(January 23, 1910 – May 16, 1953) defined the genre of “Gypsy Jazz.” Not only does this genre have a very specific feel, sound, and instruments, the music theory behind its unique sound might shock you!
In 1928, 18-year old Jean Reinhardt was in a caravan fire due to a candle that ignited some highly flammable flowers. Reinhardt lost the ability to use his ring and pinky finger in his left hand. For most guitar players, their left hand is their fret hand. He suffered burns damaging the tendons in his two fingers and they were permanently curled. He was bedridden for 18 months after the fire and picked up the guitar, determined to play it.
Since he only had the use of his index and middle finger, his musical options were very limited. From this hardship, he created a genre all his own – you know “Django” music when you hear it! “Django” is his Romani nickname.
With the immobility of his two other fingers, he was forced to create his own techniques to play certain chords. As a result, he ended up creating unique sounds that wouldn’t have been done otherwise. To create his three-note chord shapes, he would fret the lower 1 or 2 strings with his left thumb, use one-fingered “double stops” (where two strings are fretted at the same time by placing the tip of one finger in the middle between both strings) and using his ring and little finger on the upper strings as a single finger. This technique worked best with 9th or minor 6th chords rather than the more common major or minor chords of the time. This approach opened up what many call ‘tonal colors’, which is just a fancy way of saying “the way something sounds.” There are dark and lighter tones in music – even if you are not a musician, one can usually identify when something sounds a certain way.
There is so much inspiration in Django’s story, not just because he overcame tragedy, but it goes to show that when something impairs you, you might end up creating something new and out-of-the-ordinary!
Here’s some more info about the interesting life of Django Reinhardt: https://www.francemusique.fr/en/10-little-things-you-might-not-know-about-django-reinhardt-15623
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