of rich dark curls like a black sheep’s fleece—listened as
Django played Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube.” This Italian Gypsy heard
something special in the boy’s picking, and he introduced himself. His name
was Vétese Guérino; Django may have heard of him for he played accordion
in the dance halls of all Paris. If Django was willing, Guérino offered to hire
him as an accompanist for the princely sum of ten francs a night.
Best of Django Reinhardt
THE BEST OF DJANGO REINHARDT – part 1
COLEMAN HAWKINS AND HIS ALL-STAR JAM BAND: Coleman Hawkins, Alix Combelle (ts), Benny Carter (as,tp), Andre Ekyan (as), Stephane Grappelli (piano), Django Reinhardt (g), Eugene D’Hellemmes (b), Tommy Benford (dm) – april 28, 1937 1 Honeysuckle Rose 2 Crazy Rhythm 3 Out of Nowhere 4 Sweet Georgia Brown
REX STEWART AND HIS FEETWARMERS: Rex Stewart (cnt), Barney Bigard (cl, dm), Django Reinhardt (g), Billy Taylor (b) – april 5, 1939 5 Solid Old Man 6 Montmartre 7 Finesse 8 I Know that You Know 9 Low Cotton
EDDIE SOUTH (vn) acc. by: Django Reinhardt (g) – september 29, 1937 10 Eddie’s Blues Same. Add Wilson Myers (b) – same session 11 Sweet Georgia Brown Same. add Michel Warlop (vn), Stephane Grappelli (vn), Roger Chaput (g) – same session 12 Lady Be Good South, Reinhardt and Paul Cordonnier (b) – same session 13 Dinah 14 Daphne
BILL COLEMAN AND HIS ORCHESTRA: Bill Coleman (tp, voc), Frank “Big Boy” Goodie (cl, ts), Christian Wagner (cl, as), Emil Stern (p), Django Reinhardt (g), Lucien Simoens (b), Jerry Mengo (dm) – november 19, 1937 15 I Ain’t Got Nobody 16 Baby Won’t You Please Come Home 17 Big Boy Blues 18 Swing Guitars Coleman and Reinhardt only – same session 19 Bill Coleman Blues
FREDDY TAYLOR (voc) acc. by QUINTETTE DU HOT CLUB DE FRANCE – Stephane Grappelli (vn), Django Reinhardt (solo g), Joseph Reinhardt, Pierre Ferret (rh.g), Lucien Simoens (b) – may 4, 1936 20 I’se Muggin’ 21 After You’ve Gone 22 I Can’t Give You Anything But Love Same. Louis Vola (b), replaces Simoens – october 15, 1936 23 Nagasaki 24 Georgia on My Mind 25 Shine All tracks recorded in Paris, France