Michael Dregni, author of Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend

March 9th, 2005

 

 

JJM Of the recording of “Dinah,” you wrote, “Django’s playing gave sound to the spirit of Jazz Age Paris. His lines of acoustic guitar notes were pure rapture, effervescent and evanescent, floating away with an unbearable lightness and transience of the moment, their fleeting beauty almost unbelievable. The genius of all his future music was in embryo in that one solo.” Was that his very first recording session with the Quintette?

MD  He had recorded musette as well as some auditions that hadn’t been released, but this was his first commercial recording session with the Quintette. It is fascinating because at the time, recording was really a black art — they put one microphone in the center of the musicians and when it was time for a solo they had to step forward and hope they got the sound balance right. Some of the Hot Club impresarios described how the recording engineers were concerned that the musicians didn’t know how to play the melody “right,” when in fact what they were doing was improvising. The engineers didn’t understand this — they thought they were playing out of tune. At the conclusion of the first recording of “Dinah,” Django was so thrilled with his improvisations that he bumped his guitar against his chair as he finished his song, and this ugly noise was recorded, which appears at the end of the piece. The engineers wanted to throw the whole thing out and start over, but the Hot Club impresarios were quite happy with the improvisation-which was what mattered most to them-and convinced the engineers to keep this recording that eventually became so famous.

JJM  How soon was this particular recording available in the United States?

MD  I am not sure. It was released only in France at the time, and I don’t know when it was first licensed for export into the United States.

JJM  You wrote, “For the French — whether they simply sought to dance to jazz or were true disciples such as the Hot Club members — a band made up of Gypsy guitarists and Frenchmen was not the real thing.” In 1936, Paris passed a municipal law limiting the number of foreign musicians in a band to thirty percent of the French musicians because the numbers were so overpowering in favor of non-French. Did this law have a positive impact on the Quintette’s ability to find an audience?

MD  What is important to realize is that in Paris during this time, African American expatriates were placed on a pedestal because they supposedly had jazz in their blood, while French musicians who could play jazz — Django and his fellow Gypsies among them — were disregarded because they weren’t black. So the law you are referring to was important in that sense. In the early years of World War II, many of the African Americans left for home, and cabaret owners turned to the Frenchmen to play in their place. While it is difficult to say how it affected the Quintette’s ability to get gigs, there is no doubt that the mood of the times was that people preferred hearing African Americans play jazz over Gypsies or Frenchmen.

JJM  Paris in 1937, the setting and year in which Django flourished, had to have been a great place for an artist like Django…

MD  There was an explosion of art, literature, music, and theater that may have been unrivaled in any period before. It was the time of Picasso, Modigliani, and all the great modern artists; of James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway; and of the night clubs of Montmartre, Pigalle, Montparnasse, and along the Champs-Élysées that featured jazz bands and theatrical performances starring the likes of Josephine Baker in grand music hall productions. It had to be an incredibly exciting time. At the same time, the United States was in the last years of prohibition, the Great Depression was still going on — which was starting to affect Europe as well — and jazz was this lively, happy music that provided an antidote to the times.

JJM  You wrote, “For Django and for jazz, World War II was the best of times and the worst of times.” He flourished during the war while many of his fellow gypsies were being murdered by the Nazis. How did he come to terms with that?

MD  The chapter in my book devoted to his war years probably uncovered the most new material about him, because so little had been known about those years-and a lot still remains unknown. I don’t have a sense of how Django felt about it all, and there has been a question about whether or not he was a Nazi collaborator. Simply put, he had to play his guitar and perform his music to stay alive, as did other artists like Edith Piaf and Maurce Chevalier. If Django hadn’t played his guitar, he would have been just another Gypsy to be rounded up and sent to Auschwitz.

JJM  Right. It is hard to blame him for that.

MD Yes, it is.

JJM  Of Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels you wrote, “Goebbels knew the power of music…As self-proclaimed arbiter of culture, Goebbels was quick to vilify swing: He denounced it as niggerjazz, jazzbazillus, cultural bolshevism, and modernism…Goebbels feared jazz and its potency. Jazz made people dance, not goose-step; laugh, not salute; sing, not hail Hitler. It was an ideological challenge to fascism, the antithesis of everything Nazism stood for.” What steps did Goebbels take to deal with the jazz that was so popular in France?

MD  Throughout the Third Reich, he banned the importation and the playing of American jazz recordings — and of American recordings of any sort — and he was controlling over the types of jazz or dance music that were being played. Part of the whole paradox of that time is that he never truly banned jazz outright because it was popular with the German people, the German soldiers, and the Nazi high command. Jazz was a popular music of the time, and they wanted to listen to it on their radios and they wanted to go out and dance to it as much as the French or American jazz fans did. So, while Goebbels never banned it outright, he did work to control it. He banned certain songs, he banned all of the American recordings, and he also put the Nazi seal of approval on certain bands that were allowed to record in Germany and other parts of Europe under Nazi control — Jack Hylton’s being one of them. And in a way, Django was approved as well.

JJM  Concerning their hatred of American jazz, you use a quote in your book that is attributed to the Gestapo; “Anything that starts with Ellington ends with an assassination attempt on the Fuhrer!”

MD Yes, that is quite revealing, isn’t it? That is a book in itself, right there.

JJM  There was a young, spirited, and vocal group of French jazz fans known as les zazous. How did the occupying Germans and the Vichy government view these fans?

MD  You can easily see parallels between the emergence of jazz in France during this time and that of rock and roll in America two decades later. In both cases, the older generation tried to put a stop to the developing interest among the teenagers. There was a flourishing teenage rebellion going on during the war, and it wasn’t just happening in France, it also happened in Belgium and in some places in Germany. The occupying Germans and the Vichy ministers were outraged by these boisterous young fans, who grew their hair over their collars and even puffed it up in a pompadour, wore baggy pants and long suits and generally colorful clothing. Fascist collaborator groups would try to intimidate les zasous by trapping them and publicly shaving their heads. This culture was spawned, in large part, because it was so frowned upon by its elders. To many in Europe, jazz was a scourge, but to les zazous, jazz was freedom.

JJM  Of Django’s piece “Nuages,” you wrote, “‘Nuages’ struck a chord throughout France. This soft, bittersweet tune was easy to whistle, speaking to Parisians in these gray days of ration cards, curfews, and blackouts. The melody was laconic, at once sad and mournful, yet also evoking a dreamy nostalgia for the way things were, a mnemonic password inspiring a remembrance of things past as real as Proust’s madeleine.” What affect did this piece have on wartime France?

MD  The French national anthem-“La Marseillaise”-was of course banned by the Germans. Then along came this song by Django, which is really an antithesis of an anthem — it is not rousing, patriotic music normally associated with anthems. Instead, “Nuages” is a melancholy, bittersweet song that is filled with a nostalgic tone the people of Paris responded to. It became the stand-in for their national anthem. When Django first performed this song in concert in 1940, the audience went crazy. When he finished, he started playing another song but the crowd stopped him and made him play it over and over. It became his best-selling record of all time.

JJM How did the liberation affect his economic opportunities?

MD  Both for the good and for the bad. His main opportunity after the war was playing for the American GI’s in the clubs of Paris, as well as in their Army camps in the south of France, where most of them were located. But because the French economy took so long to recover after the war, there weren’t the steady gigs he had before the war, so it was really an up and down time for him economically. At times I think he became a little discouraged, and near the end of his life basically retired from the jazz scene, partly because of his disillusionment with not having enough work.

JJM  He felt his post-war destiny was in America, and came here at the invitation of Duke Ellington.

MD  Charles Delaunay, who wrote Django’s first biography, called the American tour a failure. He had his reasons for calling it that, partly because he was left out of organizing it and being part of it, but also because it was such a bittersweet experience for Django. While on the one hand he had great success with Ellington’s orchestra, on the other he had these naïve dreams of becoming a movie star and of recording with all the different American jazz stars-dreams that didn’t come true during the three months he was in the United States.

JJM A dark part of Django’s character was revealed when it was learned that Ellington invited Grappelli to tour America as well, but Django didn’t tell him…

MD  That’s right. As far as I can ascertain from the different accounts, it looks as if Ellington invited the entire band, but Django basically accepted the invitation for himself.

JJM  Did Django have any influence over how guitars were being manufactured?

MD  I don’t think Django necessarily did on his own, but jazz certainly did. I am a guitar player and a great fan of the instrument, so I found this topic to be especially interesting. The Henri Selmer-Mario Maccaferri guitar was built using the construction techniques of a mandolin with steel strings, with pressure on the top that increases its volume and gave it a trebly tone. The first Selmers, in fact, which were released in England and then in France, were just called a “Modèle Concert” guitar, meaning it was simply a louder guitar. The jazz musicians grabbed onto this instrument because it cut through all the sound and fury of the horns in a jazz band, and Selmer later changed the name to the “Modèle Jazz.” So that is how jazz had its influence on the instrument, and in a way you can say Django was part of the reason that change was made, but at the same time, guitars were being created in the United States quite differently.

JJM What are the five or six songs you would recommend to a new listener of Django Reinhardt?

MD I’ll try to pick six songs summing up Django’s career. From 1928 before the caravan fire forever changed his playing, “Ma Regulière” backing accordionist Jean vaissade shows his musette banjo playing; it’s too bad no solo was recorded.

The first Quintette recording of “Dinah” from December 1934 captures all of Django and Grappelli’s future brilliance in embryo.

“Bolero” from 1937 displays Django’s development as a composer, blending elements of Maurice Ravel and Duke Ellington. Django also arranged the small-orchestra version, showing his power as an arranger.

“Nuages” from 1940 is likely Django’s most famous melody, one of the few songs by a European jazz musician to become a jazz standard.

To summarize his bebop years, I think “Babik” from 1947 — shortly after he returned from his American tour — is a fine example, named for Django’s son.

For the grand finale, I love his “Anouman” of 1953, a minimalistic cool jazz ballad that Django actually wrote for his saxman Hubert Fol to play; Django plays little on this piece, beyond the bridge.

JJM To those who have been previously introduced to his music, what are the hidden gems you recommend they go back and listen to?

MD  There’s a couple sessions that I love to listen to as they’re kind of forgotten amidst all the other, more stellar ones. The session in Brussels from April 1942 with pianist Ivon de Bie where Django plays both violin and guitar in the same song is sublime. And I’m fascinated by his March 1941 session leading a big band in his Ellington-inspired symphonic compositions “Féerie” and “Nympheas.” But for me at least, my favorite session is the May 1947 one where he’s trying his hand at bebop with an electric guitar; “Porto Cabello,” “Duke and Dukie,” “Babik,” “Del Salle,” and even “Songe d’Automne” are just alive with great guitar. This session might not be classic Django, but I love it.

JJM  After having written this book, what do you find yourself most fascinated with about Django?

MD  Probably that he was able to create a method of jazz in four different jazz styles. He began playing traditional jazz during Louis Armstrong’s era; became inspired by Benny Goodman and the whole swing movement, when he created his quintet with a clarinet and played swing; and then translated the bebop of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie into guitar; and finally, in his later years, after hearing Miles Davis’s cool, minimalist jazz, in his final recordings you can hear Django moving in that direction, where he played fewer notes but with more eloquence. I don’t think there are many jazz musicians, or many musicians in general, who transcend so many different genres of a style of music.

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Django and son Babik, 1950

“Today, in France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, Gypsies often teach their children Django’s music note for note like a catechism, handing down mare gilia from generation to generation starting when children can first finger a guitar or violin. The music too had been christened with a name. Some called it Gypsy Jazz, but as the Gypsies who play it know, this was not a synthesis of two traditions — Gypsy music and jazz. Instead it was the legacy of one man who had become an emblem of a people.”

– Michael Dregni

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How High The Moon

Django:  The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend

by

Michael Dregni

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About Michael Dregni

JJM Who was your childhood hero?

MD My childhood heroes were Rod Carew, the second baseman for the Minnesota Twins, and the famous bicycle racer Eddie Merckx, who I admired during the time I lived in Belgium as a kid. My literary heroes were Spiderman and, a little later, James Joyce. But my biggest hero of all was my dad.

 

 

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Michael Dregni is a columnist, reviewer, and feature writer for Vintage Guitar magazine and his work has also appeared in Utne Reader, San Francisco Examiner, and Cycle, among other publications. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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A sampling of book reviews

“Dregni’s biography does his complex subject justice…. His immersion in the period’s history enriches his storytelling and our understanding. The panoramic results present Django Reinhardt as he has never been seen…. Dregni clarifies a lot of history while weaving an illumniated web of contexts around his subject. He vividly describes Gypsy life and mores, and anti-Gypsy bigotry; unearths new aspects of Reinhardt’s life and work; discusses Parisian musette, American ‘hot’ jazz and bebop, and classical music; and insightfully details the music Reinhardt made and the instruments and people he made it with.”

-Gene Santoro, The New York Times Book Review

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“There was only one Django Reinhardt, and Dregni supplies a vivid, detailed portrait of the man behind the guitar…. Dregni has given us Reinhardt the man–rascal, scoundrel, transcendent improviser, failed human being.”

-Joel Selvin, San Francisco Chronicle

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“An encyclopedic account of the Gypsy jazzman’s life and times that provides an abundance of new information, finds new connections between what was already known, and clears up many misconceptions along the way.”

-Guitar Player

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“In many ways the book jazz enthusiasts have been waiting for…. Fascinating and well-written. Dregni’s musical analysis will send fans running to the stereo, digging out the old recordings and listening with fresh ears. Guitarists will have a feast reading about Django’s technique and his famous Selmer Maccaferri guitar. Although Django will always be a larger-than-life figure, Dregni has given us a much clearer picture of the man behind the myth. ‘Django’ is, for now, the definitive biography, and we are in Dregni’s debt for considerably advancing our understanding of the remarkable Django Reinhardt, his music and the world he lived in.”

-David French, Los Angeles Times Book Review

 

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Django Reinhardt products at Amazon.com

Michael Dregni products at Amazon.com

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This interview took place on March 9, 2005

 

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If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Roy Eldridge biographer John Chilton.

 

 

 

# Text from publisher.

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2 comments on “Michael Dregni, author of Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend”

  1. This is a superb, touching, at times gut-wrenching, poignant reconstruct, accurate I believe according to author Dregni’s great and facile Lights. Am rereading it again and reading it aloud to my wife after retiring for the night. More I could say but won’t. A giving read, a treasure!

    s/ David Zep Dix, Waukesha WI 6-29-15

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