A Moment in Time — Django Reinhardt, New York, 1946

March 26th, 2014

Photo by William P. Gottlieb

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The great chronicler of his era, photographer William Gottlieb captures Django Reinhardt watching a poker game at the Aquarium among members of Duke Ellington’s band — Al Sears, Shelton Hemphill, Junior Raglin, Reinhardt, Lawrence Brown, Harry Carney, and Johnny Hodges (l – r). 

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      At the invitation of Duke Ellington, the great Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt came to America in October, 1946.  Long a dream of his, according to Reinhardt biographer Michael Dregni, “he yearned to play his guitar in the homeland of jazz…picking out his improvisations with the American greats in the high churches of jazz – the Savoy, Roseland, Paramount, Apollo, Minton’s, Monroe’s, the Onyx, the Three Deuces.  Those reveries had gone unrequited, concert plans thwarted, tour schemes halted by war.” 

      He would play several major U.S. cities with Ellington, including Carnegie Hall performances of November 23 and 24, 1946.  Here is Dregni’s account of those performances:

      Django’s New York City debut was widely promoted in newspaper ads and posters.  The November 23 show was a sellout hit.  Ellington was at his best, his band stylishly swinging throughout “Diminuendo in Blue,” “Magenta Haze,” a spirituals and work song medley, and “Jam-A-Ditty,” his concerto for four jazz horns.  These were not lowdown blues or dance hall jazz but sophisticated music that only Ellington could write.  And then Django took the stage.  Jazz Hot’s Jimmy Weiser gave a full report for the fans back in Paris.  “The hall was packed out.  I can safely say that by far the greater part of the audience was made up of admirers who had waited for this moment for ten years.  Duke played as wonderfully as ever and announced Django at 10:30.  He had no arrangement to play but was backed by Duke.  This was something of a disappointment, for the public had expected to see Django and the orchestra onstage at the same time, nevertheless Django received a great ovation and took six curtain calls.”

     The second show was fraught with problems, however.  Dressed in black tuxedos with tails, the orchestra entered followed by Ellington, who, in his usual refined and polished manner, sat down at his grand piano to rule over his dominion.  The first set went like clockwork as always, the band playing as a well-oiled machine under Ellington’s command.  But when Django’s turn came at the start of the second set, he was nowhere to be found.  Elllington hastily improvised a program to fill his slot, holding out hope that Django would still appear.  Finally, a flustered Ellington gave up and regretfully apologized to the audience that Django was not playing that evening.

      Suddenly, at 11 P.M., a taxi roared up to the Carnegie Hall stage door and Django hustled out.  His arrival was whispered to Ellington, who, flushed and embarrassed, apologized yet again and announced Django.  But Django was dressed in just a casual suit and did not have his guitar with him.  Another electric guitar was found and hurriedly thrust into his hands.  “They presented a guitar to him.  Apparently, he had never played it,” guitarist John Pisano remembered.  “It was all de-tuned.  The strings were totally loose.  They introduced Django and he had to tune it up.  ‘Wr-r-r-r-rang!!!’ right on stage.”  Once he was in tune and settled, Django played his usual set and, in Jazz Hot writer Weiser’s words “brought the concert to a close all the same, amidst thunderous applause.”

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      His time traveling with Ellington’s band led to some interesting stories, not the least of which was Django’s discovery of the Ellington band’s choice of underwear.  Here is Dregni’s account:

      Traveling by train across the United States, Django shared a two-berth compartment with Ellington.  On their first night out, Django walked through the rest of the band’s sleeping car en route to the toilet before going to bed.  As he entered, he was struck by a sight that left him flabbergasted:  All of the bandmen sported flowered boxer shorts printed with a beautiful summer’s day worth of blossoms and blooms.  Django could not believe his eyes.  Then he could not resist taunting his fellow musicians in the little bit of English he knew.  “You’re crazy!” he yelled at his American bandmates in a mixture of astonishment and prudish French outrage at their lack of class.  Forgetting all about his trip to the bathroom, Django hustled back to his suite to let Ellington in on his discovery. But when he opened the door to their shared berth, there was Ellington in his own pair of flowered boxers – and they were even gaudier than those of his musicians.

      The flowered underwear secretly caught Django’s fancy, however.  When he returned to New York City at the tour’s end, he set out in search of his own pair – yet was too embarrassed to buy them himself, enlisting instead a French friend to make the purchase.

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      Finally, Dregni writes about the respect those in the Ellington band had for Djano’s great musicianship:

      Django’s music also enthralled Ellington and his musicians…It was the orchestra’s venerable drummer, William “Sonny” Greer, who was perhaps most taken by Django’s music.  Years later, he spoke of the tour with sustained fascination:  “Something else.  He was something else, man.  Django Reinhardt – yeah….I tell you, man, that cat could take a guitar and make it talk.  Nobody played like him….We were playing a concert, I think it was in Boston.   At the auditorium in Boston.  So we had about an hour before — we always got to the place about an hour or so, the band would be relaxed.  So me and him, he was sitting backstage, playing one of the things he used to play with the Hot Five, a fast thing, you know.  So I had some brushes and a newspaper.  So just me and him were playing.  He said, ‘I like that.’  Duke come in and said, ‘I like that.’  So as a surprise encore, we did it.  Me and him and Duke was playing a little piano in the back, and the bass.  We done it, it was a big thing.  Duke said, keep it.  I don’t know what it was called, he had some fancy French name for it, he used to play it with the French Hot Five.”

      Yet it was an incident nearly inexpressible in mere words that showed the effect Django’s guitarwork had on even those accomplished musicians.  At the start of the tour after Django and Ellington’s first rehearsal of their very first song, Sonny Greer’s ear was caught by Django’s playing.  Stunned by the music, his response was succinct:  “Well, fuck my britches!”

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      Although Django would later refer to his time in the U.S. as a “failure,”  American audiences were generally enthusiastic about his tour with Ellington, with a Cleveland Plain Dealer headline of “French Guitar Artist Steals Duke’s Concert” as an example. And, Ellington trombonist Lawrence Brown said that Django “really registered with the American audience.”  “He came to America playing swing,” Dregni wrote.  “He returned to Paris playing modern jazz.”

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Book Excerpts from Django:  The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend, by Michael Dregni

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A great film from 1939 featuring Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli

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Read our interview with Michael Dregni, author of Django:  The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend

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