Jean "Django" Reinhardt was born on January 23, 1910 in Liberchies, Belgium. He lived with his parents in gypsy encampments near Paris for most of his youth. He quickly picked up music and learned to play the banjo, guitar, and violin. He eventually became skilled enough to perform live in Paris Bal-musette halls. His first known recordings were made in 1928.
Tragedy struck at the age of eighteen when he was severely injured in a fire. His first wife, Florine Mayer, made fake flowers from celluloid and paper and their caravan was filled with the highly flammable materials. One night, Django came home and accidentally knocked over a candle on his way to bed. He was rescued by neighbors, but not before suffering first and second degree burns over half of his body. The injuries left his right leg paralyzed and several fingers on his left hand were badly injured as well. Although doctors wanted to amputate his right leg, he refused and regained his ability to walk within a year.
To help with his recovery and morale, his brother Joseph bought him a new guitar. Django was able to relearn how to play despite partially paralyzed third and fourth fingers on his left hand. His new style employed only his index and middle finger for solos, but he was still able to use his other fingers for some chords.
In 1934, Django decided to join the Quintette du Hot Club de France, a new group of musicians that included violinist Stephane Grappelli, rhythm guitarist Joseph Reinhardt (Django's brother), rhythm guitarist Roger Chaput, and bassist Louis Vola. Although much of their music was instrumental, they occasionally brought in vocalists like Freddie Taylor and Jean Sablon. Since the group had no percussion, the rhythm guitarists often used their guitars for percussion. Django was unable to read or write music on paper, therefore most of his work was done by improvisation and memory.
As World War 2 began, Django and the group were on tour in England. Most of them returned for Paris, but the violinist (Grappelli) decided to remain in England to wait out the war. He was temporarily replaced by a clarinet player, Hubert Rostaing. In 1943, Django married a woman named Sophie Ziegler and they had a son, Babik Reinhardt, who would also learn the guitar. Django managed to survive the war, despite the fact that many gypsies were exterminated by the Nazis.
When the war ended, Django and Grappelli reunited in England. In 1946, he joined Duke Ellington and His Orchestra for a tour of the United States, including two nights at Carnegie Hall. He enjoyed the tour a great deal, returning to France to rejoin his former bandmates. However, his performance became more erratic, sometimes forgetting to bring his guitar or amplifier or even refusing to get out of bed. Sometimes he would even skip sold-out shows just to walk on the beach or wander around town.
In 1948, he went into the recording studio again with some Italian musicians and his old friend Grappelli. The resulting recording was given the name "Djangology" and became highly acclaimed by critics and fans alike. In 1951, he decided to retire to Samois-sur-Seine in France, where he lived for two years. On May 16, 1953 he collapsed outside of his home, suffering from a brain hemorrhage. He died soon after.
Django's influence on jazz music and future guitarists cannot be understated. His guitar playing is highly recognizable and is considered a highlight of the gypsy jazz genre. Many guitarists from Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix to Les Paul and Tony Iommi have cited him as an influence.