Friday, February 17, 2006

The Gypsy Guitar Player

I found this delightful clip of Django Reinhardt playing guitar via You can view it with Quicktime at It takes a few seconds to load.

Before this I mostly knew Django as Sean Penn's nemesis in Woody Allens' last great film "Sweet and Lowdown." In it, Sean Penn plays the 'Second Greatest Guitar Player' in the world, after Django -- a musician of such greatness that Sean's character faints in his presence. You can see Django in the photo here, front and center.

In this clip you can finally witness Django playing and come to understand his greatness. I had no idea before I saw this that Django's left hand was terribly damaged in a fire when he was 18. The heat shrank the tendons in the fourth and fifth fingers of the hand he used on the fretboard of his guitar. Laid up for eighteen months after the fire, from which his wife also escaped, Django retaught himself to play with only two fingers on the frets. Occasionally he'd use the curled up fourth and fifth fingers on the lower strings for chords. The grace with which he plays is astonishing, and the sound that emerges is divine. Apparently Django was one of the first players to introduce the guitar as an instrument of melody along with Charlie Christian, Lonnie Johnson, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

In the first part of the film an announcer introduces Django and the other members of his Quintet of the Hot Club of France while Django and the violin player jam. You can clearly see Django's damaged fingers as his other digits dance over the strings. The film then cuts to a full-on performance in which Django gives a lovely solo. The song is "J'Attendrai" or "I Will Wait."

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