Violin Seeking Guitar: A Perfect Union and the Birth of Jazz Manouche

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I present here a history lesson, to make sure that you, the reader, are acquainted with one of the 20th century’s most talented and influential jazz duos.  The name Django Reinhardt may be familiar to many mild jazz enthusiasts.  He is, after all, a legendary jazz guitarist.  But he was only one half of a pair that challenged conventional notions of jazz ensembles and forged a path for string players into the genre.  Django was hugely talented on his own.  But in the early 1930’s, he met violinist Stéphane Grappelli, and the union of these two prodigies created a legacy that thrives to this day. Reinhardt, born in 1910, was of Romani descent, more commonly known as a “gypsy,” though the word these days has become largely pejorative and politically incorrect.  He began playing the violin, but preferred the guitar, which he began at age 12.  By age 13, he was making a living wage as a performer, having taught himself only by watching the fingers of other guitarists.  Later in life, burns he suffered in a fire left two of his fingers paralyzed, leading him to use only his index and middle fingers during solos.  This would become an important component of his playing, and eventually help define a whole new genre of jazz.

That all happened in Belgium.  Meanwhile, in Paris, Grappelli was undergoing similar musical development.  After wartimes left him in abhorrent living conditions, Grappelli’s father eventually managed to buy him a violin and lessons.  Grappelli, now 13 years old, preferred to learn by watching street violinists and imitating their movements.  Sound familiar?  This talent for imitation and “learning by doing” would later help the young men solidify their musicianship and their partnership.

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After meeting, they realized they had similar interests in music and the prodigious talent to match and challenge each other musically. They would jam together for fun, but struggled for a few years in the early 30s to make much money.  In 1934—80 years ago—the genius of their partnership was noticed, and they were invited to create a jazz ensemble to be the face of Le Hot Club de France, an organization devoted to promoting jazz in Paris, where it was—perhaps unsurprisingly—not readily accepted.  They pulled in two other guitarists and a double bass to create Le Quintette du Hot Club de France.  With this, Jazz Manouche (Gypsy Jazz) was born, as was the world’s first jazz ensemble composed entirely of strings.

Check out this fantastic video of the quintette playing “J’attendrai”, a sappy French love song introduced by Grappelli, and then made into “hot jazz” by the ensemble:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1gtvrxrHbk

Pick any piece of theirs and you will likely hear the characteristic rhythm section:  guitars keeping time but cutting every other note (beats 2 and 4 for the musically literate) short.  Over that rhythm, Grappelli often introduces the melody and soon takes off on flashy improvisations.  Once he settles down, Reinhardt takes a solo, rivaling Grappelli’s speed and precision with just two fingers.

These days, Hot Clubs can be found all over the world, imitating the ensemble of the original quintet.  Reinhardt and Grappelli also gave the jazz world a number of standards, ensuring that violinists will always have a place outside of the orchestra.  Some favorites include “Minor Swing”, “Daphne”, “Swing 42”, “Nuages” and “Django”, which Grappelli wrote to honor his partner who predeceased him in 1953.  They also famously recorded the French chanson “La Mer” (otherwise known as “Beyond the Sea”) which was featured in the videogame Bioshock.

Whereas Reinhardt lived a short life, Grappelli continued to perform for decades until his death in 1997; he was 89, and his virtuosity only increased over the years.  Check him out in his later years:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CRnRRoBx8ew

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He played with no inhibitions, was tasteful and songful, but also hot as the genre goes.  Regrettably there is not Hot Club de Lewisburg to carry on this tradition locally.  Those seeking to change this should contact the violinist who authored this report…

Until then, check Grappelli and Reinhardt out on Spotify and Youtube.  There are dozens of selections showcasing their variety and unmatched skill.