Imagine how devastating it would be for a guitar player to lose the ability to use both his/her ring and pinky finger.
That´s exactly what happened to Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt when he was 18 years old. A gypsy, he was living in a caravan that he shared with his first wife. They were extremely poor, and to earn much needed extra income, his wife Bella made artisanal flowers out of paper and celluloid. Returning home late one night after playing live, Reinhardt inadvertently knocked over a candle. The paper and celluloid that was strewn about the caravan caught on fire, and the flames quickly engulfed the caravan.
His neighboring family members and other neighboring gypsies were able to pull him and his wife out of the burning caravan, but the damage was done. He had been badly burned. The doctors considered amputating his leg, and his ring and pinky fingers had been paralyzed.
His leg healed to the point that he was able to walk with a cane, but it seemed highly unlikely that he would regain the use of the two fingers on his fretting hand. As such, it seemed that a young Django Reinhardt, who had already become proficient on the Gitjo (a banjo/guitar hybrid), and had spent much of his adolescence travelling as a working musician with fellow gypsy entertainers, would now have to find another calling. This would not be any easily accomplished task either, for Django Reinhardt, like many gypsies at the time, was illiterate.
Despite a rather bleak outlook as far as any musical future was concerned, older brother and accomplished guitarist Joseph gave Django Reinhardt his first guitar the year following the accident. With much practice and perseverance, he was able to play solos and melodies with his index and middle finger. He also recovered enough strength in his remaining digits, to the point that he was able to use them to play chords.
It was also during this time that Django first heard American jazz, and met the violinist Stephane Grapelli. The two would infuse American Jazz with Reinhardt´s Romani, Grapelli´s French impressionism, and other European influences. Reinhardt, his cast of players, and his new style, constituted one of the few developments in European Jazz that would make an impact on the other side of the Atlantic. The particular breed of music they pioneered is what is now known as ¨Gypsy Jazz¨.
Django with his electric guitar and Duke Ellington.. The best version of Django, at the end of his career..