“But I’m a champion, so I turned tragedy to triumph / Make music that’s fire, spit my soul through the wire” – Kanye West “Through The Wire”
One of my favorite musicians of all time is the legendary French/Romani jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Not only was he an important influence on guitar greats such as Les Paul, B.B. King, Charlie Christian, Jeff Beck and Jerry Garcia, but he is also a gleaming example of a human being who excelled at his craft against all odds.
Django, which means “I awake” in Romani, was born in a Gypsy caravan in Belgium in 1910. By the time he was 15 he was making a living as a nomadic banjo-guitarist. One evening in 1928, upon returning to his caravan after a long night of performing, his wife Bella lit a candle to illuminate his presence — but in her sleepy state she fumbled and the candle fell to the floor. Their home was filled with celluloid flowers that Bella had crafted to sell, so when the candle fell, the entire caravan burst into flames. Django suffered extensive burns and spent years recovering, but he never regained the function of the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand.
In Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend, Michael Dregni described the moment when Django attempted to play again: “Django had no choice but to put his faith in just his index and middle fingers, and during the long months of convalescence, he forced them into motion, limbering the muscles, retraining the tendons to his command…Limited in the number of fingers he could employ, he also forced himself to rethink his approach to the fretboard. Instead of playing scales and arpeggios horizontally across the fretboard as was the norm, he searched out fingerings that ran vertically up and down the frets as they were easier to play with just two fingers.”
The will of Django’s spirit and his deep love for music gave him the strength needed not only to play again, but to triumph so profoundly over his injury that he went on to become one of the most unique and influential guitarists of the 20th century and changed the course of musical history. We thank our hero Django, and to all of us who may see our greatest struggles as our greatest opportunities to excel!
Photo by William P. Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons