About Gypsy Jazz

The Roma (Gypsies) are an ethnic group originating from India and sharing a language (Romani) but spread throughout the world and until recently very migratory. Many of them are known by their stunning musical skills; amongst these would be Spain’s flamenco guitarists Paco De Lucia and Tomatito, brass bands from the Balkans like Boban Markovic, the Romanian string band Taraf De Haidouks, and France’s Bireli Lagrene.

The gypsies of western Europe tend to play jazz; this is due to the enormous musical contributions made by Jean “Django” Reinhardt, a gypsy living in Paris in the 30’s who was turned on to American jazz records and began to play the music, filtered through his own experience and identity. Reinhardt’s early jazz, and the tradition that has become known as gypsy jazz, is characterized by the prevalence of acoustic string instruments and the lack of drums. In this style the role of the drums is held down by the rhythm guitar’s pulsing chords, commonly known as “le pompe” (the pump). Whereas American jazz tended to feature horns and the piano, in gypsy jazz you’ll find mainly guitars, violins, and contra-bass. Horns, accordions,drums and other instruments make their appearances but are less common; piano is rare.

Many things distinguished Django’s career but it’s remarkable that he played guitar at all. When he was 18 he was badly burned in a fire which largely paralyzed the ring and pinky fingers of his fretting hand and nearly took his leg. After a year and a half he began to reconstruct a technique using mainly his thumb, index and middle fingers, to eventually become one of the greatest guitarists EVER.

You can see one of the rare film clips of Django playing here.

I encourage you to read more about Django Reinhardt, an absolute musical genius and fascinating individual.