I don’t recall the first time I heard Django Reinhardt, the visionary Gypsy guitarist and composer. It may have been in the sitting room of my friends’ home, I remember hearing that virtuosic guitar crackling out of their phonograph one night. Although, it sounded quite familiar that night. Over the years since learning his name I’ve listened to hours of Django, always inventive, ingenious, always pulling new surprises, always swinging and soulful, often devilishly mischievous. I didn’t have the reaction that Django had when he first heard Louis Armstrong (he happily sobbed “mon frere!”) but I always loved his playing, and later his songwriting and arranging. I am not alone in this love, there are many great players out there now playing in Django’s style, inspired by his musical example.
At some point, after his dreams of international stardom were dashed when he started talking sports and drinking with a French cabbie, lost track of time and missed the Carnegie Hall concert where he was Duke Ellington’s featured soloist, he hung up his guitar and painted. He lived in a small town outside Paris and spent his time fishing in the river and painting.
After a couple of years he began composing again and assembled a group to record several of his new tunes. These were astounding and beautiful compositions, including the ethereal Anouman . His playing on the tracks is superb, as always, but he functions in the group as a kind of guitar-playing conductor for the most part, driving the rhythm, laying down colors and emotions, giving the melodies to other players. His brief solo on Anouman strikes like a chilling premonition of his own sudden death, not long off. It is well worth hearing.
He keeled over while drinking coffee in a cafe not long after recording those tracks. They sent for the doctor but he did not arrive until many hours later. Django’s last words were “so you’ve finally come, have you?” He died at 43.
I’ve been banging my head against the wall lately. It is hot, and airless, which certainly doesn’t help matters. I should buy an air-conditioner and get a good night’s sleep, but I don’t have a car and haven’t gotten it together to secure one. I’ve been listless during this heat wave, as the planet itself melts down.
The reasons for despair are many — the arctic ice is melting at a faster rate than predicted, we have psychopaths and shills making policy, vengeful incompetents doubling down on the destruction of the biosphere for the continued profits of their fellow earth-raping plunderers. We have a government that serves only a tiny percentage of our citizens; we’re essentially one re-election away from actual fascism and the spineless opposition party, also corporately financed, is too fearful of political backlash to take a principled stand to hold anyone accountable, as the law requires.
Reading history is little comfort. We had a civil war in this country that was basically over the same issue in play now — the right of a tiny group of super-wealthy autocratic landed aristocrats to rule over blacks (and the masses of disenfranchised inferior illiterate whites) as they saw fit. In the process of creating this genteel southern plantation society they destroyed the soil (among other things). Millions of acres of soil were exhausted and rendered useless by the constant planting of lucrative monocultures cotton and tobacco. America’s bloodiest war ended, the history of it was rewritten by the children of those same landed autocrats, and those same forces today are insisting, loudly and effectively, on their right to ride the rest of us, since they were born booted and spurred to do so.
You can read about how things escalated in Germany leading up to World War II. It’s famous: first they came for these guys, but I said nothing, because it wasn’t me — then they came for these guys, but I said nothing– when they eventually came for me, there was nobody left to speak up for me. It’s horrible that desperate asylum seekers are treated as dangerous and despicable criminals, but right out of the fascist dictator’s playbook.
They flee from one horrible, violent place and wind up crushed into cages, left to stink, unwashed, they are vilified, scapegoated and, it must be said, persecuted in the fabled land they hoped would provide a refuge from the horrors they fled. We see the brutal hand of the militarized Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents grabbing these vicious aliens, ripping their children away from them, wearing masks and holding their noses at the stink in the overcrowded cages. It gets everyone ready to consider this sort of thing normal, moves the Overton Window inexorably towards cruelty as simply the way things are, have always been.
The unhinged narcissist president and his unprincipled Attorney General, taking a short break from their full-time obstruction of justice (NO DO-OVERS! I KNOW YOU ARE, BUT WHAT AM I? MAKE ME!), revive the federal death penalty, opening the door to executing enemies of the state under cover of law. If you violate the 1917 Espionage Act, for example, you can be made a bloody example of. Nothing shuts up critics like a couple of public executions. Public cruelty changes behavior.
On a personal level, I find myself wondering about the long pattern of estrangement from people I once considered my closest friends, my family. In each case the person, after years, sometimes decades, of friendship, became a lifelong enemy and I can give you a full and reasonable-sounding account of exactly how this state of final war came to be. You can read several accounts here, as I’ve written out a few over the years, but the long and short of it is, people decide, based on my reaction to their totally innocent behavior, that I must be fought to the death, that they cannot yield an inch, that I must be given no quarter.
In my view, this is a choice they made, based on their insecurities and anger, they are, one and all, people who have forfeited my good will by not returning it, earned my eventual disdain by their hard and determined work. They no doubt feel the same way about me. In their view, of course, it was me, being my intolerable self, a self-righteous if talented prig with a vicious turn to my humility, I suppose, who gave them no alternative but to fight me to the death, whoever may have started the fight. The larger, more perplexing question, is why. Am I actually exactly as insane as my poor persecuted father?
So coming to the point where virtually all action seems futile, or at the very least overwhelming, I hear this solo rendition of Django’s beautiful Manor of My Dreams (the tune is often called “Django’s Castle”) This short solo take of this dreamy tune reminded me at once of many miracles I’ve forgotten about.
When Django puts that Bb in the bass of an A13 chord, and follows it with that D-6-9 chord … words are of no use. The way one gorgeously harmonized chord plays off against the other, makes you want to hear the other one, leaves open a lilting universe of soulful possibilities for improvisation … there is no explaining the miraculous, really. And playing these chords to that slow, relaxed dreamlike pulse, as I try to learn the architecture of the rest of the tune by heart and by ear, the way Django and the Gypsies have always done it, another kind of miracle.
God bless you, mon frere.
 Here is a gorgeous guitar version of Anouman by Stochelo Rosenberg and his great trio. Stochelo’s playing is, as always, sublime. Somewhere Django smiles.