Django and Duke

Invited to the States by Duke Ellington, Django Reinhardt’s 1946 debut before American audiences with Ellington’s Orchestra drew rave reviews, but offstage the king of Gypsy Jazz had a harder time. Unfamiliar with the culture and customs of America, barely literate, unable to speak English well, and unreliable in both personal and professional matters, Reinhardt returned to Paris energized by the music he had heard here but disillusioned by failures on other fronts.

By Paul Vernon Chester
(The author is one of the world’s premier Gypsy Jazz guitarists. His website,, offers a wealth of information about Django Reinhardt in particular, and Gypsy Jazz in general. He also offers Master Classes in Gypsy Jazz guitar, and his albums are for sale at his site, which is altogether an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Gypsy Jazz’s history and evolution.)

In 1946, Django toured the United States with Duke Ellington to less than stellar reviews from the contemporary critics. Django left for the States without a guitar and fully expected to be presented a gold plated one upon his arrival and to be compensated for playing it. This plan, however, did not work out, and he was forced to borrow one. It was on this tour that Django first played with an electric guitar. Berney Kessel referred to Reinhardt’s brief stay in the United States, saying, “If Django had wanted to stay in the United States and learn the language, I'm convinced he would have altered the course of contemporary jazz guitar playing—perhaps even the course of the music itself.”

When he arrived in the U.S. he asked, “Where’s Dizzy?” hoping to meet Gillespie, as he had become a big fan of bebop. There was, however, not enough time, as Reinhardt had to hurry directly to Cleveland for his first date opening for Ellington. Reinhardt was disappointed to see that his name was not on the flyer promoting the concert. It is unknown whether the promoter had not heard of Django or just did not wish to advertise his appearance for fear that he might not show up. The tour ended with a two-night stand at Carnegie Hall, the second of which Django arrived at late without a guitar. Uneasy playing marred his entire stay in America, as he was never able to find a guitar with which he was comfortable. After the tour he played solo for two weeks in various cafes around New York, but soon tired of America and wished to return home. When he returned to Paris, he proclaimed Frank Sinatra as the best thing he heard in America.

It is appropriate that Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, one of the greatest of American composers and jazz musicians, should recognize the true genius of this Belgian Gypsy that he met him in 1939 and invited to America to perform with the finest musicians to be found in this country—the Duke Ellington Orchestra. The humble but proud Gypsy had listened intently to American jazz recordings, blended those styles with his formidable technique to re-sell his own Manouche Jazz music back to the originators with European value added.

Despite Reinhardt's great pride in touring with Ellington (one of his two letters to Stephane Grapelli relates this excitement), he wasn't really integrated into the band, playing only a few tunes at the end of the show, with no special arrangements written personally for him. He was used to his brother, Joseph, carrying around his guitar for him and tuning it. Allegedly, Reinhardt was given an un-tuned guitar to play with (discovered after strumming a chord) and it took him five whole minutes to tune it. Also, he was used to playing a Selmer Modèle Jazz, the guitar he made famous, but in large auditoriums he was required to play a new amplified model.

Louis Armstrong's recording of 'Indian Cradle song.' When Django heard this for the first time, he held his head in his hands and exclaimed in his Romani language, 'Ach moune,' or, in English, 'My brother.'

Emile Savitry, an amateur guitarist, painter, and all-around bohemian, heard Django and his brother play in Toulon in the south of France, was impressed by their music, and invited them up to his apartment to play some new American jazz recordings, including some by Duke Ellington, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, as well as “Indian Cradle Song” by Louis Armstrong. According to Savitry's account, Django heard this and broke down, holding his head in his hands and exclaiming in the Romani language, "Ach moune," or in English, "My brother." While it is an exclamation, in this case it had a secondary, ironic meaning.  "Right away, he understood Armstrong. Right away, he preferred Armstrong's formidable playing over the erudite technique of the orchestra of Duke Ellington. Guided by an instinct of astounding precision, he was able to judge these musicians, almost instantly.”

‘Django's playing gave sound to the spirit of Jazz Age Paris. His lines of acoustic guitar notes were pure rapture, effervescent and evanescent, floating away with an unbearable lightness and transience of the moment, their fleeting beauty almost unbelievable. The genius of all his future music was in embryo in that one solo on ‘Dinah.’’ Recorded December 1934. Personnel: Django Reinhardt, guitar; Joseph Reinhardt, Roger Chaptu, rhythm guitars; Louis Vola, bass; Stephane Grappelli, violin.

At the conclusion of the first recording of "Dinah," Django was so thrilled with his improvisations that he bumped his guitar against his chair as he finished his song, and this ugly noise was recorded, which appears at the end of the piece. The engineers wanted to throw the whole thing out and start over, but the Hot Club impresarios were quite happy with the improvisation—which was what mattered most to them—and convinced the engineers to keep this recording that eventually became so famous.

When Django travelled to New York City in 1946 to tour with Duke Ellington, he left his Selmer behind; he believed American luthiers would present him with their guitars like keys to the city. There was no welcome committee, however; Django was forced instead to buy his own Gibson L-5. When Django's manager, Charles Delaunay, arrived a little later carrying Django's guitar, Django swooned over his Selmer while cursing the American guitars: "Mon frère, all the Americans will wish they could play on this guitar!" he told Delaunay. "At least it's got tone, you can hear the chords like you can on the piano. Don't talk to me any more about their casseroles—their 'tinpot' guitars! Listen to this, it speaks like a cathedral!" Artist endorsements have rarely been so vehement and heartfelt.

Django Reinhardt came to the United States only once. He played his first U.S. concert in Cleveland. It was Monday night, November 4, 1946, at the Music Hall at East 6th and St. Clair. The headline in the Plain Dealer the next morning said, "French Guitar Artist Steals Duke's Concert."

Duke Ellington, who called Reinhardt "the most creative jazz musician to originate anywhere outside the United States," invited Reinhardt to come to the U.S. for a tour. Duke paid for his trip. The trip proved to be something of a culture shock. While the two legendary musicians had great respect for each other's artistry, they had trouble understanding each other's languages and habits.  When Django arrived, his first words, in a combination of French and English, were, "Where's Dizzy playing tonight?" Django brought no luggage. He didn't even bring a guitar. According to Reinhardt's first biographer, Charles Delaunay, Django believed American companies would compete with each other for the honor of presenting a guitar to him. He was wrong and had to buy a guitar when he got to the United States.

On the train trip from New York to Cleveland, Django shared a two-berth compartment with Ellington. The other members of the Ellington band were in a sleeping car. As they were getting ready for bed, Django was astounded to notice that the band members were wearing underpants with floral designs. In his limited English, he said, "You're crazy!" When he returned to the private compartment, he was about to joke with Ellington about it when he noticed Duke's underpants were even more gaudy than his musicians.' Later, Reinhardt asked some French friends to buy him some flowered pants.

His digital dexterity was remarkable, in intricate chords that were executed with such technical brilliance that the band musicians kept shouting, `Go to it, master!'

In Cleveland, Django and Duke shared a suite at the Hotel Statler at East 12th and Euclid. Cleveland Press columnist Milt Widder reported that before they left for the concert, they had dinner in the suite. Django was again amazed when Ellington ate his dessert first. Widder quoted Duke saying, "I always eat my dessert first."

Reinhardt had only one brief rehearsal with Ellington before their concert in Cleveland. It was little more than a 20-minute "warm up" on the stage of the Music Hall. Duke, at the piano, asked Django, "What key do you want?" "Any key," said Django. Duke tapped his foot and the two all-time jazz masters just started playing. There was no musical conflict.

At the start of the tour, after Django and Ellington's very first rehearsal of their very first song, Sonny Greer's ear was caught by Django's playing. Stunned by the music, his response was succinct: “Well, fuck my britches!"

There had been very little advance publicity for the historic concert in Cleveland, only a small ad in the local papers that simply announced, "Elroy Willis presents Duke Ellington and his Orchestra at the Music Hall." There was no mention in the ad of Django Reinhardt also appearing. Milt Widder wrote the next day, "How the advent of Django Reinhardt escaped the local promoters is a mystery." Ticket prices for the concert ranged from $3.60 to $1.25.

The Plain Dealer reported that 1,800 people attended the Music Hall concert. But they had to wait for the music to begin. A baggage car, carrying the Ellington Orchestra instruments, arrived late, and the concert was delayed for about 45 minutes, to about 9:15.

But Glenn Pullen, writing in The Plain Dealer, said, "The faithful followers of the popular composer-bandmaster did not seem to mind the long wait. They were offered extra compensation in the form of Django Reinhardt, the noted French guitarist." Pullen said Django's first American performance soundly substantiated his reputation. Wrote the reviewer: "In the hands of this virtuoso, who resembles the screen's Adolph Menjou, an electric guitar acquires richer, magical qualities. His digital dexterity was remarkable, in intricate chords that were executed with such technical brilliance that the band musicians kept shouting, `Go to it, master!'"

Reinhardt played improvisations of "Tiger Rag," "Blues in E Flat," and a tune that even Ellington admitted on stage he was unable to identify.

Milt Widder wrote in The Press, "Duke Ellington came to Cleveland without fanfare and he gave his fans here the greatest treat in the annals of local jazz when he introduced in this country, for the first time, the hottest guitar player in the world."

After the concert in Cleveland, Reinhardt travelled with the Ellington Orchestra to Chicago (November 10, 1946), St. Louis, Detroit, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and finally New York City where they played two nights (November 23 and 24) at Carnegie Hall. After the tour Django worked at "Cafe Society" before returning to France taking the Epiphone with him.

There is a story that while the full band were waiting on stage at Carnegie Hall for Django—he was happily chatting enthusiastically to a Frenchman in a local bar—his priorities were clearly self centered, booze-induced  or child-like.

Django rarely if ever played a solo the same way twice, as numerous recordings prove. His creative genius was not only that of the master improviser, but also that of the composer, and he can be credited with numerous pieces with beautiful melodies and sophisticated, subtle harmonic structures. However, Django could not read or write musical notation and he was at the mercy of others that could to get his ideas down on paper.

After the tour he stayed in New York City for a two-week residency at the Café Society Uptown. On his nights off Reinhardt would visit Manhattan's legendary 52nd Street. In the early ‘40s musicians like alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, guitarist Charlie Christian, drummer Kenny Clarke and the pianists Mary Lou Williams and Thelonious Monk had been regulars in the 52nd Street clubs and the after-hours joints further uptown. Many of them had grown tired of the big band circuit and were looking for playing situations that allowed more opportunities to improvise at length; a new kind of small-group jazz began to ferment in the smoke-filled ambience of the nightclubs, and it came to be called bebop.

Django's first biography called the American tour a failure. He had his reasons for calling it that, partly because he was left out of organizing it and being part of it, but also because it was such a bittersweet experience for Django. While on the one hand he had great success with Ellington's orchestra, on the other he had these naïve dreams of becoming a movie star and of recording with all the different American jazz stars—dreams that didn't come true during the three months he was in the United States.


Impressing the Press
Django Wows Duke, Scribes in Cleveland
TIME Magazine’s report on Django Reinhardt’s appearance in concert with Duke Ellington, November 4, 1946

Django Reinhardt was sure everyone must have heard of him. Hadn't jazz critics like France's Hugues Panassié called him Europe's leading jazz artist and the world's greatest jazz guitarist? Django was so certain that he was famous in the U.S. that he left his guitar in France: U.S. guitar manufacturers would give him guitars and pay him for playing them. Last week, before he could go on stage in Cleveland's Public Music Hall, he had to go out and borrow a guitar.

The concert manager, for one, had never heard of Django Reinhardt, so Django's name didn't even appear on the program (a Duke Ellington jazz concert).  But when the Duke introduced "the legendary Django" from the stage, there were surprised murmurs and loud applause from the audience—and even greater applause when Django finished with “Tiger Rag” and “Honeysuckle Rose.”

Swarthy Django Reinhardt, now 36, is an almost illiterate gypsy who was born in a roulotte (trailer) and only recently has succumbed to houses. As a boy he played gypsy music on the guitar and violin. When he was 19, he heard a record of Louis Armstrong's “Dallas Blues.” Said he: "The rest of the orchestra—c'est mauvais, but Louis—il est formidable!" After listening to records by Armstrong, the Duke and Tommy Dorsey, he got together in 1935 with a hot fiddler named Stephane Grapelli, organized the Quintet of the Hot Club of France (three guitars, a violin and bass). Their records of U.S. jazz classics (“Dinah”; “Lady, Be Good”; “My Melancholy Baby”) are collectors' items. Most guitars are strummed, but Django developed a one-finger picking style because his left hand was badly burned in a fire and became useless for chords.

Ellington first heard Django in 1939 in La Roulotte, Django's cabaret in Paris' Rue Pigalle. Last month the Duke paid Django's airplane passage to the U.S. for a six-month visit (Django's 250-lb. gypsy wife stayed behind).

They rehearsed only 20 minutes before their Cleveland performance. They talked in sign language and monosyllables, since Django understands hardly any English.

"Tiger Rag — number un," the Duke said, holding up one finger. "First you play around . . . just a few riffs" (the Duke made guitar-strumming motions). "Then we give you a chord—wham, you go into Tiger by yourself and we start giving you the beat" (The Duke demonstrated on the piano.) "Understand?" Django grinned enthusiastically. They jammed for five minutes, until one by one the band boys left their cards, gossip and naps to gather around, shout encouragement: "Go to it, master. Yah, yah, yah." Says Duke: "Django is all artist. Jazz isn't exactly the word for it. Jazz was that raggedy music they used to play about 1920. Nowadays, jazz must be classified according to who's playing it. I call Reinhardt's playing Django music. He's one of those musicians who is unable to play a note that's not pretty or not in good taste. Sure he's a great virtuoso.”

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