Audiences quickly forgave the young Romani guitarist’s frequent late arrival at concerts. His arpeggios, decomposed chords performed at breakneck speed, fluttered with the grace of hummingbirds. Combining them with techniques borrowed from classical guitarists, mandolin players, accordionists and other musicians he had observed, the thinly mustachioed performer plucked out unique and beautiful improvisations. Phrasing, tempos, melodic variations and an endless stream of chromatic ornaments varied each time the virtuoso Jean “Django” Reinhardt strummed a tune.
What’s more, the kind of music he played had never been heard before. When the young Django, a nick-name meaning “I awake” in Rom, heard a Louis Armstrong recording in the early 1930s, he began riffing on the newly discovered jazz melodies while fusing them with his own Romani sensibilities. Gypsy jazz became an enduring new genre and later influenced the blues, rock & roll and other jazz styles.
As its name implies, gypsy jazz is a mashup of two genres. Traditional gypsy music evolved over centuries as nomadic Romani clans from India, North Africa, Spain and Central Europe slowly absorbed regional rhythms and sounds into their songs. With guitars, banjos, accordions, cymbals, drums, castanets, voices, clapping hands and stomping feet they produced doleful tunes of lost loves, transcendent nature and dreams overpowered by life’s harsh realities. Akin to Portuguese Fado, their music vibrates with feeling. Jazz, on the other hand, exploded onto the music scene in just a few years around World War I, with its epicenter situated in the United States. Early variants, first Dixieland and then Swing, charmed listeners around the world with fast tempos, orchestral sounds, pleasing harmonies and punchy instrumentation. By combining the two, Reinhardt freed gypsy music from folkloric conventions and added emotional depth to youthful jazz.
Django “was sincerely amazed when he heard the phrases that he had played [after listening to playbacks in the studio]. He played them without planning them.”
In addition to inventing a new genre, Reinhardt created a new orchestral format. In 1934, he invited Paris musician Stéphane Grappelli, a violinist who too would become famous for his improvisational style, to form the first ever all-string jazz ensemble. Pulsing backup guitars would replace the percussion and brass typically heard in bands playing the dance halls and tea rooms of Europe. Grappelli and music promoter Hugeus Panassié, owner of a Parisian cabaret, recognized the commercial potential of Reinhardt’s distinctive artistry. With the addition of Reinhardt’s brother Joseph, a third guitarist, and a bass player, the legendary Quintette du Hot Club de France was born. With Django playing lead guitar, it quickly became a sensation.
Surely, Reinhardt’s love of improvisation in life and in music led him to concoct the musical genre that made him a legend. Exploration thrilled him. “Reinhardt’s on-the-fly reinventions of well-worn standards often surprised him as much as they did his audience,” notes rock guitarist and writer Jesse Gress. Panassié reportedly recalled that Django “was sincerely amazed when he heard the phrases that he had played [after listening to playbacks in the studio]. He played them without planning them. They had come from some unknowable region of his subconscious.”
The performer’s talent and persistent practice overcame many limitations, often in ways that strengthened both his musicianship and creativity. His parents, French-speaking Romani known as Manouches, struggled to make a living as entertainers. Chronic poverty and an itinerant lifestyle left Reinhardt without an education. He could neither read nor write and had no formal music training. As a result he developed an uncanny ability to play any song or emulate any musical style after hearing it just once.
Further challenging him and almost ending his career as a musician, a fire in the horse-drawn caravan in which he and his wife lived seriously injured Reinhardt when he was just 18, reducing two fingers on his left hand into a stubby claw. He struggled through a year and a half of painful rehabilitation and practice—but in the process invented a performing style that literally made the best of his infirmity. Writes one musicologist: “His choice of chord voicing and melodic soloing that we now associate exclusively with Django all stemmed from that original injury.”
To make new by tinkering, or bricolage, is both resourceful and ingenious. Venture craftsmen recombine, reconfigure and repurpose in novel ways existing ideas, methods, materials, software, media and even relationships. They prefer hacking prototypes and mashups from assets on hand rather than continuously soliciting funding and resources. Like Django, they make new while making do.
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