Jazz, which started in New Orleans before spreading across America in the late 19th and early 20th century, took some interesting twists as it developed, notably in Europe.
In Europe, and especially in France, it naturally drew on local traditions and the greatest of these became known as Gypsy Jazz. And the greatest figure in Gypsy Jazz, and the greatest guitarists in the history of jazz by most accounts, was Django Rheinhardt. Here’s what writer and musician Ian Cruikshank said about him, which sums his genius up pretty well:
“It wasn’t until 1938, and the Quintet’s first tour of England, that guitarists [in the U.K.] were able to witness Django’s amazing abilities. His hugely innovative technique included, on a grand scale, such unheard of devices as melodies played in octaves, tremolo chords with shifting notes that sounded like whole horn sections, a complete array of natural and artificial harmonics, highly charged dissonances, super-fast chromatic runs from the open bass strings to the highest notes on the 1st string, an unbelievably flexible and driving right-hand, two and three octave arpeggios, advanced and unconventional chords and a use of the flattened fifth that predated be-bop by a decade. Add to all this Django’s staggering harmonic and melodic concept, huge sound, pulsating swing, sense of humour and sheer speed of execution, and it is little wonder that guitar players were knocked sideways upon their first encounter with this full-blown genius.”
Rheinhardt, who had to teach himself to play primarily with two fingers after a fire damaged his left hand, left behind many recordings. Most feature him playing a Gypsy Jazz guitar, but near the end of his life he began to also play some electric. And of these, the finest, most elegant offering we’ve ever heard, is his version of Cole Porter’s Night and Day.
This song was recorded in 1953, not long after the electric guitar became a realistic instrument and also not long before Rheinhardt died that same year. He was just 43.