Barney Kessel on Django: “Mostly, Django was a master improviser; I wouldn’t call him a “Jazz” player…he maintains a position of being one of the few truly individualistic voices on the guitar, without it necessarily being what I’d call “hip jazz” or a part of any school or movement…Django today has become kind of a superstar in his own way, the way that the Marx Brothers, Mae West, and W.C. Fields have become. He symbolises the Gypsy spirit, the thing in everyone that wants to be free; to be an adult but not lose the childlike quality.”
Larry Coryell on Django: “Django was one of the most amazing artists of the first half of the 20th Century. He played “impossible” things on his guitar. The recordings that survive clearly indicate that he was years ahead of most of the people he was playing with. His influence first came to my attention when I was listening to Chet Atkins playing with Homer and Jethro on an old RCA country record around 1956. They were definitely “Django-inspired,” especially the mandolin player, Jethro Burns….Django represents the universality of modern improvised music. There will never be another Django. His music, his guitar artistry, everything he was as a person, smacked of genius. I’ll bet he smiled a lot.”
Jerry Reed on Django: “I have never in my lifetime heard another human being perform with such fire and such love and such emotion. He was in my estimation the most freely expressive spirit I’ll ever hear on the guitar.” Irving Ashby: “I never met Django, but when I was in Paris I heard about how he played for the kids on the streets – or anyone, for that matter. I feel that he inspired me and many others to venture forth with new ideas and play – play what comes from the heart. “To thine own self be true” – we learned it from Django.”
B.B. King: “I’ve got more albums on him than on anybody; when I was in France I must have bought fifty records of the Hot Club Of France. I would never have the speed or the technique that Django had, but I love him so much that I’m sure if you listened carefully you could hear a little bit of him in my playing. I just wish everybody could hear him.”
Marcel Dadi: “Chet Atkins is my biggest influence (along with Merle Travis), and even if I have not been directly submitted to Django’s music, Chet has taught me everything about the Gypsy. If you find this strange, just listen again to Chet’s earliest recordings.“
Jeff Beck: “I just didn’t know what direction people want, you know music was going down a path, and I couldn’t turn on a radio without being disgusted completely. And now it’s just gotten to the point where I can’t listen to anything, it’s trashy. It’s just a hundred channels of garbage all over. And not just here, it’s in England as well. It’s almost just like a global effort to knock the sense out of you if you’re a musician (laughs). There’s not any little morsel for musicians to latch on to…the pickings are slim for inspiration..I still listen to Django Reinhardt, his catalog. I’m just catching up with that after several years of not really listening to him proper. You know he’s the greatest.” “By far the most astonishing guitar player ever has got to be Django Reinhardt…Django was quite superhuman; there’s nothing normal about him as a person or a player.”
Charlie Byrd: “Usually, no one quite knew where Django Reinhardt was going to be, but I met his brother and about an hour later in walks Django with an entourage of friends. He always traveled with a large group–carried his own admirers with him, the most sinister-looking bunch of hoodlums you’ve ever seen. I walked up and offered to buy him a drink. That seemed to be the right thing to do… he was the first really brilliant solo guitarist I ever became aware of, I had records of his when I was 10 years old. It just blew my mind that anyone could play a guitar like that. Still does.“
Django was a devotee of classical music. His favourite composer was the futuristic Claude Debussy and he often quotes subtle references to his music in his playing. He claimed Debussy’s ideals as a musician and composer were the closest to his own. His favorite classic compositions were Ravel’s eight “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales” and Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor”. Django said his Selmer guitar spoke to him like a cathedral.
Gypsies from throughout Europe travel each May 24-25 to the town of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue region of France on a religious pilgrimage to honor their Saint Sarah in prayer and music. In 1943-44 Django began to compose an organ mass to be played for the ceremony. Photos are found on this link and part of it can be heard on this link. Django never finished the mass, but his melodies, such as “Nuages”, have become hymns for the Romany evangelical church, complete with prayer lyrics. From Michael Dregni’s Django Reinhardt and the Illustrated History of Gypsy Jazz, page 101: ”During the war years, Django began work on a new dream: An organ mass devoted to his fellow Romanies to be performed annually at the Gypsy pilgrimage to Camargue ville of Les Saintes-Marie-de-la- Mer and the Gypsies’ adopted Saint Sarah….Alas, due to the difficulties of composition, Django never finished the project, although his work-in-progress would be played for radio broadcast in 1944.”
St.-Maries-de-la-mer is a pilgrimage destination for the Roma (Gypsies), who gather yearly in the town for a religious festival in honour of Saint Sarah. The French believed she was Mary Magdalene’s daughter, and she was also known as Sara-la-Kali (Sara the black). Dark-skinned Saint Sara is said to have possibly been the Egyptian servant of the three Marys. If we compare the ceremonies with those performed in France at the shrine of Sainte Sara (called Sara e Kali in Romani), we become aware that the worship of Kali/Durga/Sara has been transferred to a Christian figure… in France, to a non-existent “Sainte” called Sara, who is actually part of the Kali/Durga/Sara worship among certain groups in India.
The ceremony in Saintes-Maries closely parallels the annual processions in India, the country in which the Romani originated, when statues of the Indian goddess Durga, also named Kali, are immersed into water. Durga, the consort of Shiva, usually represented with a black face, is the goddess of creation, sickness and death. Some authors, taking up themes from the pseudohistorical book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, suggest that Sarah was the daughter of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. These ideas were popularized by Dan Brown‘s novel The Da Vinci Code and is also the main plot in Eron Manusov’s novel Ahavah’s Dream.
An excerpt of an interview of Alf Totol Masselier: “- Was Django a believer?” “- Yes, but he would not go often to the mass. I remember of a story. On the train going to Rome there were 6 seats by compartment. The Quintet du Hot Clubs comes and sits and the sixth person was a cassocked priest who was going to Rome for the Holy Year. Django seized the opportunity to ask him which were the figures used for writing a mass. The priest explained him. And Django listened very carefully. And he did eventually write a mass. It’s Léo Chauliac who transcribed it, because Django was writing music only with his guitar.” In Jazz Hot n°600 (may 2003). Django’s second wife, Sophie, attended a gypsy evangelical church, which many of Django’s gypsy fans also joined after his death. See Gypsy Church Gypsy Church 2.
Announcer: Could you tell me Mr Reinhardt, what has compelled you to write this mass? DR: All the gypsies in the entire world have made use of foreign masses for many centuries. I have written this mass to be interpreted by choir and organ. A: And in what surroundings do you isolate yourself in order to write – it’s not a question of surroundings. For you certainly cannot do it after a jazz concert? DR: I prefer to write in the evening very late or in the morning in my bed. A: And did you notate the music? DR: No, it’s not I who notates the music. It’s my clarinetist in the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, Gerard Leveque. I dictate it to him. A: And is today the first recital of your mass? DR: It is an extract of my mass. I particularily don’t know the ending. It’s the first time I have heard the composition on the organ. A: Certainly you know, Mr Reinhardt, that in the world and particularily in France, it is said that you are the king of the gypsies. Is that accurate? DR: No, no, no, don’t think that. But it might come to pass, perhaps one day. I am very loved by them, and I thank them by offering to them this mass. (Organ continues to play)
The only surviving fragment of the mass is a recorded organ performance, and that is only of the overture.
“Brittany cleric Clement Le Cossec founded in 1952 La Mission Evangelique Tzigane de France, an evangelical Christian church run by and devoted to Romanies. By the mid-1960s, Le Cossec’s Mission won over many of Django’s ‘followers’…The church spread from France throughout Europe to India and the United States in the following decades. The cleric’s goal was to convert Gypsies to Christianity but not convert them from being Gypsies. Thus Django’s music found a home in the service of the church, transformed into devout music in the truest sense. In 1943-1944, Django tried and failed at writing a Mass for his fellow Gypsies, but now hymns were written to the scores of Django’s jazz compositions and played in Gypsy church services.” (Dregni, 276)
“To his fellow Gypsies, Django’s music had become sacred. In La Mission, Naguine [Django’s second wife] finally found solace. Without Django, her life lacked meaning, and following the death of her life’s only love, she turned to drink. Her health declined as she suffered from diabetes. Then in 1963, she was introduced to La Mission by a fellow Manouche named Hazo who invited her to a service. She was resurrected by the promise of the Gypsies’ own church and its hymns set to Django’s music. On February 16, 1964, she was baptized. ‘I was alone,’ she testified in La Mission’s magazine, Vie et lumiere. ‘Now I have found peace.'” (276)
Django: King of the Gypsies
It seems to me that Django’s music is polarized between a dark, earthy world and a dream world. The former is exemplified by songs such as Dark Eyes, Minor Swing, mostly in a minor key, with an insistent gypsy jazz rhythm. The latter is exemplified by songs such as Castle of my Dreams, Nuages, in major keys; ethereal and influenced by the Impressionist music of Debussy. These songs offer the imaginative keys to Django’s musical vision. Dregni describes Django’s Mass as “a new dream.” Django’s Manoir de mes Reves was based on a dream in which Django was in a castle in the royal forest of Fountainbleu, outside of Paris, playing on a pipe organ at midnight.
It may be that the idea of Django’s music was to translate his gypsy culture to the heavenly heights, and his mass may epitomize this musical vision. One of the hallmarks of gypsy jazz is the prominence of the major sixth interval in a minor chord and a diminished scale played over it. Minor keys and diminished scales, and earthy, pulsating rhythms express the harsh world of the gypsy in the society of the gadje; major keys and whole tone scales void of tension, such as used by Debussy, and stately rhythms express the gypsy soul at home in the celestial realms, the world of Django’s dreams. Django was a painter as well as a musician.
Django’s last composition was a song called Anouman. Does the title refer to the Hindu divinity Hanuman, evoking the East Indian origins of the gypsies, or was the title Django’s way of phonetically spelling A New Man, as he had changed in his final years? The saxophone melody sounds world weary and yet the guitar solo in the middle seeks a way out of the prevailing mood of secular cynicism through a sequence of key changes culminating in an ascending whole tone scale; 1:58-2:03. The ending has Django fretting an augmented chord, which shares with the whole tone scale a feeling of resolution from tension.
Sophie said in Django’s last years he was a new man, a poet awakened by the beauty of nature. From dusk to dawn he’d sit by the Seine, seeing the dance of the flowers and hearing the song of the river, where he saw the true music. ‘Voila la grande musique!’, he would say. Django too had lived up to his name, awake to ‘la grande musique’, expressed in his last composition, Anouman.
Michael Dregni: “Django adored his brother and for Nin-Nin, Django was the greatest musician in the world. Yet, as Django’s fame grew – especially in his own mind – he forced further roles on his kin: Nin-Nin was to be the faithful bearer of Django’s guitar, the storehouse of spare strings, the porter of plectrums. Django began to look down on Nin-Nin as a vassal, elevating his own sense of grandeur.” (118) Nin-Nin bore Django’s guitar to his grave. “The mourners sprinkled holy water with a spring of rosemary on the coffin and pronounced the Manouche benediction to the dead, Akana mukav tut le Devlesa – I now leave you to God. Then, Nin-Nin [Django’s brother Joseph] placed a symbolic guitar atop the coffin to be buried with Django….Following the Manouche mourning tradition of zelimos…[Django’s wife, Sophie] piled Django’s possessions in a pyre, struck a match, and burned them. Django’s guitar went up in flames.” (Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend, 268)