‘Gypsy jazz’ is the name of a genre based largely on the recorded work of guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910–1953). Reinhardt was Manouche, a subgroup of Romanies closely related to the Sinti of Western Europe. He grew up learning to play several instruments and was recognised early on for his great musical potential.
However, disaster struck at age eighteen when he was severely burned in a caravan fire and forced to quit playing due to the resulting injuries to his left hand. Reinhardt managed to overcome this disability by adapting his guitar-playing techniques to his disability, a fact that has influenced the ways in which Gypsy jazz is performed today.
Reinhardt first became internationally famous as the leader of the Quintette du Hot Club de France in the mid-1930s. With the Quintette, as part of other ensembles, and as a soloist, Reinhardt made nearly 1,000 recordings over his lifetime. He became a mainstay of the Parisian jazz scene, even under Nazi occupation, and toured in Europe and the United States. In 1953, he suffered a fatal brain haemorrhage, cutting short an already prolific career at the age of forty-three.
Reinhardt has been a key influence for guitarists the world over, so his legacy extends well beyond Gypsy jazz. He pioneered techniques for solo guitar improvisation and is remembered as one of the greatest contributors to jazz guitar in history. A composer in his own right, he is credited for a number of tunes in the Gypsy jazz repertoire such as ‘Minor Swing’ and ‘Nuages,’ as well as a lesser-known, unfinished composition for orchestra.
Gypsy jazz began to emerge as a genre in the 1950s when musicians with whom Reinhardt worked continued to play his music. However, the term ‘Gypsy jazz’ (and its equivalents in other languages) did not come into usage until the 1970s, following a revival of Reinhardt’s music by the Sinti members of the German collective Musik Deutscher Zigeuner. A number of Sinti and Manouche communities adopted Reinhardt’s music as an ethnically representative practice, while other non-Romanies also performed similarly styled music. Gypsy jazz has since developed into a flourishing niche industry across the globe, though it remains most popular in Western Europe.
Gypsy jazz is characterised primarily by its reference to Reinhardt’s music, and specifically by a guitar-centric, string-dominant instrumentation; a repertoire consisting mostly of 1930s and 1940s swing tunes, including most of Reinhardt’s known compositions; a small-group improvisation format; idiosyncratic guitar techniques; and the use of a particular type of guitar known as a ‘Selmer’ or ‘Selmer-Maccaferri’. Some Gypsy jazz repertoires include songs in the Romani language. However, Reinhardt’s music cannot necessarily be categorised as ‘Gypsy jazz’, since the latter is a genre that arose well after his death. Reinhardt would have likely considered his music to be a form of jazz independent of his ethnic roots.
Today, most Gypsy jazz players are aware of Reinhardt’s Romani background, but the relation of ethnicity to the genre remains fraught. While Gypsy jazz is commonly associated with Romani communities, and specifically with the Manouche and Sinti, it is not necessarily representative of these communities’ performing and listening practices. The genre’s associations with ethnicity also render it a vehicle for stereotypes about Romanies as inherently musical and improvisational. Still, Gypsy jazz remains an important emblem of cultural identity for many Manouche and Sinti groups, and is an important source of pride, pleasure and income. Gypsy jazz has also been characterised as a ‘bridge’ between Romani and non-Romani groups, the latter of which are heavily involved in its production and consumption.
Siv B. Lie