Thursday, January 7, 2016

Django's Hand and Genius: Gypsy Jazz

Django Reinhardt - I'll See You In My Dreams - Paris, 30.06.1939 

There are many videos of the great Django Reinhardt to be found on YouTube. Django was the guitarist who reinvented guitar. Not only was the guitar the passion of his life, but he was its son; sustained, nourished, and schooled by it - and eventually he gave back to it, repaying it by ensuring its continued respect and admiration.  Born in 1910, an itinerant Gypsy whose father was a musician and mother a dancer, he gravitated to the sorts of inexpensive stringed instruments that were commonly played around Gypsy caravan campfires, becoming, at first a banjo and then guitar prodigy.While his name is well known only among the kind of guitar aficionados whose affection for the instrument moves them to study the history of the instrument, in fact he was associated with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, who were among the many great jazz musicians he played with.

The video "Django Reinhardt - I'll See You In My Dreams - Paris, 30.06.1939" moves me in ways I wouldn't expect. Yes, like many others I find the music of the '30s interesting and charming. Some of it has great complexity, yet it is played and recorded with instrumentation and technology that by today's standards would be considered remarkably simple and lacking things that many of today's star musicians rely on to amplify the impact of their performance. Still, in this one, Django seems to be sitting in the same room, winking at us as he demonstrates his prowess in producing sounds and rhythms of remarkable inventiveness and elegance out of what amounts to a very simple, very old fashioned guitar.

One night the 19 year old Django was caught inside his caravan in an intense fire probably caused by his carelessness with a cigarette near the extremely flammable materials that his young wife made artificial flowers from. While he escaped with his life, his left hand, a guitarist's principal interface with his instrument, was profoundly damaged for the rest of his life. Much has been made over the years about Django's resolve to overcome this handicap and continue as a professional musician. But there's much more to the story than that.

Recently I stumbled across a series of videos titled "Django's Hand" which are a video recording (2009) of a talk given by Dr. David Williams - Consultant Anaesthetist (Burns & Plastic Surgery) -  Morriston Hospital - Swansea, UK. The opening titles also state (get this) "Soundtrack & Images from Presentation at the European Club for Burns conference." Dr. Morrison delivered the talk, explaining to his small audience that he is both a medical practitioner and a guitarist... and of course, a fan of Django's. What resulted are the unique insights into Django's music he came to by virtue of having studied both his playing and his hand injury, and piecing together how the later shaped the first and vice versa. It turns out that Django not only had to struggle to regain sufficient use of his hand to play again, but he had to totally re-conceive how one plays the guitar. He invented new techniques for himself which resulted in his playing scales and chords in ways that were, when he invented them, unique. Dr. Morrison also explains that because of the state of his hand, commonly used chords were impossible for Django to play so he substituted others, introducing variations to the harmonic structure of the music of the day that hadn't been used previously. And in that way, his playing changed the music itself. This was so successful, so full of those qualities that make music beguiling and uplifting, that its reverberations are still being felt nearly a century later. So profound is his influence on guitarists and so deep the affection for him by jazz purists that many festivals are held in his name (SEE: Django100th Birthday Gypsy Swing Guitar festival @ Le QuecumBa)

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