was one of the finest musicians who ever lived, no doubt about it. Though his left hand was severely scarred and partially paralyzed in a fire, he managed to develop a style of gypsy jazz guitar that revolutionized jazz music. Django's prolific songwriting and recording left behind a substantial body of work -- here are some of his very best songs!
"Nuages" (French for "Clouds") is one of Django Reinhardt's most popular compositions, and the one which people often immediately associate with his name. Django recorded "Nuages" over a dozen times throughout his career, each version showing his incredible talent for improvisation within a composition, thus making the song instantly recognizable but always new and exciting. Originally, "Nuages" was an instrumental, though a set of lyrics in both French and English were later added.
My personal favorite of Django Reinhardt's tunes, "Melodie au Crepuscule" ("Twilight Melody" in French) has a real "little black dress" quality to it -- it's chic, beautiful, timeless, and fits with any occasion. A violin (played in this case by the legendary Stephane Grappelli) carries much of the melody, and the interaction between the violin and guitar is astounding. A random bit of trivia: "Melodie au Crepuscule" was the theme song for the Today Show
for a brief period in the 1960s.
This spunky, upbeat number is a great reminder that the jazz and swing of Django's era was, in fact, music for dancing... it's a hard one to sit still for, and a musical reminder that even in occupied Paris during WWII, some glimpses of joie de vivre were kept alive by artists like Django Reinhardt who, though he was a gypsy, avoided being sent to a Nazi concentration camp due to his public persona.
Another upbeat tune, "Belleville" takes its name from the Belleville
neighborhood of Paris, which was then (and is still now) a working-class and immigrant neighborhood. Though financially downtrodden, Belleville (home, incidentally, to Edith Piaf
, among many others) has always been vibrant and full of cultural life. This spirited number evokes the hum of such an area, and makes an appropriate soundtrack for the neighborhood even today!
"Manoir de mes Reves" (which literally means "Mansion of my Dreams," but which is usually translated as "Django's Castle") is a dreamy, lilting song that Django recorded multiple times between 1942 and 1953. The song gained unexpected recent popularity when it was used in the popular PC game Mafia
, where it provides the background music for a drive through Hoboken -- an odd association, but why not?
"I'll See You in My Dreams" is one of Django's best-loved cover songs. Written in 1925 by Isham Jones (with lyrics by Gus Kahn, though Django performs it as an instrumental), it became a jazz standard which was popular with all sorts of big-name artists in the U.S., including Louis Armstrong
and Ella Fitzgerald
. Naturally, Django put his own strong stamp on the piece, filling it with his signature fancy finger-work and breezy feeling.
Perhaps one of Django's most appropriately-named compositions, "Tears" has two parts: a melancholy minor first part, and an almost angry-sounding second part. Twangy and chunky, and based more on thick chords than fast-moving melody, it's a really powerful song.
A versatile number which allowed Django to show off more of his really fancy guitar work, Django recorded "Djangology" multiple times over the course of almost two decades. Because of its versatility, "Djangology" worked well with all sorts of different ensembles, from the Hot Club Quintette to a larger orchestra. It's a fun tune that really lets Django's pure skill and artistry shine.
Another great example of a jazz standard that Django took and made his own, "After You've Gone," was written in 1918 by Tin Pan Alley duo Turner Layton and Henry Creamer and recorded by everyone who was anyone in the jazz scene of the 1920s and 1930s. Django's smooth guitar touch, though, stands out, and his remains a seminal version of the song.
It's minor. It's swingy. What's not to love? This is one of Django's most enduring compositions, and it has become a full-tilt gypsy swing standard, covered by pretty much everyone who's picked up a gypsy-style guitar ever since. Artists from other genres have covered it as well, including David Grisman
, who actually recorded the song with Stephane Grappelli, thus leading to the song's second wind of popularity, among newgrass pickers.