Book Review by Willard Manus

Django Reinhardt was born in a horse-drawn gypsy caravan in 1910. Five years later his musician father abandoned the family, but Django's mother supported it by making bracelets out of spent WW I artillery shells. Django never went to school, could not read or write, but he did have a way with musical instruments. He first played the violin, then the banjo and guitar, becoming a virtuoso at the age of twelve. Nightly he played in Paris' rough, working-class dancehalls that were packed with men and women, pimps and whores, roughnecks and gangsters. The gypsy music of these clubs was called musette and it was roughly the equivalent of the blues in the Mississippi Delta, flamenco in Seville, the tango in Buenos Aires.

In 1926 the boy wonder Django heard the siren song of jazz, brought to Paris by Billy Arnold's Novelty Jazz Band, direct from the USA. The all-Black ensemble played music that Django had never heard before, music that touched his soul and heart. From that day on, he began to absorb and assimilate the new music, master its harmonies and phrasing, learn how to improvise and swing.

In a few short years, Django had turned himself into a jazz musician, one whose prowess came to the attention of Jack Hylton, a Brit whose slick, successful big band was patterned after Paul Whiteman's. Hylton offered Django a job, one that gave him access to the world of jazz, a world that eventually made him famous--the most famous gypsy in modern history, a man who played with the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, performed for kings and queens, made his name known to millions.

Now Michael Dregni has published DJANGO--THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF THE GYPSY LEGEND (Oxford University Press), a biography that can rightfully be called masterful, thanks to its wide-ranging research, vivid writing and expert insight into Django's music (Dregni not only writes for Vintage Guitar magazine but plays guitar himself).

Dregni lived in France as a boy and learned excellent French, which helped him greatly in researching his book. He also earned the respect of the gypsies who knew Django and could separate fact from fiction where his life was concerned. Django left few letters and gave few interviews, preferring, like most gypsies, to keep his secrets hidden from the gadje, the outside world. Thus Dregni had to be a good detective in tracking down the truth about Django, a challenge that defeated many a writer before him, including the novelist James Jones.

Django was a true gypsy: he loved the open road, fishing, stealing, drinking wine and playing billiards with his cronies. Notoriously unreliable, scornful of clocks and time, he made tons of money but tossed it all away on cards and cars, did not believe in schools or doctors, burned himself out at the age of 43. But when he sat down to play, whether for himself or for an audience at Carnegie Hall, he made, as the poet Jean Cocteau said, "his guitar speak with a human voice."

Django was a lot like Miles Davis in the way he was always experimenting, always trying to grow by playing the latest music. Thus he went from musette to swing and straight-ahead jazz to post-war bebop. When he first heard Charlie Parker play, "He was in ecstasy," said a fellow musician. "The audacity of Bop took his breath away. This music reached down deep inside him and little by little, his playing evolved, you could hear it, without premeditation."

Django, who had become tired and disillusioned playing old-fashioned jazz, was reborn as a musician. He began to express himself with total freedom. As he told a drummer friend, "They make me suffer sometimes, these young punks who think it's all happening now, that we're no good anymore, that we're finished! So one day I got angry. I began to play so fast they couldn't keep up with me! And I gave them some new tunes to play with difficult harmonies and again they couldn't follow me! Now they have some respect for me!"

After listening to the post-war Django play, a journalist said, "This gypsy's worth a Goya." The same can be said of Dregni's new book.