After 100 years, gypsy jazzman Django plays on

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The Independent Culture

Django Reinhardt's life story is better than any fiction: a gypsy who could not read a line of music, lost the use of two fingers when he was 18, but toured the world with his classical guitar.

He also became the only jazzman from Europe to revolutionise the form.

"If France is represented by anything in the world today, it is Coco Chanel and Django Reinhardt", guitarist Romane, who runs a school teaching music inspired by the jazz guitarist, told AFP.

Django, who was born in a camper van in Belgium to gypsy parents and a sprawling family of travelling acrobats, musicians, singers and dancers, would have been 100 this year.

The centenary homages in France, where he spent most of his life, include new books, disks, a three-day festival and a Champs-Elysees concert. A Paris square has also been named after him.

Jean-Baptiste "Django" Reinhardt was a roaring success for much of his short life. A white face in the black jazz scene, he performed all around Europe and North Africa, and sat in with Duke Ellington in the United States.

His music had its roots in the folklore of the Manouche gypsies from Alsace and Belgium, but he also drew from the classical compositions of Debussy, Greig and Ravel, and broke all the rules with his strings-only quintet of violin, guitars and double bass.

In the early 1950s, Django's star began to fade, and after his death in 1953, his recordings - of which there are over 1,000 - gathered dust, until a revival in the 1990s.

Romane, who has been a key figure in the jazzman's revival, emphasises music education based on "oral transmission",

"You have to learn to hear an instrument first", he said, in the same way speaking comes before learning the alphabet.

It is in the spirit of Django, who did not read music but anticipated it. "I do not know music", he once said, "but it knows me".

"When Django played a note it came from deep inside him. He transcended the problem of gesture," Romane explained.

"His finger was directly connected to his brain. It is the lot of the great improvisers... He played his thoughts."

If "we're 60 years too late" recognising the real importance of Django's role in making music history, as Romane argues, the jazz scene today is not short of music inspired by the compositions of the Quintette du Hot Club de France, the band Django formed in 1934.

Guitarists Boulou and Elios Ferre, Angelo Debarre, Stochelo Rosenberg, Tchavolo Schmidtt all draw from the jazzman. In Montmartre, the hillside Paris quarter that was Django's stomping ground, regular Manouche nights are held with musicians playing to packed cafe crowds.

In June, the three-day Django festival at Samois-sur-Seine held annually on the outskirts of Paris has welcomed over 10,000 visitors in previous years, half coming from abroad.

Two new books on Django published in France in March have taken an imaginative approach to his life. Novelist Alain Gerber's "Insensiblement (Django)" uses fiction to tell the musician's story, concentrating on his relationship to the Untied States.

Biographer Patrick Williams plays the "what if" game in his "Les quatre vies posthumes de Django Reinhardt" (The Four Posthumous Lives of Django Reinhardt) - what if Django had survived the stroke that killed him in 1953?

Williams projects four alternative scenarios, including Django in a duo with Thelonious Monk, and another imagining him as a composer of electro-acoustic music in New York.

What if it had all been different, if Django had lived through the developments of bop, funk and fusion in the 1960s and 1970s by the likes of Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis, or the synthesiser disco days of the 1980s?

"I'm not interested in asking myself these questions", Romane says, "I think we have enough to do already with what Django actually achieved. He drew a path, it is up to us to do the rest."

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