Django Reinhardt’s three-fingered genius

Django Reinhardt

Jean “Django” Reinhardt was a promising young musician when a crippling injury seemed to end his chance of having a music career. Born in Belgium in 1910, Reinhardt grew up in Romani (Gypsy) camps near Paris, learning banjo, guitar, and violin. As a young man he and his wife lived in a caravan and scraped by on his earnings from music and his wife’s sales of artificial flowers that she made out of celluloid and paper in their little home.

One night Django knocked over a candle while climbing into bed, and all that celluloid and paper went up in flames. He was pulled from the fire badly burned, and lost much of the use of the third and fourth fingers on his left hand — his fret hand.

Doctors thought he would never play guitar again, but Reinhardt re-learned the instrument in a new way, allowing him to “explore new harmonies,” according to the video below. In time developed a new style of guitar playing — sometimes called hot jazz guitar. In his later years he began playing electric guitar while continuing to innovate within bebop.

An excellent article at Open Culture explains how he overcame his disability. Or here’s a brief video from HIFI that tells the story:

And here’s one of his later recordings in the bebop style:

Start listening (above, or at the Django Reinhardt YouTube channel) and it won’t take long to realize that Reihardt isn’t simply a good player for guy with only one-and-a-half working hands. He’s a truly amazing player and musical innovator by any measure. Sixty years after his death in 1953, he remains one of the most influential guitarists of all time.

While it would be an overstatement to say that Reinhardt’s injury was the source of his genius, I think there’s often a connection between barriers and creativity. A barrier forces you to think about your art differently as you grope for a way around it. When I first learned of Reinhardt I was reminded of Joni Mitchell’s story. With her left hand weakened by childhood polio, she had difficulty with certain chords as she was learning to play guitar, and began experimenting with alternate tunings to compensate. Later this became “a tool to break free of standard approaches to harmony and structure” in her music (quoted in her Wikipedia bio).

Even if we don’t have physical handicaps like Reinhardt and Mitchell, we all have our weaknesses as creative individuals, but stories like these show how a weakness that can’t be overcome directly can become a path to discovery. Is there another way to do this?

Artists sometimes use self-imposed limitations for the same purpose. I know of painters who drastically limit their palette in order to better explore the effects of shading, or a photographer who prefers black-and-white because the lack of color forces him to look harder at shapes and composition. I knew an English professor who assigned one-page argumentative papers to teach brevity. For traditional poets, the limitations of rhyme and meter (to say nothing of the intricate demands of a sixteen-line sonnet!) encourage compression of thought and creative word choice to find something that fits without sounding forced.

It isn’t really about the limitation, though. It’s about leaving the well-worn paths of thought and finding new ways of achieving whatever it is that you’re after. But it’s inspiring to find artists who find ways to use what they can’t do as part of their creative process.

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