A reader responds to a recent post:
I loved watching that video you featured, but it leaves out THE father of the guitar solo, Django Reinhardt. Watch this unembeddable video from about 2:27 on. First a duet, then in a band setting, Django – a gypsy – was playing guitar solos long before Chuck Berry (let alone British rockers trying to copy him or B.B. King), most likely live in the 1920s, and certainly on record as a soloist by 1934. That video is the only known one of Django in which the sound syncs up to the visuals; watch his left hand, and you’ll see that he can play rhythm/chords with four fingers and his thumb, but he could only play melody with TWO fingers. A caravan fire had mutilated his hand, but just look at how he compensated! [The video embedded above] is an even more awe-inspiring demonstration of his abilities.
American Charlie Christian was Django’s only real contemporary, but due to failing health, he was only active from 1939 to 1941. Django, on the other hand, played from the 1920s until his death in 1953, leaving a staggeringly large catalog of material. He remains the most influential European jazz musician to this day.
As a guitar player, I had always wondered where guitar solos really came from. It didn’t make sense to me that one day we had delta bluesmen like Son House and Robert Johnson, and then it somehow morphed so quickly into Chess Records and rock ‘n roll. Then I heard Django, and it all really fell into place. He brought together the type of musical tradition only a gypsy could, combining the fiery playing of Spanish Flamencos to the popular music of his day (musette), and then adding in American jazz. B.B. King counts him as an influence, which plants the seed of his soloing back into American hands, and lo and behold, there’s the answer. Most guitar players (let alone music lovers) don’t realize that the man most responsible for taking the guitar from an instrument purely used as part of the rhythm section into the limelight of soloing is a Belgian gypsy with a funny name (in Romany, Django means “I awake”).
One last piece of trivia: his most famous song, Nuages, was the anthem of occupied France during WWII. It became his signature tune, one he carried with him in his switch over to the electric guitar (around 1946). This version of it is from his electric guitar/bebop-era:
It’s drenched with pinch/artificial harmonics and rapid-fire playing, the type of work later “guitar heroes” are famous for.
Update from a reader:
Your correspondent has no idea what he’s talking about. Django was great, sure, but there were many who preceded him. The best of which, to my mind and ear, is Eddie Lang (Born Salvatore Massaro in Philly in 1902), who was also one of Reinhardt’s inspirations. He accompanied Bix Biederbecke and Frank Trumbauer on their landmark recordings, including “Singin’ the Blues,” made records with Lonnie Johnson (as Blind Willie Dunn … can’t have whites and blacks playing together), and became Bing Crosby’s accompanist before dying of a botched tonsillectomy in 1933 at the age of 30. His recordings with violinist Joe Venuti paved the way for Django’s partnership with Stephane Grappeli. Here he is with Bix and Tram on “For No Reason At All In C”:
To all your readers, you’re welcome.