Django Reinhardt was a lot of things — most of which the Nazis hated. He was a gypsy, a European Romani, the storied wandering people who were targeted by the Nazis for extermination through forced labor (if they weren’t shot on sight). Reinhardt was also a jazz musician, practicing a form of music Hitler and Goebbels felt was part of a conspiracy to weaken Germany. Jazz was forbidden from the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power.
Yet, during World War II, Reinhardt stayed at his home in France long after the nation fell to the Nazis. In fact, Nazis were some his biggest fans.
At a time when the European Roma were considered racially inferior and German prejudices allowed them to be targeted alongside German Jews and other races for extermination, Reinhardt was able to maintain a quiet life for himself and his family. The reason was his superior musical talent. As gypsies were forced out of cities and into concentration camps by the tens of thousands, he kept his head down and played on.
Despite losing the movement in two fingers during an fire-related accident earlier in his life, Django was an amazing musician. His speed on the strings and frets allowed him to play furiously with just two fingers and a thumb. He picked up his performing skills in small clubs throughout Europe before the war and would perform alongside Jazz legends like Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, and Dizzy Gillespie. He would even perform a jam session with the great Louis Armstrong.
His skill was critical to his survival. He played jazz, but he knew when not to play jazz. He would even branch out musically, writing masses for the plight of his people and even a symphony. Jazz musicians had to follow certain rules under Nazi occupation, at least in occupied Bohemia and Moravia, where these rules come from:
1. Pieces in foxtrot rhythm (so-called swing) are not to exceed 20% of the repertoires of light orchestras and dance bands;
2. In this so-called jazz type repertoire, preference is to be given to compositions in a major key and to lyrics expressing joy in life rather than Jewishly gloomy lyrics;
3. As to tempo, preference is also to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation. On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) or in solo performances (so-called breaks) be tolerated;
4. So-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs);
5. Strictly prohibited is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit (so-called cowbells, flexatone, brushes, etc.) as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yowl (so-called wa-wa, hat, etc.);
6. Also prohibited are so-called drum breaks longer than half a bar in four-quarter beat (except in stylized military marches);
7. The double bass must be played solely with the bow in so-called jazz compositions;
8. Plucking of the strings is prohibited, since it is damaging to the instrument and detrimental to Aryan musicality; if a so-called pizzicato effect is absolutely desirable for the character of the composition, strict care must be taken lest the string be allowed to patter on the sordine, which is henceforth forbidden;
9. Musicians are likewise forbidden to make vocal improvisations (so-called scat);
10. All light orchestras and dance bands are advised to restrict the use of saxophones of all keys and to substitute for them the violin-cello, the viola or possibly a suitable folk instrument.
And yet, the Nazis still loved jazz.
“The Germans used Paris basically as their rest-and-relaxation center, and when the soldiers came, they wanted wine and women and song,” Reinhardt’s biographer Michael Dregni told NPR. “And to many of them, jazz was the popular music, and Django was the most famous jazz musician in Paris… And it was really a golden age of swing in Paris, with these [Romas] living kind of this grand irony.”