On January 24th, 1910 somewhere in Belgium, a baby boy was born into a gypsy family. His name was Django Reinhardt. At the age of eight, his tribe settled near Paris. These French gypsies or Manouches as they were called, lived in their own little world – a world that was medieval in its beliefs, and distrustful of modern science and modern ways. Django grew up with one foot in the nomadic gypsy world and the other in the modern outside world. He never wore a suit or lived in a real house with a roof over his head until he was twenty years old.
As a child he showed a strong interest in music, and at the age of 12 he was given a guitar by a sympathetic neighbor who had noticed Django’s love of music. He quickly learned to play, and was soon astounding adults with his musical ability. In less than a year he began playing music in a dance hall with a popular accordionist named Guerino.
On November 2nd, 1928, an event took place that would forever change Django’s life. At one o’clock in the morning the 18 year old Django returned to the caravan after playing in a new nightclub called “La Java.” The wagon where he and his new wife lived was filled with celluloid flowers that his wife had made and planned to sell at the market the next day. Django, hearing what he thought was a mouse, bent down with his candle to see if he could spot it. The candle caught the celluloid flowers on fire, and in a moment the entire wagon became a raging inferno. Django wrapped himself in a blanket as a shield from the flames, and somehow he and his wife made it to safety outside, but his left hand and his right side from his knee to his waist were badly burned.
Django was bedridden for eighteen months due to his injuries. The fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand (his ring finger and little finger) were permanently curled inward due to the heat of the fire, and were essentially useless to him for the remainder of his life. Rather than feeling sorry for himself, he spent his time creating a new guitar fingering system built around the use of the other fingers on his left hand that still had complete mobility. Despite this handicap, film clips show him playing the guitar with incredible dexterity using only those two fingers. He could use his two burned fingers slightly on the lowest two strings of the guitar, but they were essentially useless.
He was not only a great guitarist, but composed songs with beautiful melodies and intricate fingering like “Djangology,” “Nuages,” and “Minor Swing.” He performed them in his concerts and on recordings. Since he did not read or write music he depended on others to write down the music he composed in his head.
One night in 1934 while playing in a club, Django happened to meet a jazz violinist (“fiddler” might be a more appropriate word) named Stephane Grappelli . They began to play together, and before long formed a fabulous jazz group they called the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. You can still find numerous recordings by the Quintet.
The Quintet was touring England in 1939 when World War II broke out in Europe. Grapelli remained in England and urged Django to do the same, but he chose to return to France instead. This was a very risky thing to do since Hitler persecuted gypsies and other groups as well as Jews. Django played and recorded throughout the war years, and somehow avoided the fate of many of his relatives who died in Nazi concentration camps. After the war he and Stephane reunited, playing and recording together for some years. Django also toured the U. S. briefly with Duke Ellington, and then returned to Paris where he continued his career until 1951. At that point he retired to the small village of Samois sur Seine. The town now hosts a yearly jazz festival in Reinhardt’s honor.
On May 16th 1953 at the age of 43 Django Reinhardt suffered a massive stroke and died, leaving behind a musical legacy that has never diminished. Though he has been dead for exactly 60 years today, his music lives on, and he is remembered as one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time.
The clip below gives you some photos of Django playing the guitar. You also, of course hear him and Stephane Grapelli playing a rousing version of “The Shiek of Araby.” The damaged fingers on his left hand are quite evident. One has to wonder how he could play as well as he did with only two fingers. Many of us also find it frustrating that we can’t play the guitar nearly as well using all our fingers.
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