A fire roars with life on a cool summer night somewhere in the north of France, possibly even just over the Belgian border. Music drifts into the night air symbiotically with the smoking embers of the gypsy night light.
The percussive attack of the guitar, chords creating a rhythmic blanket for phrases hot like shooting stars, gliss across a hushed campsite. Play passes around the circle; the sounds of a bass fiddle and violin can also be heard. Seasoned veterans cut over the changes like a barrage of explosives with their young proteges not far behind.
This is the scene among a camp of Romani Gypsies, an ethnic group originating in the north of India and eventually settling in the “the Zone” around Paris. Like many Gypsy tribes, they were forced into a nomadic lifestyle by religious persecution and economic pressure. The Romani specifically were known as being fantastic luthiers, and have always valued music in their communities.
Jazz manouche, or, more commonly, gypsy jazz, is a style of music that originated amongst the Romani people, French-speaking Manouche Gypsies, in the 1930s. Paris served as the incubator for this brand new “hot” form of jazz with the style quickly spreading to every end of the earth. It is unique as being the only form of jazz fundamentally designed for and around, of all instruments, the guitar.
Rarely is there a single individual who completely defines, and is often credited with the creation of, an entire genre of music. Elvis may have presented rock ‘n’ roll to middle America, but he did not invent it; Kurt Cobain may have become the face of grunge in the early ’90s but alongside a wave of celebrated contemporaries. It’s for this reason that so many musicians interested in learning gypsy jazz turn to a site such as Django In A Box at djangoinabox.com to download Django songs that come with transcriptions of the music.
Credit for the creation of gypsy jazz is given almost entirely to Jean “Django” Reinhardt, a Romani Gypsy who, alongside brother Joseph Reinhardt and several others, formed Quintette du Hot Club de France with violinist Stéphane Grappelli (who later had his own celebrated career inside and outside of swing jazz) in Paris. While Gypsy music existed well before Django, his specific style, blending Gypsy music with American jazz, has gone on to define this genre in the collective conscience.
It’s important to note that gypsy jazz now refers to the music and legacy of Django Reinhardt, but not all Gypsies who perform jazz music, such as the Roma and Sinti, count themselves a part of “gypsy jazz.” According to expert Denis Chang:
A caravan fire at the age of 18 left Django with a severe injury to his left hand. The third and fourth fingers of his fretting hand were permanently damaged, forcing him to solo using just two fingers! Originally a banjo player, his brother brought him a guitar to play while recovering in the hospital, and Django set about mastering a new instrument with a significant disadvantage.
This attitude, coupled with his extreme resolve, set Django apart and make him an absolute joy to study and dissect.
Django performed and recorded hundreds of sides until his death in 1953, leaving behind a staggering wealth of musical ingenuity and paving the way for several superseding generations of jazz manouche musicians who continue to carry the torch and celebrate his genius. Django’s catalog is a veritable goldmine — not only to enjoy as some of the most beautiful music ever recorded but also as a window into the development of swing, chordal improvisation, and powerful, powerful use of melody.
“Django’s Tiger” is a standard part of the manouche repertoire. Its mid-tempo, allegro swing and feel make it a whimsical tune to play and listen to. As is the case in some of these songs, when Django specifically takes the head, it isn’t quite clear where it begins and ends. Although we can assume that the head covers one full set of chord changes, Django treats the head as a solo.
With a satisfying uplift, Grappelli’s fiddle enters at 1:07, providing a distinctly different characteristic from Django’s rhythmic arpeggios. Django continues to weave in and out of Grappelli’s lines, offering soft, tremolo-picked chords at 1:30 and a wonderful moment at 1:46 when he re-enters to trade “fours” with Grappelli.