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Django Reinhardt and the Triumph of the Gypsies

Django Reinhardt, the Gypsy jazz guitarist whose centennial fell early on this year’s calendar, infuriated his closest friend and best collaborator, Stephane Grappelli, with stereotypically Gypsy-ish bad behavior that only his sublimely atypical but deeply Gypsy-ish music could excuse.

Early in the mid-’90s, when Grappelli was in his eighties but still playing regularly at the Blue Note in Manhattan, I did a fairly long interview with him in which he said, emphatically, “Django made me very angry. Django would not be there–we could not find him anywhere. He drank every day. He came [to performances] with no guitar. I gave Django my money. I hated him many times. Ooh … but when he played, I loved Django! Everyone loved Django. In the wartime … even the Nazis loved Django!”

I presumed that last line was a joke, until I saw, in Swing Under the Nazis, an odd little book by the jazz writer Mike Zwerin (who died a few weeks ago), a wartime photograph of a uniformed Third Reich officer posing in front of La Cigale, a Parisian nightclub. Standing alongside him, to his right, was Django Reinhardt. To his left was a row of men, three of them black and one (according to the book) Jewish.

The officer was a Luftwaffe Oberleutnant named Dietrich Schulz-Koehn, who, Zwerin said, had a fondness for what Goebbels, in a term that Nazis alone could devise, called “Americano nigger kike jungle music.” Schulz-Koehn supposedly helped keep Reinhardt busy performing throughout France during the war, sparing him from the Holocaust that Gypsies call the Porrajmos.

With due respect for Grappelli, who is no longer here to amplify, defend, or retract what he said, I have to take as an absurdity — more than that, as an offense—the proposition that the beauty of Django Reinhardt’s music was such that it could melt the Nazi heart. To think of participation in the Third Reich and jazz fandom as meaningfully compatible is to deny—worse, to betray—the values of the music: the free-spiritedness, the exultation in ethnicity, the sheer joyfulness, the robust humanity, of jazz. The Czech writer Josef Škvorecký touched on this indelibly in The Bass Saxophone. These qualities precisely have made Reinhardt’s music a refuge from (if not a defense against) fascism of any form, and they are among the main reasons it endures one hundred years after Reinhardt was born.

If Grappelli was correct and everyone loved Django when he played, a great many people have also struggled, as Grappelli himself sometimes did, to reconcile the pleasure they took in his music with the displeasure they found in nasty habits of his that are too easy to ascribe to his Gypsy origins. Much as I did at the start of this piece, journalists, critics, musicians, and pretty much all others who have ever referred to Reinhardt have characterized him first as a Gypsy and then as a jazz musician.

This makes more sense than it would, say, for people to describe Benny Goodman as a Jewish jazz clarinetist, or Stéphane Grappelli as a gay French-Italian jazz violinist. After all, Reinhardt, by not only drawing deeply from the traditions of Gypsy music but also bringing those traditions to the foreground of his work, created—that is, almost single-handedly invented—a new style: Gypsy jazz.

Still, I didn’t hyphenate that phrase as a compound modifier when I introduced Reinhardt here; I let the ethnic term define the artist rather than the school of art. I could not resist carrying on the conception of Reinhardt as a Gypsy who was also a jazz guitarist, in part because his heritage informs his music so obviously and so profoundly, and in part, too, because the very fact that a person is a Gypsy still seems wonderfully strange. Gypsies are the last exotics—more precisely, one of the last people whom others feel free to exoticize, and often to demonize, with impunity in an allegedly enlightened age. The timeworn conception of Gypsies as colorful freaks—entrancing but not to be trusted; uneducated and ungovernable; fearsome but magically endowed, like all people untouched by civilization, with the secrets of love, music, and art—lives on.

In fact, this hoary line of thinking has flourished to help make Gypsy music — in a variety of strains and mutations, including variations on Reinhardt’s style of Gypsy jazz — voguish today, especially among young hipsters desperate to find realms of authenticity and bohemianism that the previous generation of hipsters did not already claim. Many guitarists today visit websites such as Django In A Box to seek out Django Reinhardt jazz transcriptions so that they can learn to play his style of music.

I should add here that I use mainly the traditional term Gypsy, rather than the more conservative Roma, which has currency these days, because Gypsy applies broadly to many lines of people commonly linked as an ethnicity, including Reinhardt’s tribe, the Manouche. Gypsy is the term that Reinhardt himself used, and it is still widely employed by Roma in the titles of their formal organizations, much as Native Americans commonly refer to themselves as Indians.

There has been a bit of progress since Reinhardt’s day in the way Gypsies and their music are perceived by outsiders (or gadje in the Roma language, a word that means “civilians,” an artifact of the Gypsies’ early history as slave warriors in first-millennium India). A few years before Reinhardt was born, The New York Times sought to educate its readers with the insights of an expert lecturer on Gypsy culture, who explained that “These people are scarcely worth even the limited attention that has been paid them in history. All writers agree in the belief that Gypsies as a race are utterly worthless, and their salient characteristics are outshone by the ordinary tramp. They have no literature … and we have never read of one being an accomplished musician.”

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