Tag Archives: Django Reinhardt

Fiery fingerwork: Django Reinhardt, Tony Iommi and the accidents that revolutionized guitar playing

The house is on fire (Django’s wagon accident)

The second night of November 1928 was a fateful one for Django Reinhardt, then a promising 18-year-old Romani guitarist who had recently made his first recordings. As he was going to bed with Florine “Bella” Mayer, a fellow Romani girl he had recently married, the wagon the couple shared went up in flames as a candle was knocked over by accident. They both escaped, but Reinhardt suffered extensive burns and had his right leg severely damaged.

Django
Reinhardt’s left hand

More importantly for his music, however, Reinhardt’s left-hand ring and pinky fingers had been badly burned: he was told he would not be able to play the guitar again. Through perseverance and meticulous practice, however, he did something even more incredible: by developing a unique technique focused on his left index and middle fingers (using the two injured fingers only for playing chords), he managed to achieve a level of technical and musical mastery that remains unparalleled and awe-inspiring to this day.

After his recovery, Reinhardt started to develop an interest in jazz and it was his meeting and collaboration with violinist Stéphane Grappelli that would define his musical career. Together they formed the celebrated Quintette du Hot Club de France, the foremost European jazz group at the time, and would go on to make several classic recordings that continue to inspire music enthusiasts, while setting the standard for jazz guitar playing ever since.

Django Reinhardt and the Quintet performing “J’Attendrai” in 1938 (Reinhardt’s only surviving film performance with sound)

Apart from its cataclysmic impact on the subsequent evolution of jazz guitar, Reinhardt’s accident would also have far-reaching consequences for the emergence of heavy metal, albeit in a less obvious way…

Heavy -sheet- metal (Tony’s factory accident)

Tony Iommi, a 17-year-old guitarist form Birmingham, was about to quit his job at a sheet metal factory and go play in Germany with his first band The Birds And Bees. His last day at work, though, would prove to be fateful: Iommi got injured, losing the tips of the middle and ring fingers of his right hand. Doctors told him he wouldn’t be playing guitar again.

It was finding out about Reinhardt’s own accident and comeback that gave Iommi (who played left-handed) the courage to continue playing and make music. He went on to adjust his guitar strings and amp settings, thus creating a unique sound that would give birth to a whole new music genre.

Tony Iommi’s right hand with prosthetic tips added on two fingers

Just like Reinhardt, it was his disability that made Iommi explore new ways of expression and become more inventive. As he put it: “Of course losing my fingertips was devastating but, in hindsight, it created something: it made me invent a new sound and a different style of playing.”

Guitarist Tony Iommi talks about how he almost lost his ability to play guitar after a work accident

As the examples of Django Reinhardt and Tony Iommi so tellingly illustrate, limitations and even misfortunes can be a powerful driving force and boost creativity, as long as there is determination and inspiration. It is -literally- though fire and flames, after all, that guitar playing has been transformed from the era of swing to that of heavy metal.

Nigel Kennedy meets Bach and Gershwin in Athens

From child prodigy to -super- stardom

Born in 1956 into a family of distinguished musicians, Nigel Kennedy started out his remarkable career in music as a boy prodigy (he became a pupil at the Yehudi Menuhin School of Music at the age of 7), and soon developed a highly individual style along with an unconventional approach that made him one of the truly unique -and controversial- violinists of his generation.

Yehudi Menuhin teaching young Nigel Kennedy

While still 16 years old, Kennedy was invited by legendary jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli to play with him at Carnegie Hall in New York (which he did, successfully, against the advice of his classical teachers). His debut record featured Elgar’s Violin Concerto, while his 1989 recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with the English Chamber Orchestra became one of the best-selling classical recordings in history, with total sales of over three million units.

Fusing classical, jazz and rock

Over the last decades, Kennedy has made a name as one of classical music’s most (in)famous mavericks, regularly crossing over different music genres while developing his signature, unorthodox performing style and idiosyncratic playing. His tastes and influences vary from baroque and classical to jazz and rock (he has recorded an album with improvisational covers of Jimi Hendrix), and next to many of the world’s leading orchestras he has also collaborated with musicians such as Paul McCartney, Kate Bush, Robert Plant and The Who.

Regarding his departure from classical “orthodoxy” and standard practices,  Kennedy’s response has been revealing: ‘I suppose I took a bit of flak for taking the jazz attitude into the classical world. But so many people from the classical establishment are stuck in closets on top of their ivory towers.’

It was Kennedy’s acquaintance and apprenticeship with Grappelli that led him to a deeper appreciation and understanding of Gershwin’s music, which features in his latest album Kennedy Meets Gershwin.

A Greek premiere

Kennedy’s first live appearance in Greece took place earlier this week at the ancient Odeon of Herodes Atticus stone theater in Athens. Together with his ensemble (Peter Adams – cello, Yaron Stavi – double bass, Rolf Bussalb – electric guitar, Howard Alden – guitar), the English violinist performed a varied program in front of a warm and enthusiastic crowd.

After opening the concert with an original and absolutely breathtaking interpretation of Bach’s fugue from the first violin sonata in G minor, the highly energetic Kennedy carried on with some recent works by “one of his favorite composers” (i.e. himself), before moving on to a selection from his new album featuring his refreshing and lively arrangements of Gershwin’s classics Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy & Bess.

Nigel Kennedy performing at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus theater in Athens

Kennedy’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and high spirits led to a prolonged (nearly 3-hour-long) concert full of pleasant musical surprises, including Kennedy’s piano playing and an absolutely thrilling performance of the popular Csárdás, showcasing his astonishing virtuosity, improvisational skills, and… sense of humor (there were several moments when his comments caused loud laughter across the theater).

Kennedy’s sensational performance closed with an electrifying rendition of Minor Swing by Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli – indeed, a perfect ending to the evening and a testament to the musician’s ability to roam seamlessly through baroque, classical, gypsy, klezmer, and jazz music.