Django’s Hand: The Story of Success
If you are looking for inspiration to boost your enthusiasm for following your dreams this year, you will find it in the story of the famous guitarist and banjo player Jean-Baptiste Reinhardt, better known by his stage name Django. Born on the 23rd of January 1910 in Liberchies, Pont-à-Celles, Belgium, into a family of travelling Manouche Gypsy entertainers, Django Reinhardt had never had any formal education and remained functionally illiterate well into his adulthood. However, right from early childhood, he pursued his passion for music. His first instrument was the violin, but it was the banjo that really got him going. Lacking a teacher, Django spent days watching other musicians, memorising their fingering and then practicing at home. When on some occasion his uncle handed young Django a guitar, the boy astonished everyone around him with his maturity and the confidence in his technique. He was then recruited into the family business, and at the age of twelve started performing in various urban French cafés and dance-halls.
His reputation among musicians grew steadily during his early teens. At the age of eighteen, he made his recording debut under his own name, even though it appeared as ‘Jiango Renard’, due to his inability to spell it properly. Unfortunately, the same year his further career stood under a question mark. On the 2nd of November 1928, Django was injured in a fire, which ravaged the caravan he lived in with his first wife Bella. After being rescued from the fire, it became clear that his right leg was paralysed and the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand were badly burned. The diagnosis of the doctors was that he would not be able to play any stringed instrument again. Despite all this, whilst still in hospital, Django started practicing again. His extreme devotion and perseverance resulted in developing a distinguished method of playing the guitar with his thumb and the two good fingers. With this self-devised technique, a new and highly personal style was beginning to emerge, paving Django the route to an even more successful career.
“Django devised a highly efficient system of three note chord shapes, each of which encompassed inversions of several different chords. He developed unorthodox techniques to play these, including the use of his left thumb to fret the lower one or two strings, one fingered “double stops” – where two strings are fretted simultaneously by placing the tip of one finger midway between both strings – and employed his contracted ring and little fingers on the upper strings, where they acted like a single finger. The last technique particularly suited ninth or minor sixth chords rather than the more conventional major or minor chords of the time, and introduced his audience to a new range of tonal colours. It is difficult to play standard scales with just index and middle fingers, so Django adopted an arpeggio-based rather than modal approach to soloing. He adapted arpeggios so that they could be played with two notes per string patterns which ran horizontally up and down the fret board instead of the usual vertical “box” patterns, enabling him to move around the fret board with great speed and fluidity. Influenced by his childhood violin lessons, he often oriented his left hand so that these fingers were almost parallel to the strings instead of perpendicular to the fret board. His injuries also defined his phrasing and ornamentation – he often incorporated open strings into his solos, along with his trade mark chromatic glissando runs, for which he used his middle finger braced by the index finger – and the considerable strength that he had to develop in these fingers enabled him to achieve wide string bending and vibrato effects. As a result of the relative immobility of his hand, Django often moved fixed shapes up and down the fret board which produced intervallic cycling of melodic motifs and chords, and played octave runs with the index and middle or ring fingers – a technique subsequently popularised by Wes Montgomery.” (David J. Williams and Tom S. Potokar, British Medical Journal, Vol.339, No. 7735, 19-29 December 2009).
In 1934, Django, his brother Joseph and Roger Chaput on guitars, Stephane Grappelli on violin and Louis Vola on bass, formed the ‘Quintette du Hot Club de France’. They were one of the few well-known jazz ensembles composed only of stringed instruments. Django became also well known for his solo performances. He collaborated with many American jazz musicians such as Adelaide Hall, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Rex Stewart, and also took part in a jam-session and radio performance with Louis Armstrong. After WWII, Django went on tour to the United States, where he got acquainted with Duke Ellington and played with many notable musicians and composers.
Django, in Romani language, means “I awake”, summarising aptly Reinhardt’s life, as well as his determination and courage. His story has allegedly become an inspiration to Tony Iommi, the guitarist of Black Sabbath, who at the age of seventeen suffered an industrial accident, where the tips of his right middle and ring fingers were amputated on the last day of his job at a sheet metal factory. His boss, in order to encourage Iommi to pursue his dream of becoming a guitarist, played some of Django’s records to him. As it turns out, Iommi did not give up on his dream. Let’s hope that Django’s story and music will have a similar effect on some of us too!