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December 2006

Michael Dregni
Django: The Life And Music Of A Gypsy Legend

The excellent biography of Django by Michael Dregni has been released in paperback, so jazz-guitar fans who haven’t read it yet have no excuse for not devouring it posthaste.

This tightly written, slim volume won’t be the definitive word on Django (which means “I awake” in the Gypsy language), but it will be extremely difficult to find or produce a better and more artful treatment in less than 350 pages, given Dregni’s lyrical writing style and his ability to pack germane information into each sentence.

More than just a recounting of Django’s life, the book provides a sensitive picture of Gypsy life in prewar Europe, as well as the musical cauldron that was Paris of the early 1900s, which provided a potent blend of the music of Gypsies, the French Auvergnat and American jazz. This was the stew that produced Django’s hot jazz, more recently called “Gypsy jazz.”

Many jazz fans know the story behind Django’s famous two-finger playing and the caravan fire that rendered his left hand’s ring and pinky fingers immobile. But Django’s triumph wasn’t just about overcoming a physical disability; it was about his musical genius and passion for revolutionary harmonies.

Born in a wooden caravan on Jan. 23, 1910, while his “kumpania,” or traveling clan of Gypsies, was encamped in Belgium, Django was the son of a basket-making father and a mother who crafted jewelry and danced.

Before mastering the guitar as a child, Django was superlative at stealing chickens, “tickling fish” and catching the “niglo” or hedgehog, which would be turned into a Gypsy delicacy once it had been killed, gutted and cured overnight atop a caravan.

As Django couldn’t read music, or even the written word for most of his life, he learned music by ear—first on violin at age 7—from his extended family, by hiding under Parisian café tables to listen to the French Auvergnat masters and by busking on streets and in cafés. At 12, he received a six-string banjo-guitar. While not practicing on it until his fingertips bled, he slept with it.

Django’s life was as colorful as his music, and Dregni’s book provides a Technicolor look at not only his remarkably vibrant life, but at his culture and music.

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