Jean Baptiste Reinhardt first played violin but later took up the guitar. Living a nomadic life with his gypsy family, he played in a touring show before he was in his teens. Following serious injuries which he suffered in a caravan fire in 1928 he lost the use of two fingers on his left hand. To overcome this handicap, he devised a unique method of fingering and soon embarked on a solo career in Parisian clubs. He was hired as accompanist to the popular French singing star, Jean Sablon, and in 1934 teamed up with Stéphane Grappelli to form a band they named the Quintette Du Hot Club De France. Reinhardt was a popular sitter-in with visiting American jazzmen, recording with Eddie South, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins and others. It was, however, the recordings by the Quintet that made him an international name. With the outbreak of war in 1939, the Quintet folded and Reinhardt returned to his nomadic life, playing in various parts of Europe and ensuring that he kept well clear of the German army. At the end of the war (by which time he had switched from acoustic to electric guitar), Reinhardt was invited by Duke Ellington to visit the USA and duly arrived in New York. The visit was less than successful, however. Some reports of the time suggest that Reinhardt was eager to pursue the new concepts of jazz created by the bebop revolution: musically, however, the guitarist's gloriously romantic style fitted uneasily into the new music and his efforts in this field were overshadowed by those of another guitarist, the late Charlie Christian. Back in Europe he led his own small band and was occasionally reunited with Grappelli in a re-formed Quintet. He continued to tour and record during the late 40s and early 50s, simultaneously pursuing a career as a composer. Reinhardt remains one of the outstanding figures in jazz, and although Christian ultimately became the more profound influence, echoes of Reinhardt's style can be heard today in many musicians, some of whom were born after his death. His brother, Joseph, was also a guitarist and his two sons, Lousson and Babik, were gifted players of the instrument. The latter died of a heart attack in December 2001.
His remarkable playing caused a sensation and it is not an exaggeration to state that he was the first non-American to make an impact upon jazz and become an important influence upon the development of the music. His distinctive, flowing lines were filled with inventive ideas and couched in a deeply romantic yet intensely rhythmic style. Above all, Reinhardt's was an original talent, revealing few if any precedents but becoming a major influence upon other jazz guitarists of the 30s.
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