I first heard of the musician Django Reinhart when I saw Woody Allen’s film Sweet and Lowdown. As you may recall, Sean Penn’s character Emmet Ray idolizes Django and if I recall correctly, passes out when he sees Django at a gas station.
Shortly after seeing the movie, I began listening to some of Reinhardt’s guitar solos. The music he makes is amazing and after you read what happened to him in 1928, you’ll be even more amazed.
On November 2nd, 1928 an event took place that would forever change Django’s life. At one o’clock in the morning the 18 year old Django returned from a night of playing music at a new club “La Java” to the caravan that was now the home of himself and his new wife. The caravan was filled with celluloid flowers his wife had made to sell at the market on the following day. Django upon hearing what he thought was a mouse among the flowers bent down with a candle to look. The wick from the candle fell into the highly flammable celluloid flowers and the caravan was almost instantly transformed into a raging inferno. Django wrapped himself in a blanket to shield him from the flames. Somehow he and his wife made it across the blazing room to safety outside, but his left hand, and his right side from knee to waist were badly burned.
Initially doctors wanted to amputate his leg but Django refused. He was moved to a nursing home where the care was so good his leg was saved. Django was bedridden for eighteen months. During this time he was given a guitar, and with great determination Django created a whole new fingering system built around the two fingers on his left hand that had full mobility. His fourth and fifth digits of the left hand were permanently curled towards the palm due to the tendons shrinking from the heat of the fire. He could use them on the first two strings of the guitar for chords and octaves but complete extension of these fingers was impossible. His soloing was all done with the index and middle fingers! Film clips of Django show his technique to be graceful and precise, almost defying belief.