Author: Karsemeyer, John

Bill and Django

There are few musicians who have had a whole new musical genre created because of what they did while dwelling in time and space for their alloted time on this revolving sphere in the sky that we call earth. When they start off doing what they're doing it's almost safe to say that they don't expect thousands of people to become musicians, or converts, playing the same style that they created. At least not the two guys that are coming into focus here. Here's some of their musical highlights.

Bill Monroe was born in 1911. He was a “pioneering virtuoso bluegrass mandolin player and composer.” He was a front runner in the development of bluegrass music, and is credited with creating bluegrass music. Known as, “The Father of Bluegrass Music,” his career spanned sixty years. He was born into a poor family in Kentucky. At age eighteen he started playing music for pay at dances and house parties, and never looked back. Bill got a recording contract with his brothers in 1936, disbanded in 1938, and then began evolving into the icon that he eventually became. He wrote a plethora of songs that are still being played today. Reportedly, his band members didn't get paid much. His eventual instrument of choice was a 1923 Gibson F-5 mandolin, which some say is the reason that most bluegrass mandolin players play F-5 mandolins today. Bill played “by ear.” He suffered a fatal stroke in 1996 , four days before his eighty-fifth birthday. Had he lived, he would have been 100 years old this year.
Django Reinhardt was born in 1910. He was a “pioneering virtuoso jazz guitarist and composer.” He was the front runner in the development of gypsy jazz music, and co-founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France. He was born into a poor family of gypsies in France, near Paris. At age ten he started playing music for pay in the clubs of Paris, and never looked back. Django got a recording contract. He wrote a plethora of songs that are still being played today. Reportedly his band members didn't get paid much (if at all). His instrument of choice was a Selmer-Maccaferri acoustic guitar, which some say is the reason gypsy jazz players play the same type of guitar today (did you know he started out playing fiddle and 6-string banjo?). Django played “by ear.” He suffered a fatal stroke in 1953, at age forty three (Django got dealt a worse hand in the card game of life compared to Bill).

Bill and Django both had perseverance. Both were born into poor families, they learned music by ear. They were both born with that special “something” that gives a vision as to what one wants to have consume their lives (music), and they didn't let anything get in their way.

Bill had some vision problems, but he didn't give up and say, “I can't do it.” He had to work non music jobs until he arrived in the world of music full time. During his musical career he had medical problems that would have kept most of us in the hospital instead of performing bluegrass music on stage.

Django had a horrendous problem, but it didn't stop him. At age eighteen his wooden RV (gypsy caravan house on wheels) caught fire, and left only the thumb, index, and second finger of his left hand (fingering hand) useful for guitar playing. The fire also burned one side of his body, which took a long, painful time to recover. Out of that tragedy came a thumb and two-finger style of chording and arpeggios that was new, and fanatically copied by many gypsy jazz guitar players.

Django Reinhardt first performed in America on November 4, 1946, performing with the Duke Ellington band as a guest soloist. What if Django had gone to hear Bill Monroe during his stay here? What if Django had brought his guitar and was playing in the building lobby of the performance venue where Bill was performing? Bill was performing at the Grand Old Opry during that time. What if Bill walked by with his mandolin and sat in? Django could have gone to a bluegrass performance at the Ryman, not because he thought it was bluegrass, but because he thought it was a blues performance in the grasslands of Tennessee (you have to realize that Django didn't speak, read, or understand very much of the English language, and could have misinterpreted a poster he saw regarding a bluegrass musical event). Django might have figured that if people were playing blues they might also be playing jazz (Django's forte). It could have happened like this....

Bill walked by an hour before his performance, spied Django, and decided to jam with this guy he hadn't seen before (history was punctuated in a peculiar way). Bill started playing, “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” Django followed along for awhile, then added some chromatic runs and jazz chords. Bill had a puzzled look and said, “That ain't no part of nothing!” Django, not being familiar with English in general (not to mention idiomatic phrases), replied in the few English words that he knew, “Thank you Mr. Bill, you may use them any way you wish.” After that, Bill abruptly walked away, not fully realizing the musical genius of this man with a strange looking mustache. Django thought Bill was going off by himself to work on the chromatic runs. It was a brief encounter between the two musical icons that left both men with misconceptions about each other. Bill and Django's paths never crossed again. Django was disappointed. Bill wasn't. That's the end of my fantasy about what could have happened.

In reality, the world has been visited by these two guys, both born about the same time, from different parts of the world, both “preaching” their own musical gospel. Bill got to see the world wide results of his creation. Django didn't. They were both “flat pickers,” Bill on his mandolin, Django on his guitar. Bluegrass still has it's festivals all over the world. Gypsy jazz still has it's festivals all over the world.

What if Bill and Django had never been born? Would we have bluegrass music as we know it today? Would we have gypsy jazz as we know it today? Would someone else have come along and eventually created the same things that these two guys did? Unanswerable questions. But it might just make us wonder if certain things would ever come to be if that one special person had not been born....
(Note: Bill and Django both live on, courtesy of You Tube).

Posted:  7/9/2011

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